It’s hard to believe, but LSD was totally legal in the United States only a few decades ago. For a quarter of a century after its hallucinogenic properties were discovered by the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943, you could “turn on, tune in and drop out” to your heart’s content. These were the golden years for a generation of psychonauts who would hand out the potent psychedelic like it was candy—and often times, it was.
The party ended in 1968, however, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed a bill that increased the criminal penalty for people in possession of “harmful drugs such as LSD.” One of the more noticeable effects of LSD criminalization was that its methods of distribution became more low key. Whereas before you were likely to find LSD as a liquid or powder or added to sugar cubes, the late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of blotter paper as the preferred distribution method.
Blotter paper is commonly used as an art supply, usually as watercolor paper, due to its highly absorbent qualities. It didn’t take the hippies long to realize that this same paper was also great at soaking up (you guessed it) LSD. Even better, the paper looked innocent. It was just a square smaller than a dime that you could easily hide or, preferably, slip under your tongue. The rise of LSD blotter paper also kicked off the blotter art scene, which was used by distributors to brand their batches. A typical LSD blotter contains 900 tabs of acid marked out by perforations on the sheet. Blotter art might do a design on each individual tab or use the entire sheet to make a larger design, kind of like a puzzle.
In the decades since, this underground drug distribution method has spawned an entire art scene of its own. Blotter art is now collectible, and a handful of artists around the globe are still producing it (without any acid on it, of course). Among them is Zane Kesey, son of the author and famous LSD evangelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), who designs and prints blotter paper in a small town in Oregon. Last year, he teamed up with 1xRUN, a fine art distributor in Detroit, Michigan, to do a limited run of LSD blotter art prints designed by a handful of artists.
On April 21, better known among psychonauts as Bicycle Day in honor of Hofmann’s first trip on LSD, 1xRUN released a fresh new batch of blotter art with designs by the likes of Grateful Dead artist Stanley Mouse, Ron English, and even Kesey himself. PRØHBTD spoke with Dan Arman, 1xRUN co-founder and creative director, and Pietro Truba, 1xRUN’s editor-in-chief who envisioned the project, to learn more about its origins and how blotter paper changed the art world.
How did the Bicycle Day print run get started?
Dan Armand: Our first Bicycle Day print run was in 2017 with Mike Giant, and last year we released a series of blotter sheets by different artists. We're always looking to print on different mediums and formats, but this idea really came from Pietro. He’s really into artists like Stanley Mouse so it was something he was really passionate about.
Pietro Truba: I was an intern at Relix Magazine. They started out as a Grateful Dead fanzine so I've always kind of been familiar with psychedelic art. The idea for the blotter paper series came about when we did a show with Mike Giant. I did an interview with Mike for our news section, and he was talking about his early days in San Francisco, saying he was painting a lot of graffiti and eating a lot of acid. I thought we should just do some blotter prints with the designs he used to sell. He thought it was a great idea. So the first year we did it was just three releases, all by Mike.
How did you get Zane Kesey involved?
Dan: Instead of just figuring out how to print blotter sheets, Pietro sourced out Zane, who is Ken Kesey's son. He was a writer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and part of the '60s LSD movement, and Pietro found out that his son, Zane, was still printing blotter paper using those same techniques.
Pietro: Zane’s website is a trip, man. It's straight out of Geocities '99. He's got all of his own personal designs on there, and you can order them in varying quantities. I just reached out to him because the history is there. His dad's resume speaks for itself. He seemed pretty excited about it, although I don't think he realized at first how many prints we wanted to do.
Dan: Getting Zane involved got us really excited about it. It wasn't just us trying to come up with something new on our own, it was really tapping into this art form that had a lot of influence on the print and rock poster market in history.
How do you make a blotter print?
Dan: I'll be honest, he's a little secretive about his process, which I kind of like. He wasn't into the idea of documenting it. It's very hard to find another person printing these things. I feel like he still works a little old school and is doing them all by hand. There's a little machine that does it, but you have to do them one at time, so it's not done on some fancy automatic press.
Pietro: The blotter art is printed on a special type of paper that's able to go into this perforation machine. We do our own printing so our first thought was that we could print it and he can perforate it, but he said, “Nah, I've spent years doing the printing and perforating with this specific paper on this specific machine.” I think it really helped add to the history and weight of it.
This year you got several artists involved with the Bicycle Day run. Were they repurposing old designs or making fresh art specifically for this blotter medium?
Dan: It's a mixed bag. Some people already had images in mind that they thought would work great. A lot of people did come up with designs specifically for that.
Pietro: Yeah, there's a handful that people might have done as other prints, but for the most part, this is new imagery, and they've done a new edition specifically for this.
How did you select artists for these blotter prints?
Pietro: My biggest complaint about any “drug culture,” for lack of a better term, is when it gets kind of really campy and corny. So I just really tried to steer it away from being campy. Getting Stanley Mouse involved was huge for me, personally. He did a lot of the Grateful Dead artwork that's really iconic. He used two of his most iconic Grateful Dead images and made a kind of weird hybrid blend of the two.
I think a lot of people would be reluctant to classify blotter paper as “fine art.” Why do you think that is?
Dan: It's one of those things that to the outside world today might seem like a novelty on the surface. But I think when you really peel it back and look at the origins of it, it was an extremely underground art form that a lot of people didn't see, but you also have this huge subculture of people who really appreciate and understand it. A lot of that stuff got ingested, so there’s not a whole lot of that blotter paper around still. I've seen shows that present a kind of a retrospective of old blotter art that survived, but I think for the most part, it's one of those things that wasn't really made to be kept for the long term.
Pietro: To me this is just a square format. Normally our releases are really all over the map in terms of size, medium and content, but this run made artists focus on a 7.5" by 7.5" box. The blotter art renaissance may be a thing of the past, but to me this is really just a collection of modern fine art.
What’s the reaction been like to these prints?
Pietro: The response has been crazy on this one. I didn't really count on that. We've had a ton of people reach out and say they want to do one or their friend does. Wayne White's print sold out almost immediately, and he said we should do another one. Now we're trying to figure out if we should do another batch or wait another year to loop it around again.
Why do you think it was such a strong reaction?
Dan: A lot of people had an experience with this stuff, a really profound experience. Coming out of that '60s movement, and the LSD art was the poster art for shows and the experiences that came with that. Before that whole era, things were really informational. After that, posters were super out there, super artistic. It was really hard to read the words on the show posters actually because they were so psychedelic. It's one of those things that's probably underappreciated and maybe looked at as a novelty, but in the grand scheme of things, it was an important bedrock for this movement we're still all a part of.
What’s your next big project once the Bicycle Day run is over?
Pietro: We're really doing new stuff all the time. The next thing we're doing is a series of skateboards for Go Skateboarding Day. We're talking to Ron English for his Welcome Wall, a collaborative artist series. We might revisit this when it's appropriate. Maybe for the Days Between—Jerry Garcia was born on August 1 and died on August 9—so every year around that time, there's a moment around that. We've got some Grateful Dead stuff not only from Stanley Mouse, but also a Leni Sinclair print. She's a legendary Detroit photographer, and we've got one of her shots in here. There might be a time when we rehash it.