Now Reading
The First Wave of Blotter Acid Inspired Trippy Psychedelic Art

Support Lucid News
Essential Psychedelic Journalism


The First Wave of Blotter Acid Inspired Trippy Psychedelic Art

The following is excerpted from Blotter: the Untold Story of an Acid Medium (MIT Press), the first comprehensive cultural history of LSD blotter paper.

The village of East Hagbourne lies not far from Oxford, England, and it is here, according to the town website at least, that proprietors of a local paper mill first discovered blotting paper. Stories and dates vary, but it seems that sometime in the closing years of the eighteenth century, an improperly sized batch of paper — or possibly an accidental spill of sulfuric acid — resulted in a highly absorbent product. William Russell Slade, one of the clan who ran the mill, soon recognized the utility of such material in an era when ink — and its inevitable spills and seepings — was king. By the early nineteenth century, blotting paper was found on writing desks around the world.

Given its ubiquity, low cost, and significant absorption rate, blotting paper presents an obvious distribution medium for a highly dose-sensitive liquid drug. In Albion Dreaming, his wonderful history of the British LSD scene — which is every bit as significant and interesting as the more well-known US story — Andy Roberts reports that UK jazz musicians were consuming small blotting papers dosed with LSD as early as the late 1950s. By the mid-1960s, amidst the usual sugar cubes, the method had become well established. Evidence for this is provided by none other than the comedian Dudley Moore, who, performing as Whispering Jim Narg, “fresh from two years with the Ahuru Guru in the Himalayas,” contributed the following verse to “Psychedelic Baby,” a fruity pop song released on a Private Eye flexidisc in 1966:

Psychedelic baby, won’t you take a trip with me
Dip your lump of sugar in the LSD
If you want a kinky caper
Then suck the blotting paper, psychedelic baby, with me.

A year later, just back from London, Bay Area music promoter and scene maker Chet Helms confirmed to the Berkeley Barb that blotter paper was the favored method of LSD distribution in the UK.

One advantage to storing LSD on blotting paper is how easy and safe it becomes to transport, which is how the molecule made its way to the Amazon in 1966. As part of his research into healing and drugs, the Chilean psychiatrist and esotericist Claudio Naranjo, who had already cut his psychedelic teeth in California, traveled to the Putumayo region of Columbia to research plant medicines. According to Peter Stafford, Naranjo brought along some blotter paper impregnated with drops of LSD, which he passed on to a few members of the Cofán tribe. The Cofán enjoyed the colonialist medicino, and in turn provided Naranjo with local plant preparations, including the ingredients for ayahuasca. Besides initiating a beautiful encounter between novel Old World psychedelics and classic New World ones, Naranjo made another breakthrough: in order to indicate the strength and location of the invisible drops, Naranjo drew images of stars, moons, and suns on his blotter, producing the first illustrated acid blotter on record.

No doubt other LSD users had already been doodling on their paper for similar reasons, especially among the creatives in swinging London. But though blotting paper was widespread in the UK, it took the United States to subject the process to the sort of mechanical reproduction required to level up to a properly commercial scale. This is important: unlike capsules or tablets, which are tools of mainstream pharmacology, the invention of blotter as a standardized drug delivery device takes place entirely within the freak underground. The innovator here was Eric Ghost — a.k.a. Eric Brown — a New Yorker who, after a peripatetic life of military service, armed robbery, and prison, took LSD for the first time in the Lower East Side around 1965. He swallowed nearly 4,000 μg of Sandoz, smeared across a sugar cube, and the thermonuclear revelation occasioned by this enormous dose convinced him to co-found the Psychedelicatessen, a legendary if short-lived head shop that opened on 164 Avenue A in 1966. Like most acid manufacturers at the time, Ghost was messianic about the molecule and its potential to improve people and the world. “LSD is not about escape,” he explained in a 1995 interview. “It’s about reality!”

Ghost started cooking LSD, and around 1968, he began distributing it as a cleverly packaged paper product. At the time, liquid LSD was usually transferred to materials like blotting paper or sugar cubes using a pipette or eye-dropper to dispense a single drop at a time. Ghost and a colleague accelerated this process by designing and building the Mark I: a device that allowed 100 pins to be dipped simultaneously into a pan of LSD in solution, and then moved as a single unit and impressed simultaneously onto an absorbent piece of paper. (LSD was and is sometimes dissolved in purified water, though alcohol or other solvents are more frequently used.) The pins, and the dosed paper that resulted, followed a compact pattern, which took the form of five tight rows of twenty columns each, packed onto a rectangular sheet roughly the size of a business card. Ghost had invented the core formal feature of acid blotter: the grid.

Each one of the Ghost’s drops contained a hefty 1,000 μg of LSD, which were left to the distributor or client to manually slice into four smaller hits, each packing a still solid 250 μg punch. This arrangement — the “four-way” — would recur throughout the history of blotter, though it would appear much less frequently in the later, lower-dose years. Not coincidentally, the amount of LSD on a single one of these sheets amounted to an even gram, which makes for happy producers, who prefer the easy math, in part because their work almost invariably got them high as a kite. Though later blotter producers would rarely dose a single sheet with an entire gram of material, the gram would continue to maintain its role as the commanding unit for bulk packaging and distribution.

Ghost’s innovation of the grid form, and his mechanical hack for rapidly dosing the paper, brought blotter one step closer toward a properly “mass” medium. Ghost’s quest for streamlined efficiency ensured that he would remain one of the steadiest sources for street acid over the next decade, but it also reflects a scalar effect that is arguably inherent in the drug itself. Simply put, it is extremely hard to make a small amount of LSD. Even the most boutique chemical batches produce tens of thousands of hits, which need, or want, to go somewhere. This quantitative excess fundamentally marks the acid trade, which, leaving aside the drive to turn on the world, is focused on volume and rapid dissemination rather than per-unit markup. Even the most “prestige” forms of the molecule, like Clear Light windowpane, were distributed at scale.

Over the decades, blotter makers would continually experiment with Ghost’s grid, rendering the format explicit in dots and lines, altering the number and ratio of rows and columns, and messing with the size, number, and strength of the individual hits. While some of these variations were driven by technical or market considerations, others were forms of play and stylistic innovation. Even Ghost’s lattice of spots resonated aesthetically, calling to mind the early abstractions of Piet Mondrian, or the constructions of Aleksandr Rodchenko, or the delicate weaves of Agnes Martin. Though acid distributors turned to the grid for reasons of economy and exigency, blotter’s development into an aesthetic craft and ultimately a collectable art object demands that we see it as a kind of modernist outlier.

See Also

By 1970, “blotter acid” was an established street term; a year later Hunter S. Thompson included five sheets of the stuff in the psychoactive arsenal he and the good Dr. Gonzo brought to Las Vegas for their legendary debauch. Despite the name, however, actual blotting paper was rarely used. Blotter producers quickly realized that LSD is such a friendly molecule that it does not require highly absorbent paper; some early examples from the 1970s reportedly included thin-gauge cardboard. A much more important factor than absorbency was the purity of the paper, since the chlorine and other bleaching agents added to a good deal of paper stock tended to neutralize the magic chemistry.

In 1972, the drug column in the St. Louis Outlaw declared that “Captain Guts (blotter)” was “really good.” If this blotter is, as seems likely, the early Captain L sheet, then the drug review represents one of the first appearances of a new technique for printing LSD paper: screen printing.  Also called silk screening, the method involves attaching a stencil onto a screen and manually pressing ink through the screen’s negative space onto another surface. Screen printing was first used to decorate fabrics in Asia over a millennium ago, and the method was adopted in the eighteenth century by French textile artists, who began to stretch the stencil mesh over a wooden frame. In the early twentieth century, photo-imaged stencils radically increased the efficiency of the method, as did the addition of the humble squeegee. At the time, both fine artists and advertisers began to appreciate screen prints for their bright colors, variability, and ease of production, but the method really exploded in the 1960s. Pop artists were particularly drawn to it, with Andy Warhol praising the method as “simple — quick, and chancy.”

Blotter makers also had recourse to another planographic method alongside screen printing: offset lithography, a photomechanical form of reproduction that had been around since the 1950s. In this method, photostats are used to produce lithographic printing plates, one for each color that will be combined into the final image. These plates are then inked, with the ink transferred through a roller or “blanket” onto the paper. With its versatility and relatively low cost, offset printing became the backbone of psychedelic poster production along with the printing of underground newspapers, which meant that longhair-friendly print shops were part of the local media ecology in places like San Francisco, Ann Arbor, and the East Village. Offset presses were probably responsible for the first widely distributed early acid sheets, even as a good deal of early printed blotter continued to be screened.

Whether screened or offset, the LSD blotter designs that emerged in the early 1970s represents a significant “intermedia” encounter: the material entwining of a powerful hallucinogen and a still renegade print culture. Marshall McLuhan had good reason to believe that the 1960s youth culture was a product of the new electronic universe, but for all the light shows and electric guitars, the Gutenberg galaxy still radiated its influences throughout the counterculture. Print allowed the scene to communicate itself to itself through newspapers, comix, broadsides, buttons, chapbooks, posters, even bumper stickers and clothing. This myriad of surfaces allowed new and distinctly countercultural approaches to graphic design to flourish.

LSD blotter is a singular genre of underground design. Like earlier if more visible countercultural print formats—rock posters, album art, and comix—blotter played a crucial role in collectively mediating the perceptual and mythopoetic features of psychedelic experience, but also in constructing and refining patterns and images that would themselves be looped around, through the feedback of set and setting, into people’s trips downstream.

On Friday, May 3, join Erik Davis for an immersive journey into blotter art at “Blotter Bath,” a rock music sound bath and blotter art light show with guided meditation and ritual. 7pm at Judson Memorial Church, NYC. For more information, click here.

© 2020 Lucid News. All Rights Reserved.