Photo: Bob Seidemann.
Even if you’ve never heard their names before, chances are you’re more than familiar with the work of the legendary poster artists known as ‘the Big Five’.
This informal collective, made up of Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Stanley ‘Mouse’ Miller and Alton Kelley helped lay down the warped visual language of 60s psych - their bright inks and barely-legible lettering perfectly complimenting the sounds of bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Mothers of Invention and the Grateful Dead.
Blending together a heady concoction of LSD-fuelled mind-excursions, Art Nouveau and found images harvested from the S.F. Public Library, their work ditched the typeset formality of advertising in favour of intricate hand-lettering intended to stop people in their tracks.
Working with promoters like Bill Graham (the owner of San Francisco’s legendary Fillmore Auditorium) and Chet Helms (a pivotal figure who organised countless events in Golden Gate Park), the Big Five elevated the poster into a functional artform.
Beyond just informing potential punters of a show, ‘be-in’ or ‘happening’, their work also looked good in its own right - and posters were often nabbed from telegraph poles to decorate the damp walls of rented rooms. Off the back of this demand, print runs were increased, with extra posters sold in Haight-Ashbury head shops.
The printers played a huge part too. Coming up with the designs was one thing, but producing the actual posters required a strong grasp of the lithographic process, so commercial printers like Tea Lautrec were called upon to help translate the artists’ ideas into real, physical objects that could be easily spread across the city.
Whilst it’s probably important to mention that there were similar artistic movements in cities like London and Detroit, the sheer number of concerts in SF—and therefore the huge need for posters, fliers and other such ephemera—meant that the Big Five, and other San Fran poster artists like Bonnie MacLean and Robert Fried, had an almost-industrial output, unrivalled for both quantity and quality.
With freedom in the air, the free-form posters of these young artists mirrored the optimism of the era, and even now, nearly 60 years after the ink dried on their most iconic images, you don’t need to look far to see their influence.
By Alton Kelley and Stanley "Mouse" Miller.
Victor Moscoso 1966 .