Drawing on influences as diverse as Native American culture and the California surf scene, Rick Griffin produced psychedelic poster art, album sleeves, and logos of such brilliance that they are among the primary images associated with Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and other legendary performers. His poster for the Human Be-In in 1967 in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, advertised as the “Gathering Of Tribes,” promoted the event that kicked off the Summer of Love. His logo for Rolling Stone magazine set its visual style.
Richard Alden Griffin was born on June 18, 1944 in Los Angeles and grew up in the Palos Verdes Peninsula between Los Angeles and Long Beach, along the California coast. His father, James, was an engineer (who had briefly worked as an animator for Disney) and an amateur archaeologist in his spare time. As a boy, Rick accompanied his father on digs, where he was first exposed to native artifacts and to the Old West visual culture that was to inform so much of his later work.
Griffin began surfing at age 14 and, inspired by images in Mad Magazine, developed his own style of surf doodles that he penned on the shirts of his high school friends. Soon he was designing posters for surf movie screenings and advertising spot illustrations for Hermosa Beach’s Greg Noll Surf Shop. After high school, Griffin became staff artist at Surfer Magazine, where the comic strip character, Murphy—the little gremlin he had created—became an iconic image integral to the California surf scene.
In 1964, while attending Chouinard Art Institute, Griffin met his future wife, Ida Pfefferle, and fell in with a bohemian art gang/jugband group that had recently arrived in Los Angeles from Minnesota, known as the Jook Savages. Griffin played the one-string zither, began to smoke weed, grow his hair, and dress differently. In mid 1965, he shelved the Murphy character indefinitely and began the “Griffin-Stoner Adventures,” in which a more accurate self-caricature—paired with a foil based on Surfer Magazine photographer Ron Stoner—wandered the globe supposedly sending coded dispatches to the magazine from the frontlines of a rapidly evolving surf culture.
While Griffin was in demand as the illustrator for surf-related commercial enterprises, he was also drawn to the emerging counterculture. He and his friends attended Ken Kesey’s Acid Test in riot-devastated Watts where they drank the Kool-Aid. Ida, who had moved to the Bay Area to give birth to Rick’s daughter, Flaven, started sending Griffin postcard versions of the new posters emerging from the growing Haight-Ashbury ballroom scene. Griffin had come across the year-old “Seed” (AOR-2.2) poster advertising The Charlatans at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. Its combination of Old West and circus poster motifs rendered with handmade variations on old typefaces caught Griffin’s attention and led him to the scene at the Red Dog Saloon.
Frustrated with Chouinard and Surfer Magazine’s censorship of his Griffin-Stoner strips, Griffin folded up shop and split to spend the summer of 1966 in Mexico surfing. Griffin later reunited with Ida and relocated to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where the Jook Savages had been offered a group show of their artwork at The Psychedelic Shop. Rick Griffin’s first San Francisco rock poster was for the Jook Savages Art Show at the “New Improved Psychedelic Shop,” and it led directly to an invitation to design a poster for Pow-Wow: A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-in, a jamboree integrating the clans of the Berkeley radical stronghold, the lingering North Beach Beat scene, and the blossoming hippie community.
More than 20,000 tribe members assembled on the polo field in Golden Gate Park to hear Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lenore Kandel, Timothy Leary, and Jerry Rubin, and dance to the music of the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sir Douglas Quintet, Big Brother & The Holding Company, and Jefferson Airplane. The poster so perfectly captured the vibe of the event that it instantly became iconic. Griffin’s work was also featured in the January Human Be-In edition of the S.F Oracle—released to coincide with the event—with a spectacular centerfold illustration for Allen Ginsburg’s “Renaissance or Die.”
Chet Helms and Bill Graham both recruited Griffin to work on their promotions. From March of 1967 through November of 1968, Rick Griffin produced more than two dozen posters for the Family Dog and Bill Graham, plus almost as many commissions and projects done for the Berkeley Bonaparte poster company (in which he was a partner) and for out-of-town clients. Griffin’s first official Family Dog poster hit the streets in March 1967.
Early in 1967, Griffin was commissioned to design the logo for a new magazine called Rolling Stone. By July 17, the Big Five (Wilson, Kelley, Mouse, Moscoso, and Griffin) were the subject of the solo “Joint Show” at the uptown Moore Gallery, which generated huge opening-night crowds and massive publicity, including a review in the San Francisco Chronicle. On September 1, Griffin (alongside the Big Five, except Mouse), was featured in a LIFE cover story called “The Great Poster Wave.”
As if that were not enough, Griffin was Robert Crumb’s choice to contribute to the second issue of Zap Comix. Griffin and Moscoso had already been toying with the idea of producing a comic book, and Griffin’s famous mutant Morning Paper funny pages poster (FD-89) is said to have inspired Crumb’s Ultra Super Modernistic Comics in Zap #1. Griffin contributed heavily to Zap #2.
Rick Griffin lost his life shortly after a motorcycle accident in Petaluma, California. He was thrown from his Harley-Davidson motorcycle when it collided with a van that suddenly turned left as he attempted to pass it. He was not wearing a helmet, and sustained major head injuries. He died on August 18, 1991 at nearby Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital at the age of 47.