Pictures at an Exhibition

Blotter art with a ruby slippers theme. Image Source: William Rafti – The William Rafti Institute – CC BY 2.5

The discovery of LSD-25 was one of the twentieth century’s greatest discoveries.  Some writers have said that event is on par with the discovery of nuclear fission and the development of the atom bomb in its historical importance. I don’t know if I can state that unequivocally, but I can will vehemently argue that LSD is the greater discovery in terms of the future of the human race.  For starters, it is not designed to kill or destroy.  In terms of human culture and progress, I would also argue that LSD has influenced the artists and musicians who have used it in meaningful ways.  Furthermore, it enhances the experience of the audiences of these cultural forms.

For those who don’t know, LSD is a crystal in its original form.  In the early days of its appearance as a street drug it was most often sold or given away in tablet form. Some dealers added the crystal to water or ethyl alcohol (Everclear being a favorite), mixed it up and then dropped the liquid onto sugar cubes and candies.  Some distributors in Britain used blotter paper as a medium.  Erik Davis, the author of a new book titled Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium, tells the story of the first known use of paper as a LSD medium in the United States.  A fellow who went by the name Erik Ghost went public with his distribution of sheets of acid in the late 1960s in New York.  Davis describes the sheets as having  one hundred 250 microgram doses on each sheet and packaged in mylar.  This dosage was more or less standard in the early years of LSD street use.  According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), which actually keeps fairly detailed records on LSD manufacture and distribution (even publishing a regular report it calls Microgram), today’s LSD dosages are considerably smaller–perhaps twenty-five to fifty micrograms.  The latter dosage is greater than what is generally considered to be a microdose in today’s world of psychedelic therapy but obviously considerably less than the Sixties standard of 250 micrograms.

The first LSD blotter I ever saw was in 1971.  It had a line drawing of the R. Crumb character Mr. Natural imprinted on every four-hit square. Up to that time, all I had seen were various types of tablets and gelatins.  The first LSD I ingested was an orange wafer that I was told was Orange Sunshine.  That was in Germany in 1972.  The first blotter I ever ate was in 1977 and had the aforementioned Mr. Natural imprinted on the paper. In the next few years, I would help move paper with many different illustrations on it to those seeking the pictures the LSD in that paper would create in their minds.  Some of the designs were almost like brands and represented a consistent product to the consumer.  These designs were sold only to a limited clientele of distributors and chemists who wanted to maintain their reputations.  In many cases, however, a particular print might be used by various distributors, not all of whom were that interested in maintaining a certain level of quality.  Since the artwork was printed on paper that was not soaked in LSD-infused liquid and the paper was purchased that way, one could not be certain that the acid they purchased one time with a picture of a star (for example) on it would be of the same quality the next time.

It is those non-dosed sheets and the market that grew up around them in the late 1990s and 2000s that seems to have inspired Davis to put together this book.  Essentially a story of a few important artists and their blotter art craft, Blotter profiles these artists, their connections to the world of psychedelics and provides examples of some of their art.  Of course, Davis discusses much more than the art and the artists.  He touches on the story of LSD from its discovery by Albert Hoffman in 1943, its consideration by British and US intelligence agencies as a potential weapon, the excitement about its possibilities in psychiatric circles and its eventual celebration by the counterculture its use was crucial in developing.  The Grateful Dead and its traveling road show is portrayed as one of the greatest underground distribution networks ever.  Meanings behind the iconography of certain blotter art is discussed—Bob Dobbs and Mickey Mouse’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice are but two.  Particular releases of blotter are mentioned with a reverence an acidhead would understand.

Most blotter art, like the LSD that went on it, was created by a very few people.  One group that operated out of San Francisco’s Hayes Street and was informally known as the Hayes Street Gang, is portrayed rather glowingly by Davis. Their mention drew a nod of recognition from this reviewer; a supplier of mine would always set aside some of their artwork for me when a new piece came out.  For the most part, these LSD “families” were the stuff of underground legend.  One never really knew how much was real and how much was myth when their monikers came up in conversations of folks in the trade.  As Davis points out, despite the fact that much of the LSD blotter art sold at festivals and online is not soaked in LSD, the fact that its primary use is to transport LSD makes it illegal drug paraphernalia.  In other words, one could get busted for it.  This means it is still an outlaw art.  For a person who often finds the gross commodification of counterculture art and music nauseating and is even more repelled by the ridiculous prices that commodification brings, I was glad to read Davis’ statement that blotter art remains an outlaw art form.  Unlike other onetime outlaws who are now (as the Rolling Stones song says) respectable, blotter artists are unlikely to be invited to the White House or walk the red carpet any time soon; at least not because they are LSD blotter artists.

The book features several glossy photos of blotter art.  You know, just some pictures of some art.  However, to the reader who has imbibed a hit or two from a sheet imprinted with the photographed art, perusing these photos might be more like looking at photos of a past vacation– a trip if you will. Despite the fact the book is about the paper and the art works that appear on the paper, Davis ends his primary essay with an ode to LSD and its forever outlaw status.  He also notes today’s popular notions that natural psychedelics are somehow better than the 20th century technological breakthrough of LSD- 25.  He continues, arguing that perhaps because acid is not tied to any particular ethnobotanical history like psilocybin or Ayahuasca, it is of the world.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com