All images courtesy of the artists. Lead art by Dirty Donny Gillies
Throughout the second half of the 1960s and and during the entire ’70s — when Americans started toking up en masse — posters bearing Day-Glo colored images on pitch-black backgrounds became every with-it weed enthusiast’s requisite wall hangings.
The pieces typically depicted what we now consider canonical, even cliched cannabis culture imagery, such as fantasy figures (wizards, unicorns), high nature elements (mushrooms, butterflies), outlaw iconography (bikers, reapers), acid rock heroes (Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead), and, often, just glorious pot leaves themselves. Most importantly, when exposed under an ultraviolet light bulb, all those trippy images would light up and beam pure fluorescent bliss deep into every resplendently red eyeball within sight. Hence, the medium’s self-explanatory moniker: blacklight posters.
The blacklight poster style infiltrated other ’70s-head-favored formats, like t-shirts, denim vest patches, pinball machine graphics, gnarly skateboard decks, airbrushed scenes on the sides of vans, and more. Even mainstream corporations such as 7-Up got in on the radiant ocular avalanche by way of colorfully wigged-out advertising. Come the ’80s, blacklight posters never entirely faded from the realm of reefer-philes, but they certainly no longer occupied their previous heights of interior design fashion to which you could get high. During that era, artist Sean Choquette did add one smoker-pleasing sensual aspect that carried the form throughout the decade: fuzzy, velveteen paper. Alas, the grunge-heavy early-to-mid ’90s largely disdained blacklight and other “hippie” aesthetics, even as hip-hop rose to conquer the universe with a new passion for puffing and passing.
Above image by Corinne Halbert, who we also interviewed below
In the years since, glowing pin-up tributes to Biggie Smalls and a multitude of ultraviolet-enhanced Insane Clown Posse variations have occupied shelf space at Spencer’s and Hot Topic, but blacklight posters definitively fell out of the mainstream, even in the realm of marijuana accessories. Well, just as everything that was once lit seems to go up in smoke again, the blacklight poster is making a comeback, wafting toward the popular consciousness anew from the underground, largely by way of the psychedelic-soaked, sludge-metal/gunk-punk music known as stoner rock.
While Oregon’s Wilamette University is wrapping up its multi-month exhibition of vintage visuals, Turned On! The American Blacklight Poster, 1967-’ 71, Chicago’s Sideshow Gallery is mounting The Happening on Saturday night, July 8. It’s a custom van and chopper gathering that doubles — by way of headlining guest and exhibitor Dirty Donny Gillies — as a tribal tribute to today’s contemporary wave of black light visionaries.
Could it be a coincidence that such mind-liquefying luminosity has returned just as societal taboos and legal restrictions against ingestible hemp continue to collapse? Not likely. So hang up some fresh blacklight goods, power up your UV lamp, and fire up your finest stash. And if you’re looking for suggestions for where to start, allow us to put the following modern radiant paint masters front and center.
Dirty Donny Gillies
From his essential 2016 book Pinball Wizards and Blacklight Destroyers to his design of the official Metallica and Aerosmith pinball machines — and beyond — the Canada-born, San-Francisco- based Dirty Donny Gillies spearheads the present pack of neo-retro blacklight maestros.
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In addition to The Happening exhibition, Donny will be on hand at Chicago’s Logan Arcade on Sunday, July 9 — hanging out, signing prints, happily accepting congratulatory purchases from the bar, and soaking up the sights and sounds of silver balls and UV rays that fuel his creative cannon. We asked the artist a few questions.
MERRY JANE: What elements of culture and society have brought on this revival of blacklight posters, airbrushed van art, pinball machine graphics, and other retro-psychedelic ephemera?
Dirty Donny Gillies: A few years back, I did a solo show in LA. It was a retro sci-fi/fantasy-based show with van mural paintings and a set of blacklight paintings. After the success of the show that I started the "Blacklight Rebellion" poster series. No one was really doing that, so I saw an opportunity to make something cool happen. I've taken the vibe and style of that era and applied my own art to it. The series has been very successful. I think I'm at around 25 prints now? It's cool to see others catching on and I'm stoked people are digging this.
What’s your own personal history with black light posters?
When I was seven, I traded my bike for a blacklight poster and a chocolate bar. My dad made me bring it back! I own a bunch of vintage blacklight posters now, and I have been collecting on and off since I was a kid.
Above image by Dirty Donny Gillies
What artists initially inspired you?
I have a long list of artists that have inspired me. There’s a great book you should all check out: Ultraviolet: 69 Classic Blacklight Posters from the Aquarian Age and Beyond.
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Blacklight posters have been historically tied in with weed culture. Is that part of your life?
I don't actually smoke pot! I don't care if people do. It just affects me in a different way, makes me lazy and hungry so I don't do it! [Laughs]
What would be your dream blacklight poster to create?
Check out my "Blacklight Rebellion" series. That’s what I've been doing for the past few years!
Smokin’ out of Chicago, Corinne Halbert’s neon-hued body of work explodes with sex and sacrilege, heat and horror, eroticism and the occult. Aside from her work in blacklight-ready brain-blasters, Halbert publishes the zine Hate Baby, as well as various underground comics. She’s also a familiar presence to the Windy City’s devotees of incendiary literature as an employee of the invaluable Quimby’s Bookstore. We asked Halbert a couple questions about her craft.
MERRY JANE: What’s your take on the blacklight revival?
Corinne Halbert: I think it might be an attempt to resist the Internet and CGI aesthetics. For me personally, the key word is definitely nostalgia. I grew up in my grandparents’ house, which was still decked out with all the crazy ‘60s psychedelic flower patterns and drab yellows, oranges, and browns. Seeing artwork or other visual stimuli I associate with that era, I get a feeling of relaxed joy almost immediately.
Did any particular poster profoundly impact you growing up?
I had an airbrushed-looking poster of a majestic white Pegasus with a dark black background that I had won at the county fair when I was probably about six or so. I adored that poster, I stared at it in my bedroom all the time and drew that Pegasus probably hundreds of times.
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What inspired you to take up this medium?
Animation was probably the diving board for me in a big way. Ralph Bashki's films made a huge impression on me: Wizards, Heavy Traffic, and Fritz the Cat. Also, Pink Floyd: The Wall is one of my favorite movies of all time. Those animation sequences will forever be burned in my brain.
Above image by Corinne Halbert
How does marijuana — and, by extension, cannabis culture — figure into your work and your process?
To be completely honest, I love smoking pot. I love the way it makes me feel, the act of inhaling and exhaling smoke, the smell. I love the whole kit and caboodle. The only reason I've been taking breaks recently is to experiment with what's best for my artwork. I had developed a method in the last several years where I would lay down the pencil sketch sober and once I had a good pencil sketch down I'd go smoke a joint before inking the black outline.
Your work is very cinematic. Can you comment on that?
I'm a cult movie and horror film addict and can't get enough of that stuff into my eyeballs. My fianceé [illustrator Scott R. Miller] and I watch a ton of movies together. We've both made a large number of movie tribute artworks and he runs a zine called Printsploitation, which is an anthology of cult and horror tribute art.
Who are your favorite contemporary psychedelic artists?
Dirty Donny Gillies, Tallboy and Krusty from Nightwatch Studios, Mitch O'Connell, Yyyy's, and Coop. I tend to like the stuff that stemmed out of R. Crumb and Big Daddy Roth. I adore the Chicago Imagists and anything adopting roots in underground comics from the ‘60s and ‘70s really does it for me. Dirty Donny is by far the best at purely black light poster art for sure.
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Is there a particular blacklight poster topic you’re itching to tackle?
Most definitely the 2016 movie, The Love Witch. It’s an amazing psychedelic masterpiece by director Anna Biller. I will probably make a tribute piece myself to that movie at some point. That Anna is my kind of woman, hubba hubba!
Describing herself as born of the strange seeds of California, trip-tastic graphic illustrator Dawn Aquarius is also a supreme psychedelic musician and DJ who’s been associated with ear-expanding acts on the order of Herbcraft, Werewheels, and Zeta One. No matter what the medium, Dawn elevates all comers to consciousness-expanding new horizons. Here’s her take on the blacklight renaissance.
MERRY JANE: How do you account for the resurrection of blacklight poster art and other retro aspects of groovier times?
Dawn Aquarius: Much like the ’60s, our country is under the rule of a leader who doesn't represent most of us, there is the constant fear of the next World War, and I think people might actually be taking LSD again!
We're also so isolated from one another because there's this illusion of connectivity via the Internet. It stands to reason that folks would be drawn to the last gasp before CDs, muted monochrome clothing, and technological advancement ruined everything fun. Plop me in an era where it's cool to put a "Bongs Away" Roach iron-on advertisement in the middle of a comic book and I'll be happy forever.
Tell us about your personal blacklight poster past.
I've probably always been obsessed with black light posters. My parents were really into Pink Floyd and later Beatles when I was a kid, which were my gateway into more obscure stuff. I watched Yellow Submarine ad nauseam, and I think that primed me for a love of all things super-saturated.
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I bought my first blacklight poster in high school, your typical Led Zep reproduction, but I loved that thing. I toted it around with me through college until it fell apart from too many tack holes. I've sought and bought so many at this point. Boy, do I own vintage ones! My kitchen is actually filled with them. My boyfriend even bought two 4-foot tube blacklights and installed them on the ceiling!
I have a Raggedy Ann/Andy pornographic one, a Sid & Marty Krofft H.R. Pufnstuf original, goofy Love posters, one that says "DOPE" but as a play on that famous Robert Indiana LOVE illustration, psychedelic snakes, multiple biker-themed posters, and in my bathroom I have an original Joel Beck Daisy Duck Odalisque poster, where you get full duck frontal.
Above image by Dawn Aquarius
Who were the artists that turned you on to psychedelia?
I love all of those San Francisco ’60s psychedelic poster art guys. Anything Family Dog related — Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso. I'm also really into underground UK magazines like IT (International Times) and OZ Magazine. So many unreal artists worked for OZ. The mag was obscene, which obviously appealed to me, and there were always articles about drugs, sex, higher consciousness, left-field political stuff. Martin Sharp was a huge influence on me when I was in art school. Barney Bubbles, too.
Gilbert Shelton is kind-of my hero. He wrote all of those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, which every pothead is probably vaguely aware of. There's this pretty famous illustration on the back of one issue that got turned into a black light poster — "Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope." So true.
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So weed is a positive factor in your life?
Marijuana is so intertwined with my life at this point that it's almost hard to answer that question. Oddly enough, I'm rarely stoned when I actually make art. I find I'm too easily distracted if I'm working on a commission with a deadline, but I do occasionally smoke if I'm drawing for fun. I integrate a lot of weed-related euphemisms and pot plants into my art.
I also think at this point, even though we're still in the cannabis prohibition dark ages, the taboo against marijuana has been dulled by TV shows, movies, and the fact that it's used medically by folks who'd otherwise steer clear. It's still demonized, for sure, thanks to the still-strong War On Drugs. I think I signed a D.A.R.E. promise note that I'd abstain when I was in elementary school, which obviously worked!
What contemporary artists blow your mind?
There is a designer that goes by "Circa 78 Designs" and their designs truly look circa 1978. The colors, swirls, imagery... everything is pretty perfect. Marijke Koger from The Fool is still painting too! I will forever love her art. There's also a guy I follow on Instagram who goes by Roy G. Biv who's got a right-on aesthetic. Also, Rising Vision is a t-shirt company in LA run by the sweetest heads you'll ever know, and they use a lot of groovy modern designers for their tees. I like Robin Gnista's work, as well. He’s a psych poster artist from Sweden who does a lot of gig posters and designs for bands. I think I need to go look at more contemporary psychedelic art right now.
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Above image by Dawn Aquarius
How is your work informed by music?
Music has probably the strongest influence on my art. A lot of the illustrations I make with text on them are quoted directly from obscure psych songs. I'm always listening to music when I draw. I also DJ — 45s exclusively, all 60s psych, hard rock, a little glam. My boyfriend and I are both musicians, so our house is filled with ‘60s combo organs, sitars, guitars, various folk instruments.
I also make a lot of art for bands and record labels. I recently made a European Tour promotional animation for a Swedish psych band called Blues Pills, and I just finished some LP art for a couple of ’60s-influenced bands, as well. In my personal animations, I always use music that I'm currently listening to heavily.
If you could create one blacklight poster masterwork, what would it be?
I have a weird obsession with wholesome cartoon characters in pornographic scenes. Like that Disneyland Memorial Orgy black light poster by the king, Wally Wood. I've been toying with the idea of doing a Casper the Friendly Ghost one, or Porky and Petunia Pig.
I think there's a Popeye and Olive Oyl one already, but maybe that was just in a Tijuana Bible. They're also a huge inspiration for me. Pervy, inappropriate mini comics made by total amateurs from, like, the 1920s to the ’60s about comic and cartoon characters like Superman, Archie, Betty Boop. Sort of blew my mind when I discovered those!
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