Vaping trend, originated in USA, has quickly spread around many countries, including Russia. Vaping turned into something more than just a demand for nicotine. It has brought a fresh meaning to smoking culture: brand new rules, norms, attributes and even slang.

Traces of vaping culture appear everywhere: vape-shops in the narrow Moscow alleys,  articles and jokes in the Internet, festivals and exhibitions in public spaces. Vaping transformed smoking practices of people as well as reoriented tobacco industry. Tobacco companies are working on new products for vapes, and cigarette shops have already started selling e-liquids for vapes.

In order to find out, who and why joins vaping community, why people spend their money and time on it and what unites vapers apart from love to new devices, me and my colleagues decided to conduct a sociological research*. We looked inside the new phenomenon, took in the reality of vapers and revealed their features. We not only conducted interviews with vapers, but also visited their favorite places in town.

 

Briefly

Vape is an electronic cigarette, a vaporizer – steam generator of some kind, which generates steam from aromatic liquids. It consists of several details: battery, tube (main console of the vaporizer), cartridge and atomizer, which function is to heat up e-liquids. Vape is not only an alternative to smoking cigarettes. It is “a clever constructor” to play with.  The interest in the game depends on a budget and personal preferences.

Vaping connects different age groups. But as a socio-cultural phenomenon it`s rapidly developing among millennials. The key feature of this age group is their openness to new inventions and successful integration of technology into daily routines.  No wonder why Russians aged 18-35 got quickly accustomed to vaping trend.

 

The origins of vaping in Russia

Five years ago, vaping was popular among small group of people. “A long time ago there was a forum. And there were some dudes there, who called themselves “admirals” and “comrades”: they had different ranks. So, they could discuss in 100500 messages which device to buy. It was long ago. But the forum has already died, because everything now is based in Vkontakte [Russian social network]”, – our respondent recalls.

Originally, vape appeared as an idea of fighting with cigarette smoking. We`ve visited “Babylon” – one of the first vape-shops in Russia, where every detail radiates subcultural confrontation with cigarettes. Even the sign at the entrance says: “Never get burn. You don’t need a fire to burn down Babylon anymore”.

When vaping came out of the cellar and became a widespread trend, vape subculture has lost its original confronting ideology. It turned to individual style, image and entertainment. The changes started from the vape shops. From small underground room it turned into entertainment club. Soft couch, nice colors and games – all these details aimed at creating cozy careless atmosphere, where vapers relax.

However, there are special groups of vapers, who still respect the original traditions of vape. “Vape community “Cloud Chasing” are freaky people. They use only original devices from America at a price of 260$. The group is private. To get there you need to show your device, liquids and answer tricky questions”, – one 21-year-old vaper told us. So, as we see, privacy and enhanced attention to vaping attributes allow several vaping groups prevent their true identity from mixing with mass trends.

 

Reasons for joining Vape community

One of the most popular reasons for being a vaper is attractiveness of this smoking practice. The majority of vapers are cigarette-smokers in the past. Most of them had problems with health because of their nicotine addiction: shortness of breath, unpleasant smell, etc. According to our informants, vape is a “tasty” way to avoid many risks for health and still enjoy smoking. Besides, vape attracts by its novelty and design: it really draws attention.

Another way of joining vape community is to get interested through the grapevine. Our respondents found out about vaping from their peers, who had already got involved.The function of customization is what attracts people, especially the youth. It allows to stand out and express one`s individuality.

 

Photo by Ilnar Salahiev

All about senses

Vaping “plays” on your senses. It`s not a secret that every good-selling product should impress. Colorful images, slogans and aromas are often used for this purpose. Vape industry also uses this trick. It involves tactile senses (smoke rings, devices, upgrades), taste, visual images (magical vapor that draws attention) and, of course, smell. Because vape culture is focused on senses stimulation, it attracts people, who are looking for new experiences.

Many of our informants said that they choose tastes according to their mood, weather or even season. They associate some moments of their lives with e-liquids` tastes: “For example, in the morning I vaporize cheesecake-tasted liquids, because it`s cool! You don`t have to eat it, you vapor it and it feels like you are drinking coffee with cheesecake. All that fresh liquids with mint are amazing in summer, when you can`t buy something chilly. And it`s really-really cool! In winter I want something warm, spicy, sweet liquids – something like that”.

“When I`m on high spirits, I smoke something sweet. When I`m feeling low – something hard, like herbs – mint, needles, balm. It depends on my mood. And there`s one more funny thing. When I vaporize liquid, that I used some time ago, I just have so many memories about that times. All these tastes and smells cause flashbacks!”

Comparing to vaping, smoking cigarettes doesn`t involve such a wide range of senses. Electronic cigarettes bring emotions that are worth sharing with others. Emotions – this is what the whole vape culture is based on. People yearn to experience what vaping offers to them. Community members describe vaping with words: “cool”, “amazing”, “funny”, “unreal”. Do you still doubt whether the trick with the senses work?

Vape shops

As I`ve already mentioned above, vape culture plays with our senses. The interiors of vape-shops and vape-bars aimed at securing sensor images and feelings: black & gray shades with vibrant accents, ambient lighting, soft couches and video games. Apart from senses, vape culture relies on communication. Vape-shops` interiors prove this statement. In each of them we`ve found a bar stand with high chairs. But here you don`t drink – you vape. Bar is a place, often associated with entertainment and relax, where you come to have a good time and meet your peers. Like any normal bar, vape-bar gives an opportunity to talk to a vape-barman about the stuff happening in your life and try some of the e-liquids. And buy some into the bargain.

Dark colors and twilight are popular among interiors of vape-bars. The point is not only in trends. It`s another trick. Dark colors immerse customers into the atmosphere of a different world beyond time and space. White vapor looks good in twilight.

Vape-shops are hidden in urban space. Generally, you don`t see them at first. They locate in the cellars, yards, basement floors. There are several ways to find a vape-shop in Moscow:

  • To find it on the map on special vape-site: a map with all strategic places for community members.
  • To notice a signboard somewhere near the subway or on the side streets
  • Grapevine again! Almost every “involved” Moscow vaper has his own favorite place.

 

Communication in vape culture includes visiting vape-themed events. Vapers, friends, manufactures from all over the world and influencers in vape industry gather for one day pr two days to present new products, express opinions about them and have fun in friendly atmosphere. One of the respondents noticed: “There`s a wild feature in all vape events – the manufacturers give out free samples of e-liquids by throwing the glass bottles right in the huge crowd (500 or more people). So, everyone fights for these bottles, almost killing the others”. Spectacular exhibitions and performances of vape-collectives, performing tricks with vapor are possible due to commercial success in Russia.

 

Going deeper: involvement in vaping subculture

People get involved in vaping culture by different ways. We`ve identified two of them.

When a person buys his own vape “starter pack”, he or she automatically joins vape community. This is why we called the first way “automatic”. To stay tuned, one must visit special shops and vape-bars, where it`s possible not only to buy vape products, but also to gain experience and form personal tastes. Many interviewed vapers note, that their first vaping experience was bad and not quite tasty; however, they could understand it only several years after, concerning their great experience.

The second way of immersion in vaping is upgrading vaping skills and various vape practices cultivatioh. Let me clarify. Vaping is a very addictive hobby. New products appear almost every month and vapers face the temptation to spend hundreds of dollars to improve their device and make it stand out. Apart from device modification, people learn new tricks with vapor – smoke rings, jellyfish, etc.

Photo by Ilnar Salahiev

Vapers demonstrate their skills to friends and other vapers: “People create various spirals – over 100 types! Some do incredible things – they can practice all day to learn some new skill and boast to others. Obviously, it connects people!” (Nikita, 20 y.o.)

“Vape tricks is when people vaporize rings and other cool stuff. Nowadays it turned into business. For example, here in Russia, we have a team, which performs vape tricks on stage. Recently they`ve been on TV. We also have cloud-contests with judges. It`s when people compete who will blow out more vapor. And also there are vape tricks contests where you can win cash”.

 

Types of vapers

Russian vapers can be divided into three categories:

“Schoolboys with I-JUSTs”

The youngest representatives of vape culture in Russia. They often use cheap devices (i-Justs) and like visiting vape festivals and vape shops. Nevertheless, because of their age, schoolboys can`t be the full members of vape community – all the doors are open to the ones, who have reached 18.

“Just vapers”

“30+ people with simple device, who want to fight smoking addiction”.  The representatives of this group are interested only in physical products of vape culture – devices, e-liquids, etc. Obviously, vaping  is just an alternative to cigarettes – they do not pay attention to communication and atmosphere. Quite conservative in their preferences: “They`re uninterested in trying various e-liquids and new products.  Once they`ve chosen a product, they will be buying it for months”.

“Totally addicted”

“Totally addicted” vapers hardly imagine their day without vaping. They know (or at least aspire to know) everything about vape, including new trends, products and places. For many of them vaping is the constant expenditure in their monthly budget: “They change their device almost every month, they want to try everything. These guys have a huge list of habits and vape rituals”.

Device is what classifies vapers by different groups. Judging by your vape, other members of community may say how deep you are immersed in the vape culture. “You can see it from a person`s device – whether he or she involved in vaping or not. When you speak with addicted vapers, who really care, it takes one minute to understand their interest”.

Of course, such classification is quite rough. However, it`s true concerning many of Moscow vapers. To join vape community one should only buy a device. A further scenario depends on technical equipment, communication and information that strengthen the vape practices and habits.

 

“True Vaper”: the Codex of the community

The rite of initiation is an attribute of many subcultures. But vaping subculture is different: everyone can join the subculture regardless of gender, nationality or religion. All you have to do is to buy a device. You may quit anytime, but most of the people stay.

During the interviews, we revealed the existence of ideas about “true vaper” – a “canonical” representative of the subculture. “True vaper” is a well-informed expert, who devotes his time to vape exhibitions, workshops and vape shops. He also uses the coolest products of vape industry and never stops perfecting his devices.

An important thing that regulates the whole vaping community is “the vape ethic” (“the unspoken rule”, “human norms”, the ” the law of vaper”). “You shouldn`t vape in places where you are not allowed to smoke”. Vaping in Russia is legal and one can vape everywhere, even in public places. But “the vape ethic” regulates the behavior inside the community towards people, who are not involved in the subculture. “We can`t vape at the people`s face. In addition, we must avoid vaping near children. It`s all about “human norms”. Vapers shouldn`t be arrogant”, – the respondent says. Violation of this rule causes informal sanctions: disapproval of other vapers: “Sometimes when I see some guys vaping in the mall, I always tell them to stop. That`s because people around us don`t know much about vape and they are afraid. And “babushkas” (old women) start coughing”.

 

Mysterious subculture of modern times

Modern world with its hectic pace of development offers unlimited opportunities for self-identification in society. We are capable of choosing how to live, who to be and who to be with. Nowadays we have more freedom than any other human ever had. These major transformations were brought by technology that got into almost all spheres of our life.

We observe an amazing phenomenon of  “culture split”, where the culture turns into colorful kaleidoscope, presenting uncountable variations of practices and habits. That would have been a nonsense barely a century ago. When “hippie” subculture member came out to society as a hippie, his membership in this group covered all his life: career path, relationship, plans. Today we can`t precisely label people around us, because different groups and subcultures set up knotty mosaic. “Rocker-esthete”, “punk-skinhead”, “gamer- BMW-owner” and many other combinations became a part of our reality.

The subculture of VAPERS are one of such modern subcultures. Modern subcultures differ from subcultures of the past. They are free from strict rules and control over humans. Furthermore, modern subcultures mostly do not influence personal qualities of their members. At the same time, that doesn`t mean the existence of the influence –it is smoothed out by freedom and individualism.

Vapers are the mystery, covered in vapor. At least for Russia. Vaping “came” to Moscow less than 5 years ago, so we still don`t know all the secrets of people, addicted to strange devices…


* “The Subculture of Vapers” research. Ksenia Dubenko, Kamran Bagirov and Maria Mironova, 2017

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