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Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Summer of Love with Seminal Psychedelic Posters

Collector Paul Prince reflects on the euphoria of the Haight-Ashbury scene

Like song lyrics, graphic ephemera have the power to refresh memories and transport us to another time and place. The feeling is impossible to ignore when perusing the archive of Paul Prince. A retired graphic designer and exhibition designer, Prince started collecting psychedelic ephemera during the summer of 1967 while a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and frequenter of dance concerts in the surrounding area.

These dance concerts, bolstered by rock music, light shows, and mind-altering drugs, summoned the crowds during the summer of ’67 when thousands of “flower children” converged on San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to revel in rebellion against The Establishment. The so-called Summer of Love promised a communal environment founded on the values of love and peace, or as it was portrayed in the media at the time, free love, free drugs, free food.

To advertise these euphoric happenings, which took place primarily at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom, event promoters Bill Graham and Chet Helms commissioned local artists to design handbills and posters. The original poster artists, known as the Big Five—Wes Wilson, Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin—unwittingly launched a new design genre, the psychedelic rock poster, which proved as revolutionary as the counterculture movement itself.

Unlike the traditional “boxing style” posters, so-named because they looked like posters advertising boxing matches that were printed on the cheap, Prince said the psychedelic posters “made perfect sense. They looked like the music sounded and I thought that was brilliant.” They also captured the sensation of spontaneous free-form dancing and the elaborate multimedia shows that saturated the dance halls. “There were slide projectors, film projectors, movies running backwards, lights flashing in sync with the pulsing music. It was other-worldly, fluid and extremely harmonious, my idea of being in church.” A church oft-run high on acid.

Now fifty years later, Prince’s collection of handbills, tickets, and posters (many of them first printings) has soared to several thousand pieces. To complement the graphic ephemera, he also amassed a huge collection of 12-inch vinyl records (first pressings in mono, which remain sealed) of all the emerging bands that headlined the live dance concerts and left their mark on music history. “It’s obsessive,” admits Prince. Although it’s a private collection, he’s loaned posters to numerous exhibitions, including “High Societies” in 2001 at the San Diego Museum of Art, which published 111 of Prince’s posters in the exhibition catalog. He continues to collect, study, buy, trade, upgrade, and preserve—activities that surround any serious collecting. “The important thing is to collect things that mean something to you, learn about what it is you’re collecting, and try to get the best examples.”

In the exhibition catalog, High Societies: Psychedelic Rock Posters of Haight-Ashbury, Prince recalls that his organizing principle behind collecting psychedelic posters was from the very beginning “to bring together fresh, exciting designs and the vivid memories they evoke from an all-too-brief period of innocence, exploration, joyous wonder, and—despite reports from individuals who may not have experienced it—love.” This selection of “bests” from Prince’s collection bookend the Summer of Love.

April 28–30, 1967

Wes Wilson: “Buffalo Springfield, Steve Miller Blues Band, Freedom Highway at the Fillmore Auditorium.”
© Bill Graham Enterprises, Inc., dba SFX Music West.

“Wes Wilson led the way,” says Prince. He worked freehand and liked to fill the space. One of the first to experiment with hard-to-read lettering, he was directly influenced by the abstract letterforms of Alfred Roller’s early 20th century Vienna Secessionist posters and the journal, Ver Sacrum. Wilson’s 1967 poster for a Fillmore Auditorium dance concert featuring Buffalo Springfield, Miller Blues Band, and Freedom Highway demonstrates how Wilson expanded on Roller’s rectangular-shaped letters with worm-like counter spaces by curving, twisting, and varying letter sizes to achieve a visual effect that reflected the fluid, freeform movement of the dance concert environment.

The curious double-faced male-female figure intertwines with the lettering and wraps around a yin-yang symbol, a reflection of the revolution’s growing fascination with eastern philosophy and meditation. The warm gold color represents the spirituality of the East while the cool silver signals the West’s “rationalism, materialism, science, and technology,” values opposed by the counterculture, wrote Sally Tomlinson in the High Societies exhibition catalog.

October 7–8, 1966

Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, “Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Electric Train at the Avalon Ballroom.”
© Chet Helms.

Before landing in San Francisco and teaming up with Alton Kelley, Stanley Mouse was known on the hot rod circuit for his airbrushed drawings on T-shirts, posters, and decals. Working under the name Mouse Studios, Kelley and Mouse “were appropriators,” says Prince. They unapologetically borrowed relevant material from a wide variety of sources.

In their 1966 poster for a concert at the Avalon Ballroom featuring the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and Electric Train, they copied the female image and asymmetrical composition of an 1898 art nouveau poster by Alphonse Mucha, which advertised cigarette papers manufactured by the Joseph Bardou Company. The cigarette held by Mucha’s archetypal female is reimagined as a joint. While the figure’s demeanor and sinuous hair strike the right chord, the pairing of warm and cool reds with a complementary green hue heightens the psychedelic flair. Arcs and curves deliberately break through the hand-drawn lettering to cleverly, albeit subtly, continue the meandering flow of the smoke.

The poster also prominently features The Family Dog logo. The peculiar protrusions around the outer edge of the shield-like form are actually parts of the letters T-H-E sticking out from behind the oval that bears the words “family dog.” The image of the long-haired “Indian” wearing formal attire and a top hat was lifted from the American Heritage Book of Indians and his long-stemmed pipe refashioned into yet another joint.

June 29–30, July 2, 1967

Victor Moscoso: “Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mount Rushmore, Blue Cheer; Lights: North American Ibis Alchemical Company at the Avalon Ballroom.”
© Victor Moscoco.

Victor Moscoso studied art at the Cooper Union and Yale University where he was a student of Josef Albers, whose color theories along with principles of OpArt influenced his work. Moscoso achieved stunning optical effects by masterfully juxtaposing colors that vibrate when side by side.

The contrasting hues in his 1967 poster for Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Mount Rushmore, and Blue Cheer at the Avalon Ballroom shift back and forth between foreground and background. The poster actually promoted two Family Dog concerts, one distinguished by blue text and the other by green, both on a red background.

“It’s a maze of graphic information,” says Prince. “From a distance, it looks like a yin-yang but when you get up close you realize that it’s a design that has type in it and then you realize that the whole thing is type!” The exaggerated slab serifs and lack of space between the lines of text cause one line of text to ooze into another. Moscoso pushes the illusion even more by using the yin-yang symbol as a structural device to achieve a three-dimensional effect and further distort the text.

Moscoso intentionally played with visual perception that required concentration, the kind of “intense visual involvement in details,” one experiences when high on psychedelics, explained poster historian Walter Medeiros. The audience that these posters attracted had no problem reading them.

January 24–26, 1969

Rick Griffin, Aoxomoxoa: “Grateful Dead, Sons of Champlin, Initial Shock; Lights: Garden of Delight at the Avalon Ballroom.”
© Bill Graham Enterprises, Inc., dba SFX Music West.

Rick Griffin emerged out of the southern California hot rod and surf scene where he made a name for himself as the creator of Surfer magazine’s popular cartoon character, Murphy, also known as “Murph the Surf.” He dropped out of Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) and moved to San Francisco in the fall of 1966. His early posters, like the 1967 poster “Pow-Wow: A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In”, an event that gave rise to the Summer of Love, featured Native American imagery and lettering styles associated with the Old West. Griffin’s layout skills are on full display in the appealing and efficient way in which he organized the long list of names.

This approach gave way to intricately-drawn illustrations dense with symbolic objects (beetles, snakes, skulls, eyeballs), vivid primary colors, and imaginatively stylized lettering as in the 1969 poster designed for a dance concert at the Avalon Ballroom that headlined the Grateful Dead, Sons of Champlin, and Initial Shock. The objects in the painting suggest “a meditation on life: its sources, its process, and its fate,” said Tomlinson.

Griffin drew a challenging-to-read Grateful Dead logotype out of compact three-dimensional gothic-style letters that connect to form an arc. “It’s been referred to as Cosmic Gothic lettering,” said Prince. At the bottom, spidery, more delicately drawn text shows strong Art Nouveau influence in form and proportion. The artwork was adapted in 1969 for the sleeve of the Grateful Dead’s third studio album, Aoxomoxoa, a made-up palindrome that reads the same forward as backward; a fitting ambiguity.

August 27–September 1, 1968

Lee Conklin: “Steppenwolf, Grateful Dead, Santana, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Sons of Champlin; Lights: Holy See at the Fillmore West.”
© Bill Graham Enterprises, Inc., dba SFX Music West.

Later posters, like the work of Lee Conklin, started to shift away from the “visual and psychic effects of psychedelic drugs and their counterparts in the light shows” to more dreamlike and hallucinatory effects influenced by Surrealism. “Lee Conklin was a very psychedelic artist but his vision of psychedelic was really crazy-making berserk,” says Prince. In The Art of the Fillmore, Conklin said, “I made it my mission to translate my psychedelic experience onto paper,” adding that the “afterglow” proved to be his most creative state.

The concept for his 1968 poster, known as the Santana Lion—because Carlos Santana adopted the drawing for the cover of his 1969 album—was inspired by a picture of a lion that Conklin saw in a book while high. The lion sparked a vision of an African princess, which triggered other imaginary profiles, all of which are melded together in this surrealistic pen-and-ink drawing, which takes some time to sort out. Dynamic sketchy lettering and wild loosely-drawn words wind, twist, and wrap around the outer edges of the complex image in an allusion to the lion’s mane.

As the situation in Haight-Ashbury deteriorated, people were urged not to come to San Francisco, but rather to take up the counterculture revolution in their own communities. A parade and mock funeral were held on October 6, 1967, to mark the end of the Summer of Love. 

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