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Why Were Blacklight Posters So Popular In The '70s?

Culture | August 28, 2019

Left: A blacklight poster featuring R. Crumb's 'Mr. Natural' character and his slogan 'Keep On Truckin',' circa 1972. Right: detail of 'Dr. Strange Meets Eternity,' 1971' printed by The Third Eye. Source: Heritage Auctions

Few wall adornments are so quintessentially '70s as the blacklight poster, depicting Marvel superheroes, noble warriors, R. Crumb cartoons or drug imagery. Throughout the late ‘60s and ‘70s it didn’t matter if you were partaking of Tijuana gold in a wood paneled basement, or lying in a dark bedroom and listening to the thrum of psychedelic tunes, the one constant was the hazy glow of a blacklight poster. With their surreal visuals and fluorescent glow, these posters seemed to offer a doorway into a new dimension. But how did these Day-Glo scenes become ubiquitous?

Day-Glo Paint Was Relatively New To The World

Left: The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. Right: A mushroom tha says 'Eat Me.' Sources: worthpoint.com; Heritage Auctions

As far as painting supplies go, Day-Glo and glow-in-the-dark paint were fairly new when they were adopted by manufacturers of blacklight posters. Fluorescent paint was in use by the military dating back to the 1930s when it was created by the Switzer brothers. In the 1950s the Day-Glo Color Corp. took the ink to the mass market.

The relative newness of the product made it perfect for artistic experiments. It was something that artists wanted to use to change the meaning of their work, while giving it a new look as it softly pulsed in the dark. It took a decade after its introduction to catch on, but when people came around to it they took to the paint in a big way. 

Blacklight Posters Make You Feel High Even When You’re Not

Left: A famous drug-themed R. Crumb cartoon in blacklight form. Right: Tiger woman (detail). Source: eBay; Tumblr

Whether someone’s tuning in and turning on or not, blacklight posters have a way of making you feel like you’re exiting your body and drifting from the astral plane. When coupled with LSD or other psychedelics, the posters facilitated the trip, and even when someone wasn’t stoned the posters let the viewer in on what it felt like to be completely twisted. Historian Daniel Donahue explained:

The blacklight poster was actually a medium capable of mimicking the effects of the new wonder drug. With the ability to glow and vibrate under ultraviolet light, the posters could simulate the sensations and visual distortions one experienced during an acid trip.

Science Makes The Posters So Trippy, Man

Left: Detail of a blacklight cobra. Right: 'Pantheress.'Source: pinterest

So what is it about blacklight posters that actually makes them so cool? Is it the preternatural energy that exists within us all that makes these bad boys effortlessly fun to watch under a blacklight for hours on end? No way, square, it’s all about electron displacement. According to Nick Padalino, the owner of a museum that’s all about fluorescent art, the posters trick the eye into seeing far out colors when they’re hit by a black light. He said:

Fluorescence works through electron displacement—all fluorescence, from synthetic blacklight posters to natural fluorescent minerals around the world.

Once the posters are hit with ultraviolet energy, the kind that we don’t normally see, they look like they’re actually putting off the light and sucking us into their own stoney haze. 

Blacklight Posters Provided An Immersive Experience For The Viewer

Left: 'The Resurrection of Hela by Odin,' one of the Marvel blacklight posters produced by The Third Eye, 1971. Right: A David Cassidy poster. Source: Heritage Auctions

For anyone looking to zone out for a few hours and leave their plane of existence, all they needed to do was throw on a Led Zeppelin album on the record player and stare into the depths of a fuzzy poster decked out with colors from all over the Day-Glo spectrum. Whether it was a giant fuscia eyeball looking out over a mushroom field, the head of Jimi Hendrix engulfed in smoke, or one of the many Robert E. Howard inspired posters that showed barbarians carrying massive swords as they stared over a neon wasteland, viewers could lose themselves in the hallucinatory visuals

Promoters Utilized Glow In The Dark Paint Before Blacklight Posters

Left: 'Acid Queen' poster by Tom Gatz, printed by Pro Arts, 1970. Right: The Beatles, 'All You Need Is Love,' circa 1969. Source: Heritage Auctions

Before blacklight posters were sold through the mass market world of headshots and mail order, the format was utilized by San Francisco based promoters who wanted to create trippy advertisements to make sure they brought in the right crowd. Promoters weren’t the only folks who were using the newly available Day-Glo paint to give their products a little extra pizazz.

Alt-weekly the San Francisco Oracle printed some of their issues with the glow in the dark paint, and underground comic artists who were inspired by a then-recent retrospective on art nouveau used the paint to get a new look with their art. Fans began seeing the art and their desire created a market that manufacturers were more than happy to fill. 

One Day Blacklight Posters Were Everywhere -- And Then They Were Gone

source: pinterest

It’s as if every record store and head shop received a delivery of blacklight posters on the same day. One day the brightly colored posters just showed up and everyone had to have one, even if they weren’t into psychedelics. Anyone who wanted to test the posters simply had to walk into the blacklight room that many of these fine establishments had to see just how their new poster would light up their lives, whether or not they were under the influence.

The posters continued to gain popularity through the summer of '69, and into the ‘70s. They filled homes from San Francisco to the suburbs, and as they were snatched up by younger and younger fans, their dangerous edge was softened and the psychedelic qualities of the posters were wiped clean in favor of simply being kitschy. As the ‘70s turned into the ‘80s, blacklight posters disappeared, seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history. 

Blacklight Poster Art Has Made A Comeback

Left: 'Trippin' Homer' blacklight poster art by Beery Method. Right: 'Into Your Cosmic' by Dirty Donny Gillies. Sources: hcgart.com; dirtydonny.com

A new generation of poster artists has discovered blacklight poster art -- and fans who can't possibly remember the '70s (because they weren't born yet) have embraced the the look. Everything old is new to someone. Street and poster artist Skinner, whose work draws on Silver Age comics and horror imagery, shared his thoughts in a post on his blog:

In keeping momentum with my love and admiration for the sub level of art direction and historical mixing of drugs and art, I am continuing to release these black light reactive prints in the tradition of fantasy and terror. A dark room with brightly lit soft glow psychedelic demonology! This can be your dark room! Celebrating the vintage energy of an old black light poster with a monster manual deity leering back at you! That is my game, that is whats gonna happen. Printed using black light responive inks, some of these look like Bakshi animation cels in the and some look like nuclear energy mutation gods. Silk screened relics in a tradition I am bound to honor.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Blacklight | Marvel Comics | Posters | R. Crumb | Remember This?...

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.