In the mid-1960s, artists, activists, writers, and musicians converged on Haight-Ashbury with hopes of creating a new social paradigm. In the summer of 1967, this small portion of the city would attract as many as 100,000 young people from all over the nation. The neighborhood became ground zero for their activities, and nearby Golden Gate Park their playground. This exhibition celebrates the 50th anniversary of that legendary summer.
One of the most significant precursors to San Francisco’s 1960s counterculture was the artistic and literary movement known as the Beat Generation, which blossomed from the mid-1950s. The Beats critiqued the pervasive censorship and conformity of post–World War II America. While the Beats were largely apolitical, by the 1960s, contemporary events prompted many associated with the movement to speak up in defense of civil freedoms. This combination of Beat influences and a burgeoning political consciousness led to the emergence by the mid-1960s of the “hippie.”
Ultimately you can listen to only one thing, not your president, not your many misguided leaders, save a few... You must listen to your own heart and do what it dictates. Because your heart is the only thing which can tell you what is right and what is wrong.
In 1960 the House Un-American Activities Committee arrived in San Francisco to hold hearings. The committee denied entrance to local college students. Those who refused to leave were dispersed by the police department, who used fire hoses to force the assembled group down the grand staircase of City Hall.
In 1964 a group of San Francisco State students, in collaboration with the Congress of Racial Equality, staged protests that effectively forced the city’s auto dealerships to integrate their work forces.
Also in 1964 the Free Speech Movement was born in Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley, a protest unprecedented in scale in which advocates of free speech and academic freedom demanded that the university administration lift the ban on on-campus political activities.
The hippies are eclectic; they draw ideas from everywhere.
The psychedelic rock band the Charlatans were early pioneers of the musical style that became known as the San Francisco Sound, which was characterized less by a specific musical signature than by an eagerness to experiment with different styles and instruments. This poster, advertising a 1965 June residency in Virginia City, Nevada, is considered the first psychedelic rock poster. It is a mash-up of Victorian and Wild West typography—elements of late 19th-century visual culture associated with the band’s San Francisco origins—and graphic illustrations that prepared concertgoers for an unconventional performance.
The Charlatans cultivated a public persona that evoked both 19th-century Victorian dandies and Wild West gunslingers, as seen in this 1967 photograph. Founding band member George Hunter explained, “We were searching for an identity. We wanted to promote something that was uniquely American and identified us as from San Francisco as opposed to being an imitation of the British, which is what everyone else was doing.”
The Charlatans were inspired by San Francisco’s storied past and changing present, an approach soon copied by other local bohemians. In the 1960s, urban renewal projects disrupted San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood; Victorian homes were being torn down and the city was brimming with vintage clothes and collectibles. The counterculture, looking for something unique and inexpensive, began wearing “old-timey” clothing; before long, the style became a signature look of the hippies. This men’s ensemble was worn by George Hunter.
In the mid-1960s, the powerful psychedelic drug LSD was still legal. Author Ken Kesey, who had received his first doses of LSD through a government testing program, decided with his friends, who called themselves the Merry Pranksters, to conduct their own informal “acid tests” a series of participatory experiments designed to spread insider knowledge of the drug. The largest of these was a massive three-day event called the Trips Festival, in 1966.
This festival program, created with a limited color palette, is one of the first attempts to use visual optics to simulate the teeming energy participants might expect to experience at a psychedelic happening.
The Trips Festival was a multimedia extravaganza complete with light shows and rock bands. Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead performed; upwards of 10,000 people attended, many of them dancing and imbibing punch spiked with LSD. The Trips Festival launched a brand new type of multisensory dance concert experience and set the stage for the unique presentation of some of the greatest rock bands of the sixties. Experimental filmmaker Ben Van Meter attended the Trips Festival and documented it with his Bolex camera. He then rewound the film and exposed it each successive night. After having the triple-exposed film developed, he spliced the rolls together. He has called the resulting film “A documentary of the event from the POV of a goldfish in the Kool-Aid bowl.”
Outside is inside, how does it look?
Awakening in the Park
Golden Gate Park provided the countercultural movement with an expansive space to gather and commune. Youths mingled at Hippie Hill, and throughout the park rock bands and theater troupes provided free performances aimed at disrupting behavioral norms.
Gathering of the Tribes
Golden Gate Park
On January 14, 1967, the park served as the backdrop for an event designed to unify the political activists of Berkeley with the bohemians of the Haight-Ashbury. The event promoted as “A Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In” marked the collective consciousness of this youthful underground.
Roughly 40,000 people attended the “Be-In,” including families and children. Attendees arrived with drums, incense, chimes, feathers, and candles. Beat luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg participated in the event, which also featured performances by rock bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead. The primary apostle of Zen Buddhism in America, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, attended the gathering, where LSD advocate Timothy Leary delivered the already famous mantra “Tune in, turn on, and drop out.”
All in all the hippies are peaceful. They’re just a little annoying at times because they want complete freedom.
The poster for the event featured a Native American on horseback. Native American references served as a constant within the counterculture of the 1960s. The hippies admired the native traditions of communal living, anti-consumerism, and protection of the environment. It should be noted that this appropriation was not wholly welcomed by all native communities.
The Human Be-In served as an awakening of sorts for the participants. Looking around, attendees saw others dressed in bohemian fashions and realized that their views and attitudes were shared by thousands.
The eruption of the San Francisco music scene was due in large part to two major local figures: Bill Graham and Chet Helms. These two music promoters competed for acts and audiences for their legendary concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom. These events were more participatory than those held elsewhere, partly because there was no seating at either venue, only large vacant spaces waiting to be filled with music enthusiasts. Both Graham and Helms commissioned extraordinary posters to advertise these events, distributing thousands each week.
The Avalon Ballroom was the main venue used by Chet Helms and his music production company Family Dog Productions, who hired the Grateful Dead to play there 29 times from 1966 through 1969. This now-iconic poster of a skeleton with roses was appropriated from an illustration included in a 1913 translation of 12th-century Persian poems. The poster artists Stanly Mouse and Alton Kelly discovered the image in a book at a San Francisco library where they frequently hunted for inspiration.
The artists were struck by how much this image and its accompanying poem reminded them of the Grateful Dead. Artists and designers of the 1960s frequently sourced images from a variety of popular and cultural sources throughout history and the globe.
Forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways.
This poster, advertising a concert at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium, includes many signature characteristics of the 1960s rock poster, including densely packed, fluid patterning of shapes and fragmented images, and the juxtaposition of vivid complementary colors. Such elements may have been inspired by the light shows accompanying the concerts and create an intense visual effect similar to that experienced by the shows’ attendees.
San Francisco music and dance concerts provided the counterculture with venues and audiences to “turn on” to the mental stimulation of LSD, or to at least approximate the experience through one’s senses. Audiences were exposed to spontaneous, abstract expressionist liquid light “paintings,” as pioneered by artists such as Bill Ham. His light shows were created by filling clock crystals with transparent dyed liquids, which were layered, tilted, and twirled in response to the music filling the hall, and emitted throughout the venue by using multiple overhead projectors. The light shows not only amplified and resembled the visual experiences of an acid trip, but also served to make the events even more participatory by literally absorbing audience members into the show, with the images cast directly upon them.
Light shows could also expose audiences to disparate images from global cultural history, juxtaposed for unanticipated effects. In the hands of Ben Van Meter and Roger Hillyard, who worked together as the North American Ibis Alchemical Company, the light show consisted of slide projections, color wheels, film, and strobes in addition to their liquid light “paintings.” The superimposed flashing images challenged the audience to discover the significance of each apparition within the rapidly changing collage. For almost all of the counterculture artists, appropriation and imitation were not only fair game, they communicated the universality of the human experience.
At the rock concerts, not only was the music and its presentation revolutionary, so too was the dancing. San Francisco concertgoers found countless ways to express their individuality, and nowhere was this originality and creativity more on view than in their dress. Some costumes were designed to throb and glow under psychedelic light and others to flow, emphasizing movement and participation.
Like a butterfly bombarded by gamma rays, art nouveau is mutating, intermarrying with the eye-jarring color schemes of op and the gaudy commercialism of pop.
The fact that concert promoters settled on an advertising strategy based on posters and handbills rather than billboards, television spots, or newspaper magazines says something about their intended audience. Posters attracted the attention of pedestrians and neighborhood residents. Tacked on telephone poles and pasted in shop windows, posters were an ideal medium for the message, assuming of course, that they remained posted. These graphic artworks were eagerly sought by aficionados and often disappeared within hours of their posting.
Posters could also be found in local head, music, and poster shops or obtained straight from the source at the venue.
The poster artists broke every rule of conventional design, creating distorted forms and unreadable and meandering lettering. Wes Wilson, a self-trained artist, popularized a style of fluid lettering carved out of negative space.
Freaky, funny, and fashionable, these are the signs of our times.
One of the poster artists best known for making the most of visually competitive color combinations is Victor Moscoso, who studied at Yale University under Josef Albers, an artist and instructor known for his pioneering explorations of color theory. Moscoso perfected Wes Wilson’s technique of juxtaposing complementary colors to create a popping effect, making it difficult for the eye to focus. Many of his inventive rock posters exhibited wild vibrating effects, and some exploited the ability of certain colors to give the illusion of animation when viewed under flashing colored lights.
The Haight-Ashbury is not where it’s at—it’s in your head and hands. Take it anywhere.
Over the course of the 1960s the counterculture youth movement developed a robust community in the neighborhood surrounding Haight Street. This community of mostly well educated, artistic youth from middle-class backgrounds did not just protest against political and social issues, but on a more personal level they challenged the status quo of the mainstream society from which they hailed. Their ambitions were reflected in the economic and intellectual reshaping of the neighborhood. Throughout the 1960s, members of the counterculture movement opened bookstores, providing access to a wide range of texts including eastern spirituality, psychology, and contemporary literature as well as boutiques celebrating fashions that reflected the era.
Parents were so freaked out to try to find their son or daughter.
The Haight attracted as many as 100,000 young people from all over the nation, many more than the neighborhood could safely absorb. This photograph of the runaway board at the Golden Gate Park Police Station during the summer of 1968 demonstrates the number of young people flocking to the area, often without their parents’ permission. The community was overwhelmed. With no support from city hall, neighborhood organizers created their own social services such as:
- Switchboard, an organization developed to help new arrivals find housing
- Huckleberry House, which offered run away youth shelter and aid without the threat of a call home
- The Haight Ashbury Legal Organization, where volunteer lawyers took on the many legal battles encountered by the community
The Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic was one of the first of its kind; it opened its doors in the summer of 1967 to serve the ever-increasing health needs of the local population. This photograph of a waiting room at the clinic demonstrates the ever-present nature of posters. They decorated walls at homes and at businesses, becoming a touchstone for a generation.
Levi's: Practicality and Ideology
For the counterculture of the 1960s, Levi’s jeans were durable, cheap, and a canvas on which to express their personal ideologies. San Francisco–based Levi Strauss & Co. originally clothed miners, cowboys, and agricultural workers. By the 1960s their jeans were the uniform of the working class, and for their young devotees, represented the direct rejection of middle-class values, specifically consumerist excess. Attentive to the trends taking place within San Francisco, the company’s president, Walter Haas Jr., created an ethos that was at once socially responsible and highly attuned to marketing their products to the young generation.
I talked them into making bell-bottoms... Somebody had to do it... And Levi Strauss, just a stroke of luck for me, happened to be headquartered in my own hometown.
Customizing jeans soon evolved from an individual pursuit into a cottage industry. Designers quickly responded to the demand, most notably Melody Sabatasso, founder of the boutique and label Love, Melody.
Sabatasso was on the forefront of transforming secondhand denim into a wide range of patchwork fashions—bikinis, pants, jackets, dresses, skirts, jumpsuits, and halter tops—many embellished with Swarovski crystals. With the help of her mother, herself a fashion designer, Sabatasso within three years built a business that employed 23 designers and processed more than 10,000 pairs of jeans a month.
When the hippies turn on to the peace movement, then you’ve got a combination that will inherit the earth.
Although San Francisco was considered by many to be a haven from the conservatism that still lingered elsewhere in the country, the social and political climate of America at large weighed heavily on the city’s inhabitants who came together to speak out against the war in Vietnam, social injustice, and other issues of concern.
The social developments in San Francisco and the Bay Area in the 1960s as epitomized by the Summer of Love catalyzed a set of ideas that would eventually lead to new norms: the birth of the natural food industry, concern for the environment, sexual liberation, and challenges to the nuclear family. The era’s political and social activism had a significant impact on the course of American history. The counterculture touched every facet of American culture, offering alternatives to the mainstream that still flourish today.
We would all like to be able to live an uncluttered life, a simple life, a good life, and think about moving the whole human race ahead a step.