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This Artist Picked Up 8,000 Used Dime Bags To Show Chicago's Drug Problem

By Mina Bloom | August 30, 2017 5:30am
 Ben Kurstin, 32, spent nearly two years obsessively picking up the bags around Humboldt Park.
Ben Kurstin, 32, spent nearly two years obsessively picking up the bags around Humboldt Park.
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HUMBOLDT PARK — Ben Kurstin has more than 8,000 dime bags in his apartment — one in every design and color scheme you can think of.

But he's not a drug dealer.

For nearly two years, the 32-year-old filmmaker/writer collected the bags — used to hold drugs — off the street in his neighborhood of Humboldt Park in an effort to illustrate the city's drug problem.

After stumbling across a dime bag on a Humboldt Park sidewalk a few years ago, Kurstin set out to collect as many of them as he could out of mere curiosity, but it quickly evolved into a full-blown obsession.

[All photos Courtesy/Ben Kurstin]

Kurstin picked up dozens — sometimes more than a hundred — dime bags off the sidewalks and in the neighborhood's namesake park every day on his way to and from his apartment at Kedzie and Crystal avenues. Each day, he spent hours cleaning the bags and organizing them by color and design.

He even prepared what he might say if the police ever confronted him about it.

"I was getting ready to talk to the police if I was stopped. If you walk up to someone with a bunch of drug bags and they say they're turning them into mosaics, you probably wouldn't believe it," he said.

Over the course of 22 months, Kurstin ended up collecting 8,816 dime bags, which he carefully arranged into several different mosaics, including an American flag and a portrait of President Richard Nixon, who popularized the phrase, "War on Drugs." He's selling some of the mosaics as art prints in varying sizes, and hoping to showcase the pieces in local galleries.

With the mosaics, Kurstin hopes to illustrate how deep the city's drug problem runs. In the case of Humboldt Park, the western part of the neighborhood is near the so-called "Heroin Highway," a stretch of the Eisenhower Expy. that has earned the moniker for its frequent heroin trafficking.

"Seeing the sheer number of bags I was finding, and the indifference of the police to that, was really concerning," Kurstin said, adding that he never witnessed police arresting anyone for drug use in the neighborhood.

"It became very obvious that the 'War on Drugs' is a complete failure. People who are addicted are able to get drugs, and they're able to get them easily. Our current way of going about helping people isn't helping at all."

Kurstin said he also was attracted to the dime bags because they represent how invisible drug addiction can be.

"I don't see people shooting up in the park. We don't see it because we don't want to, or because it's hidden. But the opioid crisis is a real problem. The bags are a perfect stand-in for the drug use itself," he said.

Originally from south suburban Homewood, Kurstin said his quest to find dime bags rarely caught the attention of any passersby. When it did, most people would shoot him a confused glance and then look away, he said.

However, one afternoon in the winter of 2015, Kurstin was walking in Humboldt Park with a handful of dime bags when he was confronted by a group of teenage boys who beat him up and stlole his wallet. After a week of recovering at home with a concussion, Kurstin went back out to find more bags.

"I had admittedly become very obsessed with picking up the bags, so I didn't want to stop," Kurstin said.

"I probably should've stopped, but having lived in the neighborhood for so long and never having had a problem, I just chalked it up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Kurstin has since moved to a larger apartment in Avondale with his girlfriend. He currently works full-time shooting and editing videos for the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

He said he's found some dime bags in his new neighborhood, but they're not nearly as prevalent in Avondale as they are in Humboldt Park. 

Now that he's completed the mosaics, Kurstin said he will be resisting the urge to pick up every dime bag he sees while he focuses on finding an audience for the art project.

"After a couple years of doing this, I'm very tired. If I see one, I'll pick it up just so it doesn't end up in a kid's hand or a dog's mouth or going into the sewer and getting into the water," he said.