How John Van Hamersveld's Psychedelic Art Captured & Transcended the LSD Soaked 1960s: A closer look
John Van Hamersveld (JVH) is a graphic artist and illustrator, whose impressive portfolio stretches across the ‘60s and into the present day; it includes a sizable number of iconic psychedelic concert posters and over 300 album covers for notable bands, like the Beatles, Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and many others.
Though the artist was born in Baltimore, in 1941, he grew up in the Lunada Bay section of Southern California, where his family relocated when he was nine. It was and still is recognized as one of the best surfing spots in California, “able to comfortably hold waves from 4 to 30 feet on the right swells,” and it’s where JVH got his first taste of the world famous sport.
He became an avid surfer in his teens. Affectionately known as “The Hammer,” he had two crossed hammers emblazoned on his first custom surfboard. Though JVH was chasing waves and fellow surfers from1953 to 1960, he quit the sport at 19 and moved to Los Angeles to study publication design at Art Center College.
JVH was born into a creative family. His father was an aeronautical engineer, and his mother was a model, professional swimmer and, later, a plein air painter in Palos Verdes. “When he was 12, his parents moved him and his bed into his mother’s art studio in the back of the garage, where he had a radio and could pick up rock and roll stations in Long Beach.” But he also picked up her love of art.
Seeing her son’s talent, JVH’s mom taught him to draw and frequently brought him to various museums and galleries. On top of that, having been diagnosed with dyslexia in high school allowed the young artist“ to spend more time taking art courses in high school (the unintended and sometimes fortuitous benefit that certain handicaps can produce),” which paved his way to college.
At the end of his spring semester in 1962, JVH took a job at Northrop Aviation’s publishing department, where his father was employed. Around the same time, JVH founded his own surfing magazine, called Surfing Illustrated, which was noticed by John Severson (1933 - 2017), the American editor, author, filmmaker and artist, widely known as the founder of Surfer magazine.
Impressed by what he saw, Severson hired the artist, first as an assistant and then as an art director at Surfer, where he went on to design nine bimonthly issues. But this was not the big break that would propel JVH to art legend status. That would come one year later, in 1963, when he would be tapped to create an abstract Day-Glo masterpiece that would have a lasting impact on pop culture.
The Endless Summer (1966) — starring Mike Hynson and Robert August — was written, produced and directed by Bruce Brown (1937 - 2017), who also served as the narrator of the film. It follows the journey of two young surfers as they spend a summer traveling around the world in search of the “perfect wave.” Before its worldwide premier, the movie enjoyed a limited release in 1964.
The simple and direct nature of the film became part of its enduring appeal. It introduced surfing and surfer culture to the world, and JVH’s poster was its first point of contact with the audience. Brown and JVH were friends, so when the filmmaker offered the artist $150 to create a movie poster based on a photograph taken by Bob Bagley, the film’s general manager and cameraman, he said yes.
Featuring Brown in the foreground, with Hynson and August in the background, JVH transformed the image by hardening the subjects’ edges and reducing the colors in the photo to single tones. R. Paul Allen, friend and the film’s assistant cinematographer, hired silk screener Eric Askew to produce the iconic 60 x 40 inch work in a local garage; JVH hand-lettered the title.
“According to the Encyclopedia of Surfing, a critic wrote of Van Hamersveld's iconic poster: ‘The colors the image was rendered in, the pinks and oranges and yellows out of a Crayola box, out of a Life Savers roll, out of an acid trip, anticipated Timothy Leary’s 'Turn on, tune in, drop out' by a good three years.’” But the times, they were a-changin’.
In 1965, JVH decided to go back to art school, anticipating becoming a painter. “So I go to Chouinard, which is just turning into CalArts,” he recalls in an interview with IFA Contemporary. “You can take photography, you can take film, you can take video, and you can take animation,” stated his counselor, “all these other things that would be complementary to your communication classes of graphic design.”
“Chouinard was turning into a media school, a performance school, a multi-discipline school, creating great latitude to work in all kinds of different subjects at the same time with different kinds of media,” he continued in the same interview. By this point, JVH had worked on three different magazines — Surfing Illustrated, Surfer and, briefly, Surf Guide — and began to feel more confident in his skills.
In 1967, JVH made his next big career move by taking his portfolio, which included The Endless Summer poster, over to Capitol Records. He got a callback and soon found himself on the 8th floor, the executive level, of the music giant, standing across from Brown Meggs (1930 - 1997), famous for signing the Beatles. “I’m going to hire you and you can’t turn me down,” Meggs told him.
So JVH ended up helming the art department at Capitol Records from 1967 to1968. But he also launched Pinnacle Rock Concerts, a production company of his own, shortly after joining the music giant. He was visiting Rick Griffin (1944 - 1991), a friend and underground poster maker, in San Francisco in the spring of 1967, when the creatives and their associates decided to team up professionally.
JVH designed the posters while his partners managed the talent contracts, bookings, and scheduling. Fourteen shows were produced between November 1967 and mid-1968. The concerts were held in The Shrine in Los Angeles and featured some of the most important artists at the time, including Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970), Jeff Beck, Cream, Pink Floyd, and the Velvet Underground.
The popular, highly stylized psychedelic images conveyed the essence of the artists they featured. But that wasn’t the only thing. By ‘68, The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, dubbed the “Hippie Mafia”, amped up its already heavy production and distribution of LSD throughout California and beyond. It even dropped 25,000 tabs of acid from a plane into the middle of a “happening” in Laguna Beach.
It also found its way into Pinnacle, which was indisputably “a hippie operation.” It was a natural fit, since, “a lot of Laguna surfers became users and dealers and the Surfer Hippie was born,” recalls JVH in an interview with ARTpublika Magazine. Long hair, long fringe, long jam sessions and long LSD trips: this was the time.
“1967 Was the bloom. 1968 Was the flower. And 1969 was the death,” elaborates the artist. In My Art, My Life (2010), he explains: “It became difficult for me to have drugs and druggies around, so I asked my partners to keep all of that at their place.” Then, JVH went back to the studio, deciding that he could be more prolific and equally creative without the use of hallucinogens.
Between ‘69 and ‘73, JVH designed his world famous Crazy World, Ain’t It graphic — conceived after a hallucinogenic experience — which he turned into a brand. The first batch of Crazy World t-shirts was printed in 1971, while JVH was working on the Exile on Main Street (1972) album cover for The Rolling Stones. He gave one to Mick Jagger, who proudly wore it and was captured doing so on camera.
The brand and its various products became a cultural phenomenon. Its most iconic image has been elaborated on, shared, and reimagined all around the world. Appropriately, an 11-min documentary called John Van Hamersveld - Crazy World Ain’t It (2020), directed by Chris Sibley and Dave Tourje, takes a look at how JVH’s work influenced artists around the globe.
JVH remained busy over the years. “He became an instructor at CalArts and through the ‘80s designed apparel campaigns, made a six-section mural for the 1984 Olympics,” and more. He also created logos for other successful brands, like the trademark for FatBruger in 1990. In 2007, he began his composer series — with four minted designs of Beethoven, Mozart, Lennon, Dylan — in his signature style.
John Van Hamersveld was always able to go with the flow of time. As technology evolved, so did his approach to art; the invention of the internet, design software, and NFTs offered new ways to create what he’s always loved. Today, his “art can be found in The Smithsonian, The Museum of Modern Art, the Experience Music Project, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
But, it all began with a stoner surfer enjoying an endless summer.
Note* Images are either in the public domain (or available for fair use) or provided by JVH, used with permission.