rick griffin: drawing as performance art

by Art Chantry:

rick griffin was one of those guys who changed my world when i was a kid. the first time i saw a griffin poster, i realized there was a different existence out there. he became my hero.

now, i wasn’t naive. i lived in a tiny shack in the backwoods of tacoma. but, i still listened to the mothers and collected comic books. i knew who roth and mouse were. i even collected early crude local psychedelic posters. but, when i found my first griffin poster? it was all over from that point on.

AC:you may note that on the back of the surfin’ eyeball, there is a little ‘light reflection”. it contains the form of a cross. the banzai pipeline surfin’ von dutch eyeball (with the surfer bunions on his feet) still carries the xtian message.

rick griffin started out as a geekiy surfer kid down in southern cal. he somehow got a job at the early SURFER magazine as some sort of staff cartoonist kid (for the legendary john van hammersveld who was the art director deluxe.) there is a wonderful image from a very early issue of Surfer depicting various staff members (“meet he staff”) that has a pic of a skinny tow-headed rick griffin passed out on his drawing table – “face down in the spaghetti”, so to speak.

he scribbled out all sorts of lttle gag panels and spot illustrations. he had a wonderful southern california cartoony style that emerged from that era. the cassic “surfer dude” look. he created a great little cartoon character named “murphy’ (after the infamous “murph the surf”). ‘murphy’ quickly became the mascot of the surfer world, just like ‘rat fink’ became the mascot of the hotrod world. soon, murphy had a regular strip in Surfer and murphy even adorned the whole cover of the magazine. murphy (and rick griffin) was an underground star.

somewhere along the way, griffin had a nasty motorcycle accident that almost killed him. he suffered a coma and big head injuries. the rest of his life, his young beautiful surfer boy face had deep scars, was a little crooked and had a pretty fucked-up looking eyeball. the injuries put him into a near-death situation and he emerged a changed man. he had a mystical epiphany during his recovery and he became a serious spiritual wanderer afterwards.

he soon drifted north to san francisco (like most cool kids in california at the time) and became one of the early artists there designing posters for the concerts at the fillmore and avalon ballrooms (among others). at first, his drawing style was a dense cross-hatch advancement on his cartoon work. but, with liberal doses of mysticism and LSD, he quickly emerged with a new style that was intense, colorful, surreal and very very unique. NOBODY else remotely looked like his work. it’s frankly hard to descibe. it’s part von dutch, part big wave bliss, part peyote and decidedly surreal and twisted. it’s a line-art style that no one else could master like griffin could master it. it set him apart from the pack and to this day he’s still considered the best of that great lot of artists who did the classic san francisco psychedelic posters.

this record cover is a perfect example of his patented style. this is very very late in his career – long after he was a viable ‘go to’ guy for projects like this. he must have been friends with the band or something. it’s obscure (it didn’t sell for crap) and nobody – not even some of my high-end griffin collector heads – knew of this cover when i found it in a used record store in portland. it’s a good and simplified example of what his high-style looked like. it’s a pip.

in fact, within a few years, i visited one of my griffin-head collector buddies and he actually pulled out the original drawing (and pencil sketches i seem to recall) of this album cover. it’s from (i seem to remember) the early 80’s at the peak of new wave/punk era, when rick griffin was generally considered forgotten. it was stunning to see the work. it was so confident and bold. no sign of nervous sketching, no underdrawing. it was all solid ink strokes with no corrections at all. he obvious just sat down with a sharpie and slammed this thing out without the slightest hesitation or forethought. it’s wonderful exciting drawing to examine. it’s like looking at performance art.

later in his life, after a great deal of meditation (and massive amounts of drugs), griffin came back around to his surfer roots as the metaphor of his life. he also discovered christianity. his post-accident quest for spiritual peace was seemingly found. he spent the rest of his career doing religious them

aintings and selling them to disappointed griffin collectors. he struggled for a living.

i heard one story about a guy who was a big fan/collector who searched hm out in california. griffin was working in a garage as his studio and almost finished with a huge surfing painting with religious themes worked in. the collector immediately wanted to buy the painting. griffin wasn’t sure. he wasn’t finished. the collector offered a latrge sum of money. griffin hesitated and asked, “you got any drugs?”

taken aback and stumbling a little, the collector said, “yeah, i got some mushrooms.” he ran off to literally BUY some mushrooms form a dealer/friend. when he got back, he swapped a huge bag for the (now finished) painting straight across. as soon as he got the ‘shrooms, griffin began to gobble them down. i guess he ate the whole bag on the spot and lay on the floor of his garage for something like two days in a stupor.

i have no idea if that story is even remotely true. but, it does sorta point out what rick griffin and his legend was like. intense, extreme, a little mad, a visionary. he died in a strange ‘bookend’ sort of way. he was riding his motorcycle up a california highway and somehow got swiped by a vehicle. the resulting crash killed him. somehow, it seems a perfect sort of end for such a strange career to have two motorcycle wrecks acting as brackets for such a long and strange journey.

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