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As LSD use faded, the curious tradition of blotter art remained

Erik Davis, author of “Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium”
MIT Press, Erik Davis
Erik Davis, author of “Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium”

Psychedelics have officially gone mainstream. But as our Instagram feeds fill up with ads for mail-order ketamine, and public officials endorse the potential for magic mushrooms to help treat PTSD symptoms, there’s one substance we don’t hear much about: LSD.

The molecule that came to symbolize late '60s counterculture has largely faded from public favor.

In his new book “Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium,” writer Erik Davis considers the curious rise and fall of LSD, and the equally curious artistic tradition that’s developed as the drug’s popularity fades.

David recently spoke with “The Show’s” Sam Dingman about blotter art, and the way that tiny images can help tell a much bigger story.

Full conversation

ERIK DAVIS: LSD blotter is paper that holds the acid because LSD is so tiny and so powerful that you can't take it straight. It needs what the, you know, the feds call a carrier medium. So you can put it in capsules, you can put it on sugar cubes or you can put it on paper.

And blotter paper usually comes in a square or rectangular piece of sort of light card stock, a little lighter than a business card, but not a loose piece of paper. And those pieces of paper are often covered with art, abstract patterns and cartoons and animal illustrations, UFOs, gods and goddesses. Pretty much the whole everything you can imagine.

SAM DINGMAN: One of the ones you talk about that's particularly famous in the book is a kind of adaptation of Mickey Mouse from “Fantasia,” right?

DAVIS: Yeah. In the case of the Mickey, which really was quite celebrated in the late ‘70s, when it first appeared, the, the artist drew a, you know, as a unique image of, of, of Mickey sort of playing with these magical dots. And sort of suggests some of the faustian dimension of the acid manufacturer itself. And, and of course, didn't make Disney very happy, I can imagine.

DINGMAN: Well, this to me is, is where the book gets really, really interesting because as you write the goal in using those markers, like, you know, Mickey Mouse or something, seems to be, if I'm not mistaken, sending a sort of winking message to the person who's going to ingest the acid that like this may remind you of the straight world, but this substance is going to give you a peek behind the veil and show you what's really going on, so to speak.

DAVIS: Exactly. And that wink is really important. I mean, one of the characteristics of acid culture is that it has, it's funny, you know, the consumer world of icons and, and sort of brands you know, takes on a life of its own.

DINGMAN: Which I think is particularly interesting in light of another section that I found fascinating where you talk about the fact that unlike other psychedelics, LSD has this kind of industrialist origin story.

DAVIS: Yeah, that's, that's a really important part of this, you know, one of the features of the psychedelic renaissance today is that many people are very interested in natural psychedelics. Ayahuasca, which is a jungle brew, psychedelic mushrooms, which have a history of Indigenous use. But LSD, the history of LSD, it emerges just at the very heart of modernity, you know, right there, smack dab in the middle of World War II and in, in the, in the strange neutral country of Switzerland in an industrial lab from a corporation that was founded on the transformation of coal tar into dyes. So it's like absolutely woven into modernity and it's sold to psychiatrists and then it gets picked up by the CIA and they try to do something with it. And in a way, one of the reasons that I like LSD history is that for those of us who are not Indigenous, they're kind of our ancestors, it's like our wisdom legacy.

DINGMAN: I want, I want to quote a section from the book that, that I think speaks to that, where you put it so eloquently. You say, “Whatever its alchemical resonance LSD sprouts from the brow of industrial chemistry, an industry founded on artificial dyes and petroleum products and it enlists shrinks and spies as some of its earliest shamans.”

That makes me think of the element of the book where you talk about the debate about whether blotter art can be considered folk art or outsider art.

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, the first person who talked about that was Carla McCormick and he was and is a New York City art critic and he talks about them as, as a folk art and, and I think in some ways it's, it's an appropriate way of thinking about it. These are marginal products. Again, they're largely anonymous, they're done for very pragmatic purposes. They're considered, you know, that they're not even considered illustration, let alone art by most people.

But in other ways, when we talk about folk art and when we talk about outsider art, we are usually also talking about where the artist is being produced vis a vis the various layers of society. So usually outsider artists are, you know, people who are at the margins of society. And that's not really the case with a lot of the blotter artists, at least initially, they're marginal because they choose to live in a kind of freak criminal underground.

But a lot of them were very well educated, they knew their history, they had learned how to do these things sometimes through, through college and university, you know, like the hippies in general, they're upper middle class, generally white. And that gives it a kind of different twist that I think in a way doesn't quite folk art and, and outsider art don't quite work.

DINGMAN: But some of that also it seems has to do with the fact that LSD has undergone this transition from this drug that had an aura of sacredness and kind of being the savior of culture to something weirder and more underground. And that, that transition kind of coincides with the rise of blotter art. So how did, how did that happen?

DAVIS: I think it is partly just a coincidence. People started to print blotter in the early ‘70s, but it was kind of a niche thing and then for a variety of reasons, it takes off in the late 1970s and really hits its goal, its stride in the 1980s and ‘90s when the really colorful, funny, charming, sometimes quite magical pieces come out. And that coincides with the sort of decline of visible utopian LSD culture.

DINGMAN: Yeah. Well, I guess it also strikes me that a lot of the things that the ‘60s generation was worried about have come to pass, right? That all the idealism that those earlier folks seem to hope LSD would bring about didn't happen.

DAVIS: Yeah. Yeah. It's true. I mean, there's definitely, you know, it's a very different world but in a way that asks an even subtler question, which is, do they make a difference? Part of what the psychedelic renaissance is about, is about kind of reframing and modernizing that idealism to a more manageable scale in the sense of like we may not be able to change the world. But let's see if we can just change individuals or perhaps communities, at least in their ability to, you know, show up to life with more energy, more humor, more ability to respond from the heart, less trauma, less neurosis.

And one of the core truths about psychedelics is the law of set and setting, that the experience you have will be partly dependent on your mindset and the setting, the environment. But that environment, that situation includes the shape and the look of the material and how you're taking it. Maybe it does make a difference if you eat a flying saucer or Bart Simpson's slingshot. But you know, that's, it's, it's ultimately a mystery.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text is edited for length and clarity, and may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.
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