By enlisting top-name talent and concentrating on smokeware for, well, concentrates, Hitman Glass has situated itself firmly on the cutting edge of the paraphernalia industry. In 2010, the company raised the bar (and a lot of eyebrows) with the release of its innovative "torch tube" oil rigs. Then, last spring, Hitman did it again when it launched one of the most ambitious and inspired projects ever undertaken in the glass community: Chess Pieces, a series of functional chess-themed works commissioned from some of the nation's most prominent borosilicate artists. Among the many phenomenal submissions was a $20,000 hookah chess table, a collaboration between famed artisans Banjo and Tristan referred to as the Legend Set. When I learned that Hitman head honcho Dougie Fresh would be keeping the set for himself and hadn't yet used it, I proposed that we christen the piece with its first game -- and first smoke -- over an interview and photo shoot. He enthusiastically accepted my challenge.
We'd originally scheduled the match for a Sunday, but as the date drew near, Sunday turned into Monday, Monday became Tuesday and then it was Monday again. That's how Dougie rolls -- fast, loose and heavy. He'll keep you guessing until the last second, but he always pulls through in the pinch. He arrived to our rendezvous in a van packed chassis to roof with bubble-wrapped bubblers, looking like the ringmaster of some traveling stoner sideshow. At just 26 years old, he's still new to this whole marijuana-mogul thing -- but he's starting to get the hang of it. After we set up the board and choked down a monstrous hit of Hardcore OG Budder from its hookah hoses, our game -- and the interview -- got under way, with me playing black (naturally) and him making the first move.
"Tell me about how Hitman started," I say, pushing my first pawn forward on the checkered battlefield.
"Well, I felt drawn to weed at a pretty young age -- in early middle school," Dougie replies as he initiates his offensive. "Growing up in Lexington, a really nice suburb of Boston, it was difficult to get good weed. The first time I got great weed, it was in Boston from my buddy Adam. It was through him that I met Erik."
Dougie's referring to Erik Weissman, with whom he founded Hitman Glass. It was Erik, he informs me, who first schooled him about marijuana.
"My initial relationship with Erik was getting pot from him. I loved him from the beginning -- his generosity, his great sense of humor. When I moved to Boston, I started spending more time with him, and we got really close."
During college, the two started working at Boston's newest headshop, the Joint, and attending music festivals together, where they began collecting glass and networking. It was at one of these festivals -- the Gathering of the Vibes in 2006 -- that they met a struggling young glassblower from Maine named Steve Bates, who would forever change their lives.
"He was a conceptual artist that made unbelievably techy, science-y pipes like Erik and I had never seen before. We started driving up to Portland, buying pipes from Bates, then selling them down at the Joint. He made this turbine piece, and we were like, 'Oh my God -- we've never seen anything like this! We want 10!'"
But when Bates expressed a reluctance to mass-produce his work, the duo decided to form their own company and do it for him. Knowing that the turbine percolator (which spins the water inside) was a catchy feature, they committed to creating a product line centered around Bates's design.
"Erik and I just dove in without looking back," Dougie recalls as he relieves me of my bishop. "We knew nothing about glassblowing, but we put a bunch of money into the equipment, and I paid Steve 10 grand to teach a crew of people."
Unfortunately, the crew they recruited weren't very loyal to their benefactors: As soon as they'd learned their skills, they took off -- leaving the two partners hanging, close to $100,000 in the hole and with no one to produce their products. With their first attempt such a costly failure, Dougie was ready to give up. But Erik, ever the optimist, wouldn't hear of it.
"It was such a huge loss ... I think 95 percent of people would've said, 'Fuck the glass scene' and done something else. But Erik was at my shoulder through the whole thing, and he was like, 'Nah, we just met the wrong people. Fuck 'em, dude -- we'll just keep going.'"
Another factor Dougie credits with playing a big role in their success was the Easy Street glass gallery in Brooklyn. Before closing its doors last year, the gallery hosted monthly parties to showcase new artist exhibits -- giving the public direct access to up-and-coming glassblowers and their work.
"Erik and I used to drive down from Boston to meet the artists that were making the pipes," Dougie says. "We were collectors, and we wanted to know these people and buy their work. They were all very welcoming to us."
It was there, at Easy Street, where I first met Erik, who introduced me not only to Dougie but to my first dab. He even gifted me with one of their oil rigs -- the very apparatus for smoking extracts that put Hitman on the proverbial map. "So," I ask as I scramble to save my rook, "who turned you on to dabbing?"
"A glassblower gave me my first dab," Dougie replies as his salient stratagem continues to decimate my defenses. "He grew phenomenal pot but said he hadn't smoked flowers in a year -- he just smoked this other substance. I had no idea what it was ... I was like, 'What is this, hash?' He got me good -- I was coughing outside for like an hour after."
Though originally intended as a bong company, Hitman instead shifted gears and started making rigs to take advantage of the growing popularity of concentrates. With Erik's encouragement, Dougie moved the company out west and set up shop outside Los Angeles. There, the brand really began to take off -- thanks in no small part to Bates's next invention, the torch tube. By incorporating what is essentially a glass Bunsen burner into the base of the bong, the Borch (as it's been nicknamed) eliminated the need for a separate handheld torch to heat the nail.
The innovation was more than just ingenious and practical -- it was straight-up badass, and quickly made Hitman the most talked-about company on the glass scene. Due to a pending possession charge in Massachusetts, Erik couldn't accompany his partner to California, but he planned to follow later in the year once his case had been settled. Tragically, he never had that chance.
"Out of nowhere, I got a Facebook message from some dude saying, 'I heard something happened to Erik,'" Dougie recalls somberly. "I thought, 'Oh, man -- did he get arrested?' I never thought something so drastic could've happened ... "
On the morning of September 12, 2011, Erik Weissman and his two roommates were found dead in their apartment -- stabbed multiple times, their bodies soaked in blood and sprinkled with marijuana. None of Erik's friends are sure why it happened; Dougie believes it was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"I don't know the people he was with ... I heard rumors that [his roommates] were selling coke, but I don't know that ... All I know is that Erik would never wrong anyone. He was such an unselfish guy. Everybody in the pipe scene loved that kid, just like Nicky [Dougie's longtime girlfriend] and I loved him."
The case remains unsolved to this day. The authorities still haven't established so much as a motive or charged any suspects -- leaving Erik's family and friends angry and confused.
"It's been really difficult for me," Dougie says as he fights back the tears. "Losing your best friend -- someone you've been with every day for like seven years -- out of fucking nowhere ... and there's no conclusion, no answer to what happened or why."
Rather than becoming disheartened, Dougie channeled the pain of his partner's tragic death into achieving the cathartic culmination of his life's dream: Chess Pieces. Over 30 incredible artists contributed work to the collection, including Ben Burton and Calm's colorful ocean-versus-desert set, Buck and Darby's insanely elaborate insect set and, of course, Banjo and Tristan's magnificent game table, from which my pieces were being rapidly removed. And if all that wasn't ambitious enough, the sets are also showcased in a slick 407-page art book. The entire project was unveiled at a premiere party at Denver's prestigious Illuzion Glass Gallery on April 20 of last year.
Having no experience in publishing, Dougie relied heavily on the help and expertise of friends to realize his labor of love -- including artistic director Ryan Cheney (one of his and Erik's close friends from college) and photographer Anthony Muñoz (who shoots for Aqualab Technologies). Despite the many people to whom Dougie feels he owes thanks, the book bears but two dedications: one, "In loving memory of Erik Weissman," and the other, to Dougie's 70-year-old father, James, who was the inspiration for the entire endeavor.
"I had a great role model ... My dad started playing chess in school, back in the '50s, and would ride his bike or hitchhike to competitions. He was a rugged cat who was really driven -- when he cared about something, he didn't give a fuck what other people thought."
A bookstore manager from upstate New York, James was a self-taught chess master who instilled in his son an appreciation for the game at an early age. It's this lifelong love of chess, and the longing for parental approval, that fueled Dougie's dream.
"This book was something I've always wanted to do while my father was still alive," he says as my knight falls to his bishop. "I'm very lucky that I got the opportunity to complete it and have him see it and be proud of me. That's the most fulfilling part of it for me ... I can't even put that into words. It was really important to me that my parents know who I am -- I'm not going to hide my choices," he asserts as he captures my queen. "But my mom was very stuck on, 'You're making pipes ... is this legal?' That was one of the goals with this book -- to be able to hand it to my mother and say, 'Your judgment of pipes and the people who make them is wrong. These aren't just pipes, and these aren't criminals that are making them -- they're artists. They're my friends, people I respect and look up to.'"
Dougie sees his mother as an allegory for all those in society who look down on this most taboo of art forms and the ballooning stoner subculture that surrounds it. His larger goal with Chess Pieces was to help dispel that taboo and cast the glass industry in a more favorable light.
"There are people hiding in their garages making pipes right now and headshops on the East Coast getting shut down for selling them," he points out. "But where is the line between 'drug paraphernalia' and functional contemporary art? At what point do people acknowledge that we're not trying to create something hazardous -- we're trying to create something beautiful? This is the way I want to portray the glass scene -- that there's real talent."
One look at this chess set proves that. It's just one of the many high-priced, custom collabs they've put out with the serious collector in mind -- one of Hitman's founding ideals.
"Our goal was never for everybody to own our products -- we wanted real heads to own our products," Dougie says. "We wanted to create something that would be used only by connoisseurs and people who are influential in the cannabis scene."
Of course, he and the rest of the Hitman team (Joe, Ari, Tim and Boston Maaark) know that, in the long run, they also have to appeal to a wider audience. To that end, they've created a line of more affordable production pieces, including straight tubes, turbines and ratchet turbines (another innovation from Bates).
Most recently, they've created a new subdivision called Phase Two, which incorporates feedback they've received from their artists and consumers into a series of smaller, more practical production pieces. And by fall, they hope to launch another line called Chalice, which Dougie says will highlight the spiritual side of cannabis, as reflected in Rastafarianism. But whether it's a $3,000 "worked" piece or a $300 production pipe, for Dougie and the rest of the Hitman crew, it's all about crafting quality products that smokers will be stoked to own and use.
"I know about a person's relationship with their piece of glass," Dougie says as he closes in for the kill. "People are proud of their pipes -- they look at them every day, bring them everywhere they go. Glass can be very sentimental: I have Erik's whole collection at my parents' house. There are a lot of pieces that we got together that I'll never sell."
It's with this deep sense of reverence and remembrance that Dougie Fresh faces the future, determined to surmount whatever challenges come his way and ensure that Hitman Glass remains at the forefront of the industry he's dedicated his life to.
"I stand behind what we represent 100 fucking percent," he boasts as he corners my king. "I'm proud to own this company. It will always be something meaningful to me, because it's a legacy that Erik and I built together. That seed that he and I planted is growing on its own, and I think he would be really proud of where Hitman is now. Oh, and that's checkmate, Bobby."
Well played, Grandmaster Fresh ... well played.