Psychedelic Font: How Wes Wilson Turned Hippie Era Turmoil Into Art It's been 50 years since artist Wes Wilson invented the psychedelic font that was popular in the '60 and '70s. Wilson talks about how he made a name for himself designing psychedelic concert posters.
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Psychedelic Font: How Wes Wilson Turned Hippie Era Turmoil Into Art

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Psychedelic Font: How Wes Wilson Turned Hippie Era Turmoil Into Art

Psychedelic Font: How Wes Wilson Turned Hippie Era Turmoil Into Art

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Fifty years ago, San Francisco was the hub for the counterculture. The anti-establishment movement was in full swing, fueled by the war in Vietnam and social tensions throughout the country. One man decided to turn all this turmoil around him into art.

Wes Wilson is the inventor of the psychedelic font. The colorful, balloon-shaped wavy writing helped define a time and place. He spoke to us about the inspiration behind the font that's emblazoned on some of the most iconic concert posters from the hippie era.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRATEFUL DEAD SONG, "ST. STEPHEN")

WES WILSON: In 1966, I was 29, and I was living in the Haight-Ashbury at the time because it was an inexpensive part of town to live in. A lot of people lived there that were artistic - poets, artists, some unusual artistic types. And I was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. STEPHEN")

GRATEFUL DEAD: (Singing) Saint Stephen with a rose, in and out of the garden he goes. Country garden in the wind and the rain, wherever he goes the people all complain.

WILSON: I was very much concerned about the war in Vietnam. At the time, I had been in the army. And so I was kind of on the alert to watch out for our foreign policy. And when we got involved in Vietnam, I began to distrust the establishment of our country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET TOGETHER")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) Love is but a song we sing...

WILSON: I started out by being in the printing business and soon enough we'd gotten on as a place where we could do printing inexpensively. And pretty quick, all the low-budget, you know, people like the Mime Troupe, for example - that's how I met Bill Graham was - he was the publicity director for the Mime Troupe, the Merry Pranksters for the Kesey folks and then the Tripps Festival.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GET TOGETHER")

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) Hey people now, smile on your brother, let me see you get together. Love one another right now.

WILSON: Basically, I wanted to do a poster that people liked to look at, and I wanted to use up all the space. Once the color came into being, then I was very inspired to try to put together colors that were really exciting and the idea of using colors that were just complimentary colors right next to one another. And so it was kind of a combination of a whole bunch of things and all based on this kind of idealism of things are going to get better.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL BUTTERFIELD SONG, "WORK SONG")

WILSON: Paul Butterfield was a Chicago blues band guy. And my Paul Butterfield poster was black and white. The lettering was in white and the background, black. And I put a picture and this is a fellow showing the exercise of how to laugh in a healthy, proper manner. And so he's - his body is kind of - he's lifting his head back a little bit. And so then I just drew the lettering and everything around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL BUTTERFIELD SONG, "WORK SONG")

WILSON: A lot of the bands liked what I did. And I have a feeling The Doors came up to San Francisco partly because they liked the posters.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DOORS SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

WILSON: And they were a third-string band for a couple of the posters I did. So basically a lot of people started thinking God, it'd be neat to be on one of Wes's posters. (Laughter) No one ever said such a thing, but I'll bet you that was part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

THE DOORS: (Singing) Come on baby, light my fire.

MONTAGNE: That's graphic artist Wes Wilson. In celebration of 50 years of graphic design, some of his psychedelic concert posters will be on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It reopens this weekend after a three-year renovation.

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