“We’re the prime example of legacy to legal,” says a clearly proud Vladimir Bautista. “We are the heart and voice of cannabis culture in New York.”
The Happy Munkey co-founder and Harlem native is speaking at Pier 36, the Lower Manhattan gallery and performance space that has hosted acclaimed events this summer. The current showcase is the very cyber-chic Immersive Van Gogh, a presentation that brings the artist’s creations to life with moving projected images on walls, floors and ceilings.
The two Happy Munkey After Hours parties, on Aug. 11 and 18, signaled a coming-of-age for what has been an underground scene in New York. It was also a kind of cross-fertilization between New Amsterdam and Old Amsterdam.
Happy Munkey’s origins lie in a trip the group’s other co-founder, Ramon Reyes of Washington Heights, made to the Dutch city that happens to host the Van Gogh Museum. The sight of people openly getting high at the cannabis cafes blew his mind. Reyes, who was already a veteran illicit-market cannabis dealer, recalls: “I thought, we need this sh*t back here in New York!”
The following year, 2017, Happy Munkey was incorporated as a media and merchandise brand, registered in New York and New Jersey. Somewhat below the radar, they were also hosting “smoke-easy” gatherings, where aficionados of the herb could gather in a safe, friendly and non-judgmental space.
With the passage of New York state’s Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act (MRTA) this spring, Happy Munkey saw the moment had arrived for above-ground “consumption lounges.” At the Pier 36 affairs, smoking and vaping was permitted (and encouraged) on the riverfront balcony—although not in the indoor parts of the premises. As licensed sales of adult-use cannabis have not yet begun in New York, the event was officially BYOC (Bring Your Own Cannabis). Schwag bags, however, included such goodies as CBD-infused chocolates.
Happy Munkey is now producing a podcast and online magazine. These efforts are especially dedicated to advancing the presence of people of color in New York state’s burgeoning legal cannabis business.
Bautista emphasizes Happy Munkey’s activist commitment. “We got thousands of signatures for MRTA,” he says. Alluding to a more conservative legalization bill that had been pushed by New York’s now disgraced and outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Bautista adds, “We fought for the right version, with social equity provisions to help the little people.”
Keith Hurd, director of marketing for Immersive Van Gogh, also spoke to Cannabis Now on the Pier 36 balcony, where the Manhattan Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and Statue of Liberty were visible through the haze of cannabis smoke and vapor.
Speaking of the After Hours party’s inception, Hurd recalls that after seeing the exhibit, with its floating images and vibrant colors: “People said, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to have this experience after you smoke’—and now in New York, you can. So I quickly reached out to someone I know who put me in touch with Happy Munkey, and here we are.”
Immersive Van Gogh was masterminded by Italian digital artist Massimiliano Siccardi, in collaboration with David Korins, creative designer of the Broadway hit musical Hamilton. The show is also opening in other cities across the country this summer. And Happy Munkey is considering teaming up with the exhibit for similar After Hours events in some of those towns—the group’s first foray beyond New York.
“We want to go to every other state where it’s legal,” says Bautista, intimating that Denver might be first in line.