Blotter Art: The Institute of Illegal ImagesJuxtapoz // Sunday, 06 Sep 2009
Interview by Rak Razam
Mark McCloud is the Doctor Strange of the art world. Most days he can be found pottering about in his Sanctum Sanctorium, up on the top floor of his old Victorian house in the Mission district of San Francisco, a curio sanctuary deposit of times past. Hundreds of antiques and countercultural books, dozens and dozens of old Victorian apocatherary bottles of every shape and size, Robert Williams hot rod art, toolboxes, surgical instruments, a neon red finger sign, LSD blotter art and a million other things besides clutter the space, and in the office next to the bedroom is a huge SĂ¤tty 1960s graffiti artist print with an All-Seeing Eye of Agamotto peering out.
The downstairs lounge of McCloud’s San Francisco home is a private art gallery dedicated to what could be called America’s most “illuminating” art form, de-activated samples and sheets of acid from the sixties to the noughts collected everywhere from the local street corner to the other side of the world. Stumbling through his collection is like one giant flashback to every acid trip you’ve ever had, immortalized right there on his wall.
McCloud, you see, is the owner of the world’s largest legal collection of acid art immortalized on blotter sheets and carefully curated – and deactivated – by framing it and putting it on walls. He calls it the “Institute of Illegal images”. Mark sells copies of acid prints from his online business, blotterbarn.com, and he’s also made blotter art for many years, but that’s what he is – an artist, not a chemist. You could think of him as the Andy Warhol of blotter, making a post-modern art form out of the psychedelic experience. And he’s had to tell that to a judge and jury – twice, to get the message across that he makes art, not drugs. Over 33,000 sheets of blotter art in his home were once seized and examined by the FBI – who found that none of them were dipped.
Rak Razam: Mark, what is blotter art and what is the process of making it?
Mark Mcloud: Blotter art is the transferring of LSD to a paper carrier. Now the first carriers weren’t entirely dipped, they were just drops of LSD put on a piece of paper and the drops were then cut out and ingested. The first distribution of LSD on paper was in 1968 and they were a series of cards about the size of an index card that had five drops by 20 drops laid out on the card, all done by machine. The paper was chromatic paper used for litmusing in labs – LSD plus litmus paper creates a blue dot as a chemical reaction with the litmus paper. That little blue dot is what it got nicknamed on the street – blue dot acid. But really it was the color of LSD on the litmus paper. That was the first commercial enterprise on acid on paper. Before then it was either liquid, like what Sandoz put out.
When the commercial enterprise of the “Ghost” grew – he was the chemist who made the 5 by 20s – he realized he could be traced by the litmus paper and that he didn’t need it, so he switched to the normal wood chip paper.
Rak: And when did the chemists start putting artwork on the paper? And why blotter paper?
Mark: In the early 70s someone thought, what if we didn’t just put dots on a piece of paper – what would happen if we dipped the whole piece of paper? They calibrated what the absorption rate of an entire sheet of paper was and how much of a gram of acid could be absorbed by it. Now back in the 70s there was only 4,000 hits of acid to a gram because all the hits were 250 mikes – that was the standard (its now 10,000 hits to a gram).
At the time someone thought that blotter paper would be best because it had a big absorbancy rate, and it was used to absorb ink after signing a document. But acid could go on anything – some of the first commercial enterprises even put it on string!
Now people had been mailing acid on paper for over a decade, but I believe it was the great anthropologist Claudio Naranjo from the University of Berkeley who took some LSD to his shaman in Central America around 1965. The story goes so that he wasn’t just holding this blank piece of blotter paper Claudio did some little drawings on it. This is recounted in Peter Stafford’s Psychedelic Encyclopaedia, where he says that Claudio drew some stars and a crescent moon on the paper, and that was perhaps the first imagery on blotter paper.
Rak: And you were telling me that some of the first printed imagery was very American in flavor, comic-book inspired images of “Captain “L”, short for Captain LSD?
Mark: Absolutely. Captain Yin-Yang became known as the Silver Surfer on the street. And the first sheet of blotter was known as “Captain L” or “Captain LSD”. He looked like Captain America except he has an “L” on his shield. And this was before perforation – it was a cut up. That was the first [commercial] image on blotter, in the early 70s. Those got snarfed mostly by the community – they didn’t leave town because they were so beautiful and exotic.
Terence McKenna mentioned in one of his interviews that the first time he saw an image on acid it was of Mr Natural from Robert Crumb’s comic, around 1971. The artist’s art doesn’t link them to the LSD. The artist’s image is stolen by the blotter makers, they don’t involve him in a conspiracy. So Robert Crumb didn’t know, nor Mouse and Kelly when their album covers were used, nor did Walt Disney get cut in on the Mickey Fantasia trips…
Rak: Mark, how did you start collecting blotter art? And did you ever think you would end up with walls and walls full of blotter art here in your “museum of higher consciousness”? Does anyone else have a collection anywhere near this one?
Mark: What happened to me was that I had a death-rebirth experience on LSD on Dec 9, 1971. A very difficult thing that took me maybe ten years to integrate, and then once that was done I started collecting blotter as a way of paying back the debt… I kept tabs in the freezer for a long time because I was still snarfing them, but then when I first framed them I realized that truly was the way to avoid eating them! With regards to the museum… no, I never though the acid would last that long!
Now I know that the FBI started to collect acid, too, and they have a pretty good collection… But a reporter friend of mine called Jack Schaeffer wrote an article about 15 years ago where he compared my collection to the DEA’s collection, and wondered why mine was better! Try a little honey, not putting these kids in jail forever, I told him…
Really, I thought if we kept examples of the acid sheets then they could be part of a history that our children could see, so they could understand what happened to us when we all changed so radically in the 1960s, in what is going to be known as a renaissance… Now I studied the old Renaissance for many years in Paris and I believe LSD is a “renaissance pill” or substance that has affected consciousness – and the arts, in an incredible way.
Rak: It’s really the world’s first art form that once consumed, affects consciousness, isn’t it? And whatever image is on the paper affects – either consciously or subconsciously, the person taking that image into themselves, too. It’s an American alchemical artform…
Mark: Right. The [active] content is right in the image, and it’s amazing how many people don’t notice the image when they ingest it. Now the predecessor to all this is the host, y’know… In a Catholic mass the host is made very much like blotter paper… blank sheets of bread are put into what appears to be a waffle iron and on one side is stamped an image of what appears to be the Holy Ghost – a dove flying through an electromagnetic field, and on the backside the name of the parish of origin.
So I could have easily gone from parish to parish collecting hosts – but since they don’t work, anymore, I thought I’d collect the active host – the one that is bringing mysticism back to the people.
Rak: From your perspective as a curator of blotter art have you seen different shifts in the artform over time?
Mark: There’s been drastic shifts in ink and use of paper … In the 70s and 80s they were still using silver and gold as the base for all the blotter inks… When you grab a normal piece of art and put it in the pan, which has a solution of LSD and alcohol, it’ll separate the colors from the paper… Now blotter paper has specific requirements… You can’t use bleached paper because the bleach will neutralize the LSD… So in the old days gold and silver was used to give firmament to the color. But when I got involved in making blotter I made sure everyone changed to soy based inks, which don’t run in the pan and you can eat soy and not get hurt…
Before using the computer, which seems to lend itself to make blotter art automatically – you can make a mistake on your computer and end up with a design for blotter art just like that – but in the old days [it was more complicated]. To make something like that “Eye of Horus” print on the wall up there – you would have to start off with a giant matrix of an original. The guy who made it photographed the large art and started reducing it, making many, many stats to reduce it down to the little eye in the pyramid design, which he then had to cut out by hand, paste to a piece of paper and re-photograph to get his negative.
So in the old days people started off with these giant images that were then reduced down laboriously and pasted up by hand and re-photographed. Nowadays people just scan artwork and use Photoshop…
In the early days there were many sheets of blotter that were of the ‘mad scientist’ type of artwork because the chemists were the ones who decided what the image would be… And the chemist in his strangeness would say give me a “Mister Bill” [a character from Saturday Night Live]; or I want pink flamingoes, or whatever… Other times the artist making the blotter would be sensitive to the needs of the outfit that produced the LSD, or run in-jokes… as with the Mr Bill sheet, because the chemist who made the acid’s name was Bill… So they’re making fun of the boss…
Juxtapoz: There’s also cultural waves of art that make it to blotter at different times, aren’t there? Like the “Gorbies” [pictures of Mikhail Gorbachov] tabs.
Mark: Yeah, the Gorbies came out a few years before Gorbachov actually thought about bringing the Wall down. I got to meet Acid Eric, who created them, and about whom we can now speak openly because he’s dead. Now it was his intent to bring the [Berlin] Wall down with the Gorby [blotter], which is why I always say that was the Gorby that brought the Wall down!
Now good art always has the capability to change your mind, but good art plus LSD certainly has that capability.
Rak: Mark, is blotter art the great undiscovered American artform? No gallery needed, just consume?
Mark: Blotter art is the great American art in miniature, it really is. There’s no need to make any [art] that small, except with blotter paper. I used to make these great big sculptures and sell them at galleries where they would price them really high and every once in a while they would sell this expensive art piece. When I shifted to blotter I started selling all my artworks for way under a cent each, but I was selling a million of them at a time! And it makes you happy as an artist if you can get your art out there for under a cent.