When LSD was outlawed in the 1960s, the aficionados went underground, producing acid blotters in labs and marking their products with unique printed designs, branding if you will, that made them easily recognisable on the street. Mark McCloud has spent the better part of 40 years collecting as many examples of this art form as he can. He displays his collection in his home gallery, ‘The Institute of Illegal Images’, in San Francisco. His collection numbers around 30 million hits of acid, and his passion has seen him called in front of a judge on more than one occasion. We talk with the cryptic connoisseur about acid culture, blotter art and the psychedelic legacy.
What brought you to the psychedelic scene initially?
Just good luck. I left Argentina at age 12, fleeing the first War on Terror, which was in 1963. They put me in a boarding school in LA in 1966 and two weeks after I got there, the local hero, Frank Zappa, put out his first album, Freak Out. I always said I went from West Side Story to Wild in the Streets in one night.
And what year was that when you were first exposed to LSD?
It was 1967 when I took my first trip. Before my 14th birthday I tried mescaline, and then about two months later I was able to get my first hit of acid. Then it took me about 70 trips before I experienced Rapture in December 1971, when I took the Orange Sunshine and had a death/rebirth experience.
Where you die and see where you’re from, and why you came, and what you want to do.
When did blotter printing first emerge?
The first commercial piece of blotter on record was 1968, but if you read The History of English Acid, you’ll see that there were guys talking about it in the late ‘50s already. The first private citizen to get a gram from Sandoz [Laboratories] was the great English psychologist, Doctor John Beresford. He told me that when they thought of putting it on the sugar cubes, they also thought of putting it on blotter paper.
But commercially, the first pieces were a thing called a Five-By-Twenty that appeared in 1968 – that was just five-by-twenty drops on a card, the whole thing wasn’t immersed. The LSD would appear as a blue dot because of the reaction with the paper, and they became known as ‘Blue Dots’.
When did the imagery start appearing?
In the early ‘70s someone started thinking that instead of just putting the drops on the paper, [they thought of] immersing the whole sheet, and that’s when the imagery started appearing. Of course it’s very hard to decide which one came first, absolutely first, because you can’t rely on just the testimony of the FBI.
So in that era of imagery, what were some of the most memorable designs?
There was Mr Natural – an early Robert Crumb comic book figure, then Zippy the Pinhead. The portrait of Albert [Hoffman] I love, that came out in 1985. The tetragrammaton is a strong magical implement, the Masonic stuff from the late ‘80s, the beautiful Tan Tan that came out of Europe in the early ‘90s, tonnes of great Alex Grey paintings.
When did you start collecting?
When I had my death/rebirth experience. I wanted to recreate the substance in some way. It was very easy for me to see the first blotters as early coinage, like early American coinage was done in the same way, stamped out in basements and if you were caught, it meant your life. What’s interesting is that the content of the blotter is something that you consume and you get richer, not poorer.
You’ve had some run-ins with the law, right?
Oh yeah a couple of times. They tried to do me in ’92 out in Houston and then this last time, they tried for two consecutive life-sentences, and for what?
So when you were arrested the second time you were facing life in prison?
Oh yeah, they [the DEA] have an agreement with me. They arrest me and then I kick their ass in court. [Laughs.]
It was trial by jury, right?
Yeah, never pick a jury unless you’re on acid. Remember that. I’ve only been there twice, but I always make sure they pass the acid test and they usually let me free. I mean they have two times, we’ll see the next time.
How did that feel, to be found not guilty?
Jail is a unique place, and you don’t really want to punch that ticket unless you’ve got your sphincter sewn on really tight. [Laughs.]
How big is your collection now?
I just found a couple of things this last weekend that I’ve been looking for forever. I had some examples of the Pink Flamingos, but I finally got full sheets in their five by twenty-four [format]. It keeps growing. I’m not a big numbers guy, but the last time the DEA counted them, they said I had 33 thousand sheets and of course, each sheet has a thousand hits, so take it from there.
You produced your own blotter artwork didn’t you?
I collected it for a long time, about 15 years and then there was a huge bust and the main blotter guy was going up the river for 10 years. I thought it would be a really good opportunity to learn about it so I stepped forward and I said “I want to be your blotter guy”. So they made me do the usual, you know – swim the ocean, climb the mountain, free the maiden, kill the dragon, all that – and that’s what I ended up doing for about 15 years.
What was your imagery like, what kind of stuff were you producing?
Well I tried to put stuff like Felix [the Cat] on there. I like Felix because he was the bringer of light, whenever he got in a fix he could open his bag of tricks. And then I did an Orange Sunshine in honour of the great Nick Sand, who gave me light. I did Beavis and Butthead around the early ‘90s. Then I took a bunch of acid one night and did that Alice in Wonderland sheet with her climbing through the sheet of paper. That was because the DEA had an operation called ‘Operation Looking Glass’. So when I beat them in court in ’92 I did Moving Through the Looking Glass, with Alice crawling through the paper.
The Interpol guys tried to entrap me with the Bad Jesus, they sent me an agent back in the ‘90s. This big Welsh brute posing as an acid dealer brought me two prints, what he called ‘The Anointment of Christ’ that was done by Scotland Yard on a four hundred block, something that you don’t use anymore ’cause the gram has moved from four thousand hits to ten thousand. These guys, being out of it, bring me the paper and say, “We got a lot of paper! If you bring us this crystal we’ll make a lot of money!” Well I tell them “Hey, if you’ve got a lot of paper I’ll give you five bucks a sheet and you’ll make a lot of money.” [Laughs.] Anyway, they didn’t get it. That operation was called something like ‘Operation Trojan Horse’ I think. It was so stupid, they might as well have signs on their forehead saying “NARC.” Who the hell would have all this paper and no acid?
Are you still in contact with any of the original artists?
Oh yeah, I see one of the original artists all the time. He spent 10 years in San Quentin for his art. Blotter has changed a lot in the last 10 years. It used to be something that came out in a much larger scale, but now with home printers it’s much easier to just print it yourself. You know, maybe you’ve got like five grams so then you can just print that off your own little computer and distribute it on your own little imagery. There isn’t a shortage of blotter paper now like there used to be, you can just go on eBay and get some.
How do you present the material in a way that doesn’t alienate people?
Outside of girls’ bathrooms works (laughs). No, usually by presenting it as art. There’s all kind of reactions. I’ve got a Masters of Fine Art and I’m used to showing art in a sort of blue-chip environment, like a gallery. But the blotter usually goes to poster-type galleries, my longest standing galleries are Psychedelic Solution in New York City and this art rock gallery out here [in San Francisco] where I’ve been showing for 30 years, and it’s definitely where all the psychedelic artists show. So it doesn’t have much credibility in a blue-chip fine art environment, especially the way I present it because I’m bringing the actual little dipped sheet in and hanging it up.
But then I have another outfit called Blotter Barn where I take forensic photos of the little hits and blow them up to thirty-five by thirty-five inch prints – so I’m sort of doing my own forensics. And those tend to have more credibility in a fine art gallery because they’re not so scared of getting infected by the actual substance, you know? And since they’re presented forensically, even the FBI likes them because then they can compare the street stuff to the ones in the collection.
Have you taken the Blotter Barn project to traditional institutions? How have they reacted?
I’m doing a book on the collection, but it’s more of a straight art book. It’s really like Americana, like Great American whittling, or belt buckles or whatever. I see it as this very eccentric and unique type of Americana. These little images, amulets if you wish, that you eat and they change your mind.
How do you verify the authenticity of the pieces in your collection?
Usually if they’re loaded they’re considered real, or if they’re busted. There’s a famous newsletter passed around by the drug enforcement agency – you’ve got to be really clever to get a hold of it – that publishes all the blotter busts. It’s called Microgram or something, but if you get a hold of that then you can see what’s around.
There’s a really good PDF online where my nemesis – the FBI blotter expert, a beautiful guy that testified at my last trial – did 300 hours of study on my collection and wrote this beautiful, beautiful book that I have since reissued. And if you look at FBI blotter online you’ll find a PDF file that he did in 1987 where you can get an accurate picture of all the blotter busted by the FBI up to 1987. So a lot of collectors refer to that to compare what they have.
So who has the better collection, you or the FBI?
I have a friend who wrote an article about that. His name is Jack Shafer, he has a big article about seeing my collection and then the FBI collection and asking them why I have a better collection. I told Jack, “Try a little honey instead of busting everyone.”
This article first appeared in ACCLAIM issue 24, the ‘Fantasy’ issue.
Photography by Ken Taylor, archival imagery courtesy of Mark McCloud.