The Institute for Illegal Images


On Drugs

Alien Embrace, ca. 1996. Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The Institute of Illegal Images (III) is housed in a dilapidated shotgun Victorian in San Francisco’s Mission District, which also happens to be the home of a gentleman named Mark McCloud. The shades are always drawn; the stairs are rotting; the door is peppered with stickers declaring various subcultural affiliations: “Acid Baby Jesus,” “Haight Street Art Center,” “I’m Still Voting for Zappa.” As in many buildings from that era, at least in this city, the first floor parlor has high ceilings, whose walls are packed salon-style with the core holdings of the institute: a few hundred mounted and framed examples of LSD blotter.

The III maintains the largest and most extensive collection of such paper products in the world, along with thousands of pieces of the materials—illustration boards, photostats, perforation boards—used to create them. Gazing at these crowded walls, the visitor is confronted with a riot of icons and designs, many drawn from art history, pop media, and the countercultural unconscious, here crammed together according to the horror vacui that drives so much psychedelic art. There are flying saucers, clowns, gryphons, superheroes, cartoon characters, Escher prints, landscapes, op art swirls, magic sigils, Japanese crests, and wallpaper patterns, often in multiple color variations.

Balancing this carnivalesque excess, at least to some degree, is a modernist sense of order. This announces itself principally through two core features of the blotter form: repetition and the grid. Many frames house full “sheets” of blotter: square or rectangular pieces of cardstock, printed and often perforated according to an abstract rectilinear grid demanded by the exigencies of blotter production. These grids are made up of individual hits or tabs, generally a quarter inch square or so and numbering anywhere from one hundred to four hundred to nine hundred units per sheet, depending on block size and design. While some sheets are illustrated with a single image that cloaks the entire grid, many assign the exact same figure to each hit, resulting in sheets that loosely resemble Andy Warhol’s canvases of Campbell’s soup cans. Other framed exhibits contain mere fragments from larger designs, sometimes nothing more than a single, hairy hit, perhaps the last extant example of a run from the eighties that has otherwise been literally swallowed up.

How to refer to all this paper? Users have called the stuff “blotter” or “tickets,” while police have used terms like “paper doses.” These days such pieces are often known as “blotter art,” a term that in many ways reflects the III’s own efforts to reframe this illicit ephemera into aesthetic objects (which is why I will stick to the more neutral “blotter”). There is another factor: over the last few decades, the blotter format has become a genre of popular art and a perfectly legal collectable. Though formally resembling their illegal forebears, editions of so called “vanity blotters,” undipped in LSD and frequently signed, are produced for collectors and casual fans rather than drug traffickers—who nonetheless can and do dose such wares when they need or want to. Though ignored by the larger art world, the vanity blotter market keeps on trucking, despite (or because of) the low cost of entry and a lack of critical valuation or collector apparatus.

I am interested in meditating on blotter not just as art, or as a historical artifact, but as a kind of media, even a “meta medium.” I add the meta here because, phenomenologically speaking, LSD is known to stage fantastic visual performances that, for all their novelties, recirculate images and motifs drawn from the history of art, the modes of fashion, the icons and architectures of religious myth and esoteric tradition, and the advertisements, comic books, design styles, and signage of commercial modernity. Here, for example, is part of an experience report included in R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston’s The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience (1966). S, a forty-year-old editor and former medical student, took two 125 microgram doses, staggered one hour apart. Later,

S is told to look at the flowered fabric on the couch on which he is sitting and to relate what he sees there. He perceives a great number of faces and scenes, each of them belonging to a different environment and to a variety of times: some to the American Gay Nineties, some to the nineteen twenties, some later. There are Toulouse Lautrec café figures, Berlin nightlife scenes and German art from the late twenties and mid-thirties. Here and there, a “Black Art” appears and he recognizes the world of Felicien Rops and drawings like those of the artist who has illustrated Michelet’s Satanism and Witchcraft. There are various Modigliani figures, a woman carrying a harpoon, and persons such as appear in the classical Spanish art of the seventeenth century. Most interesting to him are “paintings” like those of Hieronymus Bosch . . .

1:00 p.m.: S imagines a number of additional cartoon sequences including a rather lengthy one set in Harlem that has to do with “a Negro making a cartoon about how a Negro would make a cartoon about a Negro making a cartoon about Negroes.”

Here LSD is already a media machine, a “reality studio” or animation shop cranking out video mixes that sample from visionary art, bohemian styles, and astrological symbolism. While we can’t know what significance a Black artist in Harlem held for S, we should recognize the crucial and deeply psychedelic element of recursion that characterizes his final vision here, a self-reference across scale that not only recalls the fractals or paisley designs that mark acid perception but embeds the framing and production of imagery into the imagery itself—imagery that, for perhaps significant reasons, not infrequently resembles cartoons.

LSD’s particular and peculiar relationship to technical mediation is historically situated. First synthesized in 1938 but not tasted until 1943, acid is essentially a creature of the postwar era. As such, it enters the human world alongside an explosion in consumer advertising, the rapid development of electronic and digital media, new polymers, and a host of increasingly cybernetic approaches to the social challenges of control and communication. For many of its early enthusiasts, acid was like a cosmic transistor radio. As Lars Bang Larsen writes, “Hallucinogenic drugs were often understood as new media in the counterculture: only machinic and cybernetic concepts seemed sufficient to address vibrations, intensities, micro speeds, and other challenges to human perception that occur on the trip.” To paraphrase Timothy Leary, LSD seemed to “tune” the dials of perception, altering the ratios of the senses, “turning on” their associational pathways and gradients of intensity. These vibrating modulations in turn catalyzed transpersonal peaks that bloomed as insights, revelations, satoris, “groks.” The actor and author Peter Coyote, who was a member of the visionary Diggers collective in the Haight during the sixties, wrote that ingesting LSD “changed everything, dissolved the boundaries of self, and placed you at some unlocatable point in the midst of a new world, vast beyond imagining, stripped of language, where new skills of communication were required . . . [because] everything communicated in its own way.” Similarly, Marshall McLuhan, the pop media prophet of the era, told Playboy that LSD mimes the “all at onceness and all at oneness” of the new electronic media environment. All this set the stage for a kind of technical mysticism that recalls the media theorist Alexander Galloway’s notion of “iridescent” mediation: “communication as luminous immediacy.” Alan Watts, commenting on the question of how often to take LSD, also turned to media metaphors, arguing that when you get the message, you hang up the phone.

But what if the medium is the message? In other words, what if the self-referentiality of acid consciousness—which can nest chains of Harlem cartoonists like Russian dolls, or loop the act of seeing back into the seer—also absorbs the material medium that delivers the LSD to your nervous system in the first place? Of course, the primary medium of this consciousness is the LSD molecule itself. But unlike macroscopic drugs like cannabis, LSD is so small and so powerful that its consumption almost always requires an inert housing—the water, tablets, sugar cubes, bits of string, or pieces of paper that transport the drug from manufacturer to tripper. In the law, this vehicle is described as the “carrier medium,” an object impregnated with drugs, one that can be sold, seized, presented as evidence, and dissolved into the hearts, minds, and guts of consumers.

When you print images onto a paper carrier medium, you are adding another layer of mediation to an already loopy transmission. Hence, a meta medium, a liminal genre of print culture that dissolves the boundaries between a postage stamp, a ticket, a bubble gum card, and the communion host. This makes blotter a central if barely recognized artifact of psychedelic print culture, alongside rock posters and underground newspapers and comix, but with the extra ouroboric weirdness that it is designed to be ingested, to disappear. Blotter is the most ephemeral of all psychedelic ephemera. It is produced to be eaten, to blur the divide between object and subject, dissolving material signs and molecules into a phenomenological upsurge of sensory, poetic, and cognitive immediacy.


But there is something vital to establish first about the overall LSD trade, and we might as well hear it from one of that industry’s most important students, the Drug Enforcement Agency. In a report entitled LSD in the United States, which came out of the San Francisco Field Office in 1995 and is available on the internet, the authors make the following crucial observation:

In contrast to the trafficking of other drugs, in which profit is the sole motivating factor, LSD trafficking has assumed an ideological or crusading aspect. The influence of—and probable distribution by—certain psychedelic generation gurus has created a secretiveness and marketing mystique unique to LSD, particularly at the higher echelons of the traffic. Their belief in the beneficent properties of LSD has been, over the years, as strong a motivating factor in the production and distribution of the drug as the profits to be made from its sale.

Bear in mind, this isn’t written by some bangled Haight Street nostalgist but by the DEA, and in the nineties to boot, decades after the era of hippie idealism was put on ice. The message is clear: as a criminal enterprise, acid is its own kettle of fish, its fluids dosed with more than market forces. Similarly, while blotter takes shape in response to illegal commerce and the pragmatics of smuggling, it can never be reduced to the business of trafficking or “branding” because the acid trade was and is about more than money. Full stop.

The countercultural drive to the turn on the world is perhaps best captured by historian Christian Greer’s notion of “psychedelic militancy.” With this term, Greer reminds us that many psychedelicists were not lazy hippies but conscious combatants in the emerging culture war; as such, their desire to propagate LSD was as idealistic and even messianic as it was wild and hedonistic. As Greer’s own work shows, while psychedelia’s most militant days lay back in the sixties, the current of psychedelic militancy continued to animate the subcultural milieu at least into the eighties, which is basically the same era that blotter became the dominant carrier medium for LSD. Such idealism does not cancel out the profit motive, but nor does it entirely dissipate into it. After all, the intensity and commitment required for cultural militancy are also useful values in criminal enterprises. In fact, by continuing to function as a dangerous outlaw zone while other facets of the counterculture were “co-opted,” the LSD trade paradoxically helped keep such higher motives alive. Whether they were ignited by gnostic revelations, a partisan belief in cognitive liberty, or a mischief maker’s desire to keep the infinite game going, the individuals and networks who kept and keep LSD circulating throughout the world were and are not just selling things but also dreaming dreams. Blotter reflects this imaginal and communicational excess, its images and designs marked by the same magic the drug provokes in so many of its celebrants. You can call such enchanted trafficking a “crusade” if you want, but to judge from its icons, it is a curiously undogmatic one, at once lowbrow and sublime, beautiful and satiric, pragmatic and metaphysically aware.


A photographer, sculptor, and former art professor, as well as a deep and crusty bohemian with subcultural affiliations from freak to punk, McCloud began collecting acid blotter around 1980, and mounted the first gallery show of the stuff, at the San Francisco Art Institute, in 1987. The aim of that show, he says now, was to demonstrate “the beautiful lesson that comes with eating art that changes your mind.” McCloud’s fanaticism and informed curation later helped develop the market for signature and vanity blotter. But his collecting mania also gave him access to the secretive acid underground, where McCloud himself would eventually set up shop, designing, printing, and perforating new blotter sheets used for the illegal distribution of LSD.

By producing printed artifacts in the gray margins of a black market, McCloud opened himself up to two frightening arrests and one major jury trial, which resulted in an acquittal based in no small measure on the designation of his holdings as art. But his blotter making also gave him unparalleled access to other blotter makers, which enabled him to significantly expand his collection, and to understand it and those makers more thoroughly. Today the Institute for Illegal Images, which has no actual institutional support, and is in many ways indistinguishable from a hoard, stands as one of the most singular and extraordinary countercultural archives in existence—a ramshackle hall of paper mirrors that mediate and superimpose cosmos and commodity, consciousness and crime.

In the late seventies and early eighties, which were also the years when blotter rose to dominance as a distribution medium, McCloud made his cultural home in San Francisco’s hippie-mocking punk milieu. In other words, blotter became big at a time when psychedelia was no longer a visible part of popular culture. But here’s the secret: Acid never disappeared. Though no longer a countercultural icon, LSD became a subcultural fuel by the end of the seventies, melting into a variety of often highly regional scenes of weirdness and exuberant transgression, including disco, funk, and the freakier edges of punk and post punk. LSD deeply scrambled the DNA of groups like Devo, Black Flag, and the Butthole Surfers, whose first 45 cover was printed on Nick West’s machine in San Francisco. In other words, even as psychedelia faded, acid just went further underground, and many blotters from the golden age of the eighties carried the new weirdo iconography: demented clowns, J. R. “Bob” Dobbs, Zippy the Pinhead.

In 1983, McCloud won the second of his two NEA grants and purchased the building that currently houses the Institute of Illegal Images. When he moved in, he decided to more emphatically preserve his growing blotter collection by encasing the LSD papers in picture frames. “That changed everything,” he says. “Within the frames, they became more than the sum of their parts. They glowed together.” The frames also helped him keep his hand out of the cookie jar.

McCloud lived across the street from the artist David Ireland, who helped the sculptor land a spot on the artist board at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). In 1987, with the twenty-year anniversary of the Summer of Love coming up, McCloud suggested that SFAI mount a show drawn from his blotter collection. The board agreed. There were fifty pieces or so in the show, which was called “The Holy Transfers of the Rebel Replevin”—a replevin being a legal maneuver to restore illegitimately seized property. In later years, McCloud began to amass full sheets of undipped street blotter, but the Holy Transfer exhibits mostly consisted of single hits and four ways (large, perforated units meant to be torn or cut into four smaller hits): pyramids, stars, flying saucers, soccer balls, and the like. Any LSD in the material had been intentionally burned away through exposure to light and air, which deconstructs the magic molecules. Magnifying glasses were provided to appreciate the detail.

In an essay that appeared in the show’s fanciful catalog, the New York art critic Carlo McCormick, who covered the cultural fringes of downtown and beyond, underscores the kaleidoscopic quality of these objects. What acid blotter “is” depends on what lens you are bringing to the table, or the gallery. From a sociological perspective, McCormick saw McCloud’s show as an “illicit history” of subversive images—the sort of icons that magnetize subcultural identities, like hippie buttons or biker insignia. He also underscored the economic logic of printed blotter, a rare example of a commercial art form aimed entirely at a black market. Since the quality of acid is rarely known by the purchaser beforehand, McCormick suggested, the presence of tiny labyrinths or golden dolphins on the hits reflects the same “fine art of persuasion” that applies vibrant swirly waves to detergent boxes. Plenty of LSD was (and is) distributed on blank white cardstock, but the pictures brashly announce that this is no ordinary piece of paper, even if, as always, the advertising was sometimes false. At the same time, it is not quite accurate to think of blotter images as brands or trademarks—the relationship between these signs and the psychoactive signified is more playful and open-ended than in the case of, say, M&Ms or Advil. Along with announcing the presence of goods, the images also function as a kind of insider promise, a knowing wink or a Masonic grip. McCloud calls them “symbols of a secret society.”

McCormick also offers up the notion of blotter as a folk art. There are good reasons for this designation. As with other aspects of the youth movement, psychedelic commerce possessed an organic, collective, and DIY quality that reproduces and sometimes explicitly mimics aspects of more traditional folk cultures. That said, the anonymous craftspeople behind blotter art were, like most LSD users, white, college educated, and drawn from the middle or upper class. Like McCloud, they were often refugees or defectors from privilege, and their work reflects an elite or at least educated understanding of art traditions, media politics, and social critique. These were not the sort of structurally marginalized populations, of color or not, who are usually associated with outsider or folk art. But acid has a way of scrambling categories, a point McCormick makes in his conclusion: “Those unable to acknowledge the LSD prints as ‘art,’ but willing to credit them as ‘craft,’ or ‘folk art,’ would benefit greatly if they all re-examined such a cultural hierarchy after taking some LSD themselves.”

On that note, a selection of works from McCloud’s Institute of Illegal Images:

Bunny Birthday, ca. 1976. 2⅗ x 2⅗ in. One of the first full-color blotters, possibly removed directly from an illustrated book.

Gilfeather, Crazy World, 1977. San Francisco, California.

Horus, 1979. San Francisco, California.

Father of LSD, ca. 1984. San Francisco, California. This is one of the first pieces that McCloud decided to commit to a frame.

Japanese Crests (reissue), ca. mid-eighties. Single-hit with gold flake trim, ⅜ × ⅜ in.

Fritz, Surfing Swami, ca. mid-eighties. San Francisco, California. Image drawn from Ram Dass, Be Here Now (1971).

Rx, ca. 1991.

Mark McCloud, Through the Looking Glass, 1995. San Francisco, California.

Stevee Postman and Jon Hanna, LSD 60, 2003.

Tina Carpenter, Anonymous Bosch Flower Power, 2021.

Patrick Turk, Reincarnating no. 2, 2021.

1XRUN, Tales of the Tube, 2022. Licensed reproduction of Rick Griffin’s cover art from Tales of the Tube (1972).

Adapted from Blotter: The Untold Story of an Acid Medium, out from MIT Press in April.
Erik Davis is the author of six books, including High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies and Techgnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Information Age. He writes the Substack publication Burning Shore.