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The Rick Griffin Story

Richard and James Griffin, Los Angeles 1946

Richard Alden Griffin was born June 18th 1944, at the Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, California, to James and Jacqueline Griffin. His dad, Jim, was an electrical engineer. His mom, Jackie, was a housewife. Jackie’s mom was an artistic, sophisticated woman who raised Jackie on her own. Jackie never knew her father, but it’s said that Rick got his clear blue eyes from Jackie’s father, who was a blue-eyed Prussian soldier. Before Rick’s dad, Jim, became an engineer he originally wanted to work at Disney, but his parents said no, because ‘you couldn’t make a living from cartoons.’ Rick’s dad passed on the same message to his own son, but this time the advice would not be headed. Rick had an older brother, James, born in 1941. He and Rick were three years apart.

Rick grew up in Los Angeles in the 1950’s, reading and collecting comic books and watching Disney animations. For vacations, his parents and older brother, Jim, would travel on long distance trips through the South West to visit family back in Arizona. They would eat at Mexican food restaurants on the way and Rick enjoyed his comic books on those long travels. For a hobby, Rick’s dad was an amateur archaeologist, so, also, on those trips Rick and his older brother would go on digs with their dad at the Indian Reservations and old Ghost Towns, discovering Native American and old western artifacts. Those trips, the exposure to those old relics, and Rick’s love of comic books would end up having a huge influence on him and his art.

As a teenager Rick read “Humbug” and “Mad” cartoon magazines that his parents disapproved of. He also liked horror comics like “Tales from the Crypt” which he collected. When he was younger, his first experience with EC comics happened when his dad gave him a dime to go into the drug store and buy a comic book. He enthusiastically went in and looked over the selection of various titles until he came to one that really grabbed his attention. It was an issue of “MAD” with the life story of Will Elder. Rick said there was something unusual about the format of the book, a strange use of ‘doctored’ photographs mixed with weird art and it struck him as rebellious. It gave him a fantastic, disoriented feeling. He immediately purchased the publication and hurried back to show his dad. As his father leafed through the pages he was bewildered and disturbed. He told Rick he had to take it back and pick out one that was funny or pick out a Superman comic. Rick asked if he had to and his dad said “yes son,” but from that day on Rick told himself that he too would be a ‘mad’ artist. 

In 1958 Rick moved from Lakewood to the Palos Verdes peninsula, a move from the valley to the beach. Rick arrived at Alexander Fleming Junior High with his pressed khaki pants; swept up, greased back hair; and the best spit shined French toed shoes anyone at his new coastal middle school had ever seen. Rick’s “greaser” style was partly influenced by the motorcycle club look that actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean portrayed in movies like “On the Waterfront” and “Rebel Without a Cause.” It was also influenced by his time spent in the southwest and his affinity for Mexican-American subculture that had taken root in LA from the Mexican railroad workers or “traqueros” that had migrated up from Mexico and Texas to southern California.

Rick also liked the flames and pinstriping detail on cars, he learned about from his brother, who was more into cars. When they first moved to Palos Verdes Rick saw an abandon car with a Von Dutch ‘flyin eyeball’ painted on it. Von Dutch was known as “The Godfather of Modern day Pinstriping” and his ‘flyin eyeball’ icon of the 50’s street rod crowd was inspired by ancient Egyptian culture’s belief that the symbol represented “the eye in the sky knows all and sees all” (https://www.vondutch.com/our-history). Rick was also influenced by other artists who emerged from hot rod “Kustom Kulture” such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who was famous for his icon, Rat Fink. 

Wall mural painted by Rick Griffin around 1960 in a friend’s bedroom

Rick Griffin in his bedroom during high school.

“Cat on a Hot Foam Board” film by Bud Browne presented by Haggerty’s Surfing Club (1961)

Rick learned to surf at age 14 and after he surfed all summer at Torrance beach before entering Narbonne High School, he was hooked. In high school Rick started doodling cartoon surfers learning how to surf. His classmates and friends paid him 50¢ to draw cartoons on t-shirts and notebook covers. He was on staff and contributed artwork to his high school yearbook. He was also a member and artist for the Haggerty’s Surfing Club, which sponsored surf movies by Bud Browne and helped to clean up the local beaches.

He was introduced to Greg Noll, a big wave surfer who shaped surfboards and had a surf shop in Hermosa Beach. Rick drew cartoon images on the walls of the shop and illustrated Noll’s first annual surf publication in trade for a new surfboard. After a showing of “Surf Fever” at his high school, Rick met John Severson, the producer of the film and who was also the publisher and owner of “Surfer” magazine. John liked Rick’s cartoon drawings and hired him to illustrate a comic strip in the magazine. The main character was a blond haired little surfer called “Murphy” who looked a lot like his creator. Skateboarding was also gaining popularity and began showing up in Rick’s comic strips as well. Rick was notorious for spelling things incorrectly and people would write into Surfer magazine pointing out words Rick spelled wrong, which only made him want to misspell words more and began a trademark for him throughout his art career.

Rick Griffin 1961

Griffin’s “Murphy” character makes the cover of Surfer 1962

Rick Griffin 1962

In June of 1962 Rick graduated from Palos Verdes High School and that summer his character “Murphy” made it out from the pages and onto the cover of Surfer Magazine.

By the end of summer the following year, Rick was getting tired of his father’s disapproval of his lifestyle choices. He left late one night to hitchhike up to San Francisco to catch a freight steamer to Australia for a big adventure and to surf and draw as much as he wanted. A “mad” carnival worker picked him up and they headed north on the 101. Driving manically, he flipped the wheel of his truck and Rick, who had dozed off, woke as he was flung from the moving vehicle and onto the highway. The carny drove off leaving Rick in the middle of the highway, in the middle of the night. Eventually he was found and taken to the hospital in King City. Hospital staff wasn’t sure he would live. His face, and specifically his eye, was severely damaged and even after months of surgeries, he still had a big scar and had to wear a patch over his eye for the next year. He was willing to go with the pirate look, but he didn’t want to draw his “innocent” Murphy character any longer. When he was more recovered, he called and asked John Severson for some new assignments for the magazine. John sent Rick down to a surf contest at Huntington Beach with a young reporter from Surfer magazine named Ron Stoner. Instead of taking photographs, Rick did drawings, and The Griffin-Stoner adventures began in Surfer magazine. Between Von Dutch’s influence and Rick almost losing his eye, Rick’s iconic “eyeball” would appear many times over in his art.

Rick Griffin U.S. Surfing Championships, Huntington Beach, CA 1964

Rick eventually decided to go to art school. He enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts). He moved in with other students, joined a jug band, called The Jook Savages and began experimenting with marijuana. He was still with Surfer magazine doing The Griffin, Stoner adventures, and this latest influence, like everything in his life, crept into the story line, especially in the episode, “Guess Who’s Minding the Store,” where John has gone out of town and Rick is in charge.

Griffin-Stoner Adventures “Guess Who’s Minding the Store” Surfer 1966 by Rick Griffin

At Chouinard, Rick met fellow artist and his future wife, Ida Pfefferle. When Rick first met Ida, he thought she was a “surfer girl” because she liked to wear her hair long when short bobs were in. However, she was actually born in London and moved around the states growing up. And, even though she had always loved the ocean, she was just learning about ‘beach’ life. To Ida, Rick, still wearing his pirate eye patch and having surgeries from his accident, was shy and interesting. They shared a love of comic books, drawing, music and going to record shops to check out album covers. One of their first dates, Rick invited Ida to a Surfer Magazine banquet, where they sat next to John and his wife Louise. John and Louise would become lifelong friends to the budding couple.

Rick, Ida & baby Flaven, San Blas, Mexico 1966 / Photograph: Richard Sturgill

Rick, Ida & baby Flaven, San Blas, Mexico 1966 / Photograph: Richard Sturgill

Rick and Ida loved to go see bands play at Hollywood nightclubs. They saw The Rolling Stones from England play in LA at a teen concert, as well as The Birds and many other British rock bands who were just becoming popular then. At the same time folk music played on the radio, bands like The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Bob Dylan; and Joan Baez. They had a great record collection, including Surf Music, which Rick listened to while drawing.

Counter culture author, Ken Kesey, and his group of friends, the Merry Pranksters, started hosting parties they called “Acid Tests” in the Bay Area to experiment with LSD. Rick attended The Watts Acid Test in LA, February 12, 1966, only months after the Watts Riots. The Grateful Dead was supposed to play, but there was so much acid in the Kool Aid, everyone was a little too high. Several police stopped in at the event, but only observed the mayhem because the drug wasn’t illegal until October later that year.

Rick and Ida became pregnant. Rick was worried about the draft and Ida couldn't keep juggling working graveyard shifts to pay for school during the day, so Ida moved back to the bay area, where her family was living and Rick came up to visit. Ida rented an apartment in San Francisco and met her new neighbors and future, fellow poster artists, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, and Bob Seidemann. Their first child, Flaven Heather Highland Griffin, was born in the summer of 1966. Ida left San Francisco and met Rick down in Mexico. They spent the next few months living on the beach. When Rick wasn’t out surfing he lounged in a hammock while Ida took care of their new baby. Rick was also studying and sketching the Huichol Indians and experimenting with psychedelic drugs.

They eventually headed back to California, stopping in LA, before settling down into life in San Francisco at the onset of the hippy, music scene that was about to explode. Rick created one of his first psychedelic rock posters, for the Jook Savages Art Show. Followed by his next poster, for the “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park, January 14, 1967, kicking of the ‘Summer of Love.’

Rick’s unique lettering style came from a combination of drawing cartoon strips as a young teenager, and those visits to the South West as a kid, walking through old town boardwalks with a Saloon, a General Store, a Post Office, and the Sheriff’s jail, all with lettering that was slab serif style, originally used as headlines during the Victorian 1900’s, now called Wild West font. Rick used that style of lettering on the first posters he designed in San Francisco, but his lettering became more visually exaggerated as psychedelics influenced his creative style, culminating in an exceptional way to attract the viewer’s eye.

“Jook Savage Art Show” Psychedelic Shop, Haight-Ashbury 1967, Rick Griffin’s first psychedelic poster

“Pow-Wow Gathering of the Tribes” poster for Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, SF 1967

From the first black and white posters, Rick’s work quickly grew into a merging of colors, symbols and extreme typography. Rick would design a new poster every couple of weeks. He usually started at the top of an illustration board, using a rapidograph ink pen, designing the lettering for the band names and then he would decide on a central image along with a border. The lithography process was three separate acrylic overlays; yellow, red, and blue. The black inked design was printed first followed by the other three colors. The poster was run through four times. Rick gradually learned the process. When the poster was finished, the exciting part was seeing how the colors looked, because he wouldn’t know until the final printing was done. Rick and Ida would rush over to the print shop to see the results. The legendary, Jimi Hendrix “Flying Eyeball” BG-105, 1968 poster is probably one of Rick’s most sought after posters for its iconic, psychedelic Rick Griffin imagery and coloring.

BG-105, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall & Albert King concert poster by Rick Griffin 1968

Rick and the other emerging poster artists were designing posters for Chet Helms “Family Dog” dances, and a little later for Bill Graham who was putting on shows at the famous Fillmore auditorium and Avalon Ballroom. The posters would get stapled up on telephone poles up and down Haight Street. At the time, Haight Street was a quiet neighborhood, but would soon become jam packed with almost 100,000 young adults arriving that summer from all around the world, filling the neighborhood and spilling into the Golden Gate park at the end of Haight Street. The dances were fun and getting to watch live bands play like The Cream, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King was exciting. 

Rick and a few other poster artists, including photographer, Bob Seidemann, formed the Berkeley Bonaparte, a poster art collective. Eventually, Victor Moscoso, Stanley “Mouse” Miller, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, and Rick, became known as “The Big Five” of poster psychedelia.

The Berkeley Bonaparte
Outside their storefront, San Francisco 1967

The “Big Five” San Francisco Poster Artists, 1968
Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse / Photograph: Bob Seidemann

The poster artists were also becoming friends with the bands. Rick and Ida, with their baby in tow, met with musicians like Janis Joplin, members of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead. One of Rick’s most iconic images was produced after Jerry Garcia met with Rick backstage one evening. Based on the band’s love of Griffin’s work, they asked him to create something for them, giving him complete artistic freedom. At the time, Ida was pregnant with their second child. Rick, ever influenced by his immediate reality, created artwork full of symbolic representation of life and death and birth, all within a surfers paradise of sunshine, blue skies and the bursting forth of life. Rick liked the intrigue and playfulness of palindromes and titled it “Aoxomoxoa.” Initially the piece was done for upcoming Grateful Dead shows, but it was so powerful the band used it for the cover of their 3rd album. It was a natural progression for Rick to add album covers to his repertoire.

Grateful Dead “Aoxomoxoa” title & album cover by Rick Griffin 1969

Other projects during this time, included creating the original lettering for Rolling Stone magazine, as well as catching the eye of counterculture cartoonist, Robert Crumb who invited Rick, along with artists, Robert Williams, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, & “Spain” Rodriguez to be contributing members to Zap Comix, an underground publication, labeled "Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only."

Rick moved his family back to Southern California and John and Louise Severson helped them find a place in San Clemente after their second daughter, Adelia Rose Griffin, was born at Rick’s brothers home in San Pedro, California. The birth was without a midwife in attendance, and in true bohemian fashion, Rick cut the umbilical cord with his buck knife.

Poster for John Severson’s film “Pacific Vibrations” by Rick Griffin 1970

John commissioned Rick to do the poster for his upcoming film “Pacific Vibrations.” The poster was colorful, beautiful and full of the miracle of life after just delivering his own daughter. Rick lived in San Clemente for the next few years, painting and surfing, during which time he got “saved” and became a Christian. Commissioned by San Francisco comic shop owner, Gary Alrington, Rick created his own publication “Man From Utopia,” an untraditional, oversized comic book, packed with symbolism, including Jesus and sacred hearts, but very few readable words, referencing not only Rick’s recent salvation, but having been listening to Neil Young’s song “After the Gold Rush,” that planet earth was in need of salvation as well. In no logical order, the pages chronicle Ricks spiritual quest and his intrigue with “the birth of an idea.”

“Man From Utopia” comic magazine by Rick Griffin 1971

“Man From Utopia” comic magazine by Rick Griffin 1971

In the mid ‘70’s Rick moved to Orange County and began working with Calvary Chapel and their music company, Maranatha Music, to do artwork for the up and coming alternative Christian rock bands, as well as, a new project, illustrating the Gospel of John, but in a much less conventional way than the story had ever been portrayed before. He painted young men with spiked, punk hair and chains being broken as Jesus’ tomb stone is being rolled away after his crucifixion. They were powerful paintings, as well as some of Rick’s finest paintings.

“Hosanna” painting from Gospel of John by Rick Griffin 1980

“Exhalted” by Rick Griffin 1980

In 1976 Rick had his first and only retrospective show while he was alive. The show was held overseas at The Roundhouse in London, the Sutherland Art Center in Northern England and The Milky Way in Amsterdam. The show was put together by Dick Pope, a cinematographer that had been hired by the BBC to cover the punk movement in London and Rick’s good friend, fellow collector, surfer buddy and art agent, Gordon McClelland. At the time The Round House was where all the big rock concerts were held; bands like Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Eric Clapton performed there. Dick rented out The Round House and turned it into an art gallery. Gordon knew that Rick had a following, but they were both shocked at the thousands of people arriving in bus loads to see Rick’s work.  

Gordon and Rick got to listen to The Clash who were practicing in a funky, little, brick, studio next door to the Roundhouse. He and Gordon had been introduced to Joe Strummer from the band on the opening night of Rick’s show and were invited to come over. After the shows Rick and Gordon headed to the quaint town of Biarritz, France to surf. Upon return Gordon put together a coffee table book of Rick’s work, “The Art of Rick Griffin.” Gracing the cover was an illustration of Rick’s classic signature (in the shape of a cross) with a heart backgrounded eyeball, clutching an Egyptian snake in the middle of it.

Poster for the retrospective show at the Roundhouse in London, 1976.

96-page coffee table book published in 1980.

In 1980 and 1981, Rick and Ida had two more children, Miles and Katy Griffin, just a year apart. Rick parted ways with Calvary Chapel. He continued to create art for The Grateful Dead, and newer bands like The Cult. In 1988 Rick went on a pilgrimage to Easter Island to spread the ashes of a very influential artist to him, Stanislaw Szukalski. He went with fellow artists and friends, Glenn Bray and Robert Williams, who also admired the exuberant, elderly, discovered, Polish Artist.

A mere three years later, Rick’s friends and family spread his ashes at his favorite surf spot “Mystos” in Northern California, after his untimely death at the age of 47. Rick did not survive an accident when his Harley Heritage Softail met with the side of a van on a sunny afternoon, on a country road in Petaluma, California. It was the second time in his life to face death, this time he did not get another chance. The last piece of art Rick created was for “The City,” a local San Francisco magazine. The image was of an artist kneeling at the pearly gates of heaven to meet his maker holding his quill and inkwell.

“Heaven’s Gate” The City magazine, San Francisco 1991, the last piece of art Rick Griffin created

Rick’s legacy lives on. Not everyone recognizes this legendary, American artist by name, but most recognize some of his most iconic images. Those that do know him by name, even if they never met him, will usually share how his work deeply affected and inspired them.

Text copyright 2019 © Flaven Clayton. All rights reserved.