We all have a very good reason to celebrate right now. After this recent election, weed the people are five states closer to riding the green wave across America and regardless of your political affiliation, the fact that cannabis reform is happening right before our eyes makes it a great time to be alive.
The truth is, getting here has been a group effort and the plant that was typically seen as a badge reserved for counterculture is growing its status as a free and easy way to relax, create and even ease some pain. Celebrities endorse it, politicians embrace it, community organizers help spearhead legalization, brands like Old Pal make it accessible for everyone and people like Ariel Stark-Benz, better known as Mister Green, elevate a retail experience that shines bright as a beacon of hope that pot will become permanent.
Just through the kelly green Japanese bespoke Nora in Mister Green’s Silverlake location, the summer sun drops into that perfect place where it projects warm light through anything that can cast a shadow. Those shapes dance across white walls and plywood shelving in the foyer where products of a similar variety come alive in a museum gift shop-like set-up. Everything in here commands attention ranging from the stacks of Whole Earth Catalogs, a small rack of new arrivals designed by Stark-Benz himself, a cork board that through a series of slogan stickers has become its own stoner Successory, woven mushroom rugs and weed leaf watercolors by his mother in-law who just so happens to be artist, Kim McCarty.
In the second room, a cluster of his famous ‘Bong Water’ Nalgene bottles mentally style themselves attached to a clashing color carabiner. An array of smoking accessories beg for a tap of some ash, branded rolling trays wait for customers to load them up, Japanese bucket hats you can’t find anywhere in LA are fit for your lid and his famous ‘Hippie Shit’ fragrance all start to connect in a smoke-filled thought bubble that this is indeed a high-end head shop. It’s curated in a way that gallery directors approach provenance; in fact, his slogan ‘The Heads Will Know’ being teased out on some stickers and tees harkens back to a time when you earned your look and defended your sources as much as you did your own cred.
Stark-Benz shares how he was first aware of his passions trending towards design after running competitively in his home state of Oregon. During his college career at The University of Oregon he remembers, “I had it in the back of my mind that I was eventually going to design running shoes but I just didn’t have any idea of what it meant to be a working designer or creative at the time.”
This was all pre-social media of course, or at least post dot com boom where a lot of cool cultures were still siloed out and free to operate autonomously with trends that were rich in purity and biting someone’s style was blatantly obvious. While LA and New York were electric, Oregon was slower and allowed talent like Alex Calderwood—founder of the Ace Hotel—to reimagine how to do hospitality differently with unforgettable programming and a line of Ace-inspired products.
Through a chance meeting, Calderwood hired Stark-Benz who put his fingerprints on things the hotel was generating. “The Ace experience spoke to me personally because we both came from the Pacific Northwest and were both very involved in DIY culture,” Stark-Benz remembers. That punk-rock ideal is rooted in an unwavering commitment to seeing an idea through from start to finish ranging from silk-screening the t-shirt design you haven’t seen or booking punk bands to play in a tiny room. If you’re that kind of person you can easily spot those characteristics in someone else. There’s no doubt that as much as Calderwood saw potential in Stark-Benz, the two were mutually evolving their tastes and skills asserting their pedigrees as visionaries.
Stark-Benz has a sense about him that easily moves through worlds with an enigmatic personality. A month after the Ace Hotel Portland opened, he landed in New York working as a model. Over the course of the first years of a ten year stint, he kept in touch with Calderwood who often visited from Portland to oversee the progress on The Ace New York location. At the time, the city was enjoying a Renaissance and the creativity generated by a long list of skaters, designers, photographers, restaurateurs, artists, you name it was unstoppable. “I was getting to know the environment that Alex already had been contributing to. He was constantly introducing me to people and I was happy to be there without a cynical attitude,” Stark-Benz humbly remembers about Calderwood and his access to the celebrity world of design and commerce.
The challenge with monetizing creativity isn’t making money off your first few ideas but sustaining a way of life that allows you to play in different scenes that inform each other and still hopefully make a living with that output. Throwing events builds community, designing t-shirts is conversational, curating content is interpersonal and Stark-Benz had his hands in all of it before settling into a career in graphic design along with co-founding an agency called High Tide which still pushes pixels today. However, taking a full-time creative role at The Ace Hotel eventually brought Stark-Benz and Calderwood back together.
It was there that he “saw a lithograph in front of one of my colleagues’ computers of a woman holding a bail of weed. It was from the 1970s and she was naked holding a bunch of uprooted plants that couldn’t have been comfortable. I was just so drawn to it,” he recalls when asked about the first thoughts of Mister Green. “Of course I was on the Internet all day reading about all this weed news and putting together ideas for the Ace shop working with the graphics team all the while this weed thing is existing in my periphery. I wanted to create a weed brand that was something I’d wear and that spoke to me.”
His ideas were evolving alongside a streetwear industry that was already larger than life with brands like SUPREME, HUF, aLife, aNYthing and others flipping the script on just about everything that culture was about in the 90s. However, any designs referencing cannabis almost always included a weed leaf and Stark-Benz noticed that there weren’t any elevated heady brands in that space. “I grew up in Portland and went to school in Eugene. For anyone who knows it, Eugene is just this bastion for weed heritage but I never remember anything speaking to me. As a kid, I was into anything that had a weed leaf on it; in fact, I used to have my ears pierced and had a weed leaf earring,” he remembers when his vision started to galvanize.
"I ended up finding deep detail, thoughtfulness and sophistication at things I was looking at and only seeing cliches."
The high design he was scouring for reference connected to hippies or Bob Marley which as Stark-Benz says, “Isn’t as relevant when you’re an adult.” Recognizing that the weed world had a branding problem, he dug deeper into the details and noticed “when you’re looking to break away from something nothing feels sophisticated in the way that you want it to. I ended up finding deep detail, thoughtfulness and sophistication at things I was looking at and only seeing cliches,” he adds, connecting a few references from Japanese brands that would inform the next step on his path to becoming an entrepreneur.
With The Ace experience in the distance that served as a crash course in product design, Stark-Benz landed in Japan where cultures collide like nowhere else in the world. With a full battery of inspiration from a decade living in New York, the stint overseas was intended to fine tune a direction that would inform the first Mister Green designs. “I not only wanted to come from a different angle in the weed world but here I was in a land where I had direct access to things I knew about but it was through their perspective which was totally different from how someone would do it back home. I was seeing Japanese Rastas and different perspectives on heady culture,” he says of the experience, recalling an insatiable appetite for what he was consuming.
After leaving Japan, Stark-Benz set his sites on California, which at the time was on its way to celebrating recreational legalization with a long list of brands that flooded dispensaries with eye-popping packaging. His timing to launch Mister Green couldn’t have been more perfect and similar to other salient success stories, the first stab at making his dream a reality was realized out of his friend’s guest bedroom in the Hollywood hills, a nod to the DIY culture and the setting that incubated his talents.
“Souvernierwear was how I initially thought about it,” he remembers about the first designs. In fact, word-of-mouth marketing is everything when you’re trying to put something out into the world. Alongside the ‘I went to Mister Green and all I got was this t-shirt’ graphics he also dropped a series of high-end smoking paraphernalia harkening back to the vibrant designs of mid-century smoking and drinking culture where, if you drank, colorful bar carts were the norm and if you loved cigarettes you proudly lit them with a heavyweight Wedgewood lighter. At this point, everything was on-line so along with these accessories, he also merchandised books, zines and objets d’art that stood out as must-haves for a rapidly growing recreational weed world that was moving at break-neck speed.
Success was swift leading to him opening the first brick and mortar location that GQ aptly called the “A.P.C. of Head Shops” in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. For the uninitiated, that location and the next iteration after he moved to the new space in Silverlake looks like gallery with warm plywood on the walls that catches the light throughout the day, minimal displays of his namesake Mister Green clothing, perfume and a wide array of other products you can’t find anywhere else. Everything together is an inviting embrace that acts as a bridge in an evolving cannabis conversation where everything from apparel to accessories works in perfect harmony to put pot out into the world so more people feel comfortable to adopt at last some aspect of it into their lives.
Stark-Benz is aware of this, as he plays a pivotal role in making marijuana seem less a part of counterculture while simultaneously acknowledging the injustices at hand in an industry that can still be tone deaf. “I make graphics that say, ‘Fuck The War On Drugs’—or others that are eye catching but have some truth behind wanting to see systemic change that drives that type of creation. I don’t want to be known for something that will make me money but in the end have nothing to do with change. We’re just going to continue to do that,” he adds when asked if he feels a personal responsibility to shed light on those issues.
“If we can get people to engage in areas that are just a little outside their general reality we can achieve more openness.”
The truth is, everyone in the game should at least be aware of this perspective and help us work towards a more just and equitable future as we continue to celebrate the changing policies that sweep the nation. We have every reason to thank people like Stark-Benz not only for his creative pedigree but for taking a risk to adopt a business practice that systemically operates as a point of discovery and a way to appeal to the curious. “If we can get people to engage in areas that are just a little outside their general reality we can achieve more openness,” he affirms. “So many people are suffering beneath the system at this point and until institutionalized ideologies like the War On Drugs is torn down, people are set free and legalization occurs alongside that maybe people will get a better picture of their lives. Maybe they can look over the walls and see a more harmonious society.”
Visit the Mister Green shop in person at 3019 Rowena Ave, Los Angeles, CA or shop on-line.