Hippie Visual: The Art of Spiritual Journey towards the Establishment

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Typical hippie bus, colourful and psychedelic. Photo by Shibby777, flickr.com, CC BY 4.0

by Yume Katsumi

“Drop acid not bomb.”

“Make love not war.”

(Hippie Sayings)

Many young American people in 1960s had their convictions and they established a new community: the hippie community. They wore draping, ethnic clothes and T-Shirts with bright psychedelic swirls; they had a unique and a rather extraordinary life philosophy for their time, as they believed in the possibility of absolute peace and harmony, both with nature and each other. The art they gave birth to, just like their ideas, varied in origin and form, yet it presented the distinctive hippie “vibe” that has kept influencing our visual culture even to the present. To better understand their visual culture, the following article shall explore the background of the hippie culture. Get ready to trip!


Hippie History

The hippie movement is a counterculture that was born in mid 1960s in the United States. Originating as a youth movement, inspired by similar historical subcultures, such as the 19th century Bohemians, they believed in spiritual freedom, peace, love and rock ’n’ roll, and they aspired to establish their own community. They adored marijuana and psychedelic drugs – substances which influenced their art, music, and spirit. The hippie culture originated in the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco, California, where many people of liberal disposition had long resided. Later, smaller enclaves developed in other places, such as New York, Boston, or Seattle. The end of the movement came in the late 1960s, beginning in San Francisco as the hippie sympathizers started to experience increasing trouble with the police, and sensed that the establishment of the community, which they believed in, had failed in the end


The Visual Culture of the Hippies

One of the many posters made by Wes Wilson for the concert promoter Bill Graham, featuring the distinct “hippie” font. “BG-18” by Wess Wilson, CC BY 3.0

The visual culture the hippie movement created was a mixture of many different components which were derived from their various believes. From body painting to their VW minivans, from the rock festival posters to the dresses they wore – it is not difficult to see the influence of their diverse and distinct philosophy. Moreover, it was not only professional artists who lead their visual culture – hippies themselves were the main contributors who created the hippie visual culture that we imagine even nowadays.

The art hippies created came in different forms, yet it shared similar elements. Considering the form of art, hippies painted on the ground, but also on interesting different places. The common features the hippie art used were peace signs marking their anti-war campaigns, words such as “Love” or “Peace”, geometric patterns, and also various curls and swirls, which often appear crazy and mysterious as they symbolize the inner spirit and its exploration through LSD. The most distinctive symbols of the hippie peacefulness, however, were flowers and various floral patterns, the symbolism originating from the “flower power”, which refers to flower’s peacefulness and pervasiveness admired by the hippie movement – thus the nicknames such as “flower children” or “flower people”.


The VW Buses and Bodypainting

The painted VW minivan is one of the iconic symbols of the hippies; it became their car of choice as it could carry many people, it provided enough comfort, and it was easily fixable, thus it enabled hippies not only to fix their cars by themselves, but also to play with parts from other cars and change the minivans’ features and appearance without any help from professional car mechanics. Since the minivans became an inherent part of the hippie lives and lifestyle, they took up an important aesthetic role as well. They provided a canvas big enough for the (often LSD-induced) artistic experiments and they also served as flagships of both hippie philosophy and aesthetics.

As for the hippie painting canvases, not only did they use inanimate objects, such as walls and buses, but they also introduced human bodies into their artistic endeavors. Hippies seemed to have painted on each other’s bodies in big groups and they had fun while doing it; they painted not only on their faces and arms, but they decorated their whole bodies as well. The fact that they happily drew on each other’s body serves as yet another marker for their love for other people and their belief in the establishment of community. 


“The Great Five”

Even though hippie visual culture is based mainly on communal art, many works by professional artists show hippie elements as well. Most of the works are shown in the form of concert posters and jackets of music albums. There are five artists that cannot be missed in terms of psychedelic art in 60’s: Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly, and Rick Griffin. Wes Wilson created posters for Bill Graham of the Fillmore in San Francisco, and also invented the moving, melting-like psychedelic font that people recognize even nowadays. Victor Moscoso created a poster for the Family Dog dance-concerts at the Avalon Ballroom and Neon Rose posters for the Matrix, both of which attracted the attention of the whole world during the “Summer of Love” hippie gathering in 1967. Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelly created the skeleton and roses logo for the rock band Grateful Dead, and also the well-known design for ZigZag cigarette rolling papers. Last but not least, Rick Griffin created the posters for The Family Dog, Bill Graham, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, and the Grateful Dead concerts. He also created the logo for Rolling Stone magazine.

This comparison illustrates the formal influence of Art Nouveau and Vienna Secession on the hippie artwork: “Slavia” by Alphons Mucha on the left and Wes Wilson’s 1967 poster on the right. “Slavia” by Alphons Mucha, CC BY 3.0; “BG-58” by Wes Wilson, CC BY 3.0

What makes all this artwork interesting is the influence from other types of art – namely Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, Surrealism, op art, and pop art. What Art Nouveau shares with psychedelic art is the distinct curvilinear patterns and the way women are drawn. Focusing on works by Wes Wilson, they share a lot in the way how they capture the face expression of women and how curvy lines are used in the posters. Vienna Secession is another huge influence to the psychedelic artists of 1960s. Again, Wes Wilson’s works show the clear influence in the way how he composed the posters. What they have in common is how one flat surface is divided into several parts and allocated with different elements. Also, letters that appear in his works are very similar to the ones used during Vienna Secession movement. Furthermore, geometric patterns frequently used by Gustav Klimt suggest the influence they had on the psychedelic artists. Surrealism is another style that influenced Psychedelic art in the way how it shows strong incongruous imagery or effects. Op art is the art “which exploits principles of optics to make paintings that seem to vibrate and move. This element definitely corresponds with the colorful swirls often drawn by hippies. Pop art also influenced the psychedelic art in terms of techniques for mass reproduction to “reconfigure the images of commodity culture.  

The visual culture hippies created was indeed a mixture of various cultural and artistic forms. Influenced by the strong political, yet hedonistic belief and other influences from previous art scene, they created a distinct culture that influences the visual culture even nowadays. It shall be interesting to see how the psychedelic art scene will keep influencing our visual culture in future.