The Institute of Illegal Images: An interview with the father of LSD blotter art and a peek inside his psychedelic museum

The Institute of Illegal Images: An interview with the father of LSD blotter art and a peek inside his psychedelic museum

The DEA doesn't even have a collection quite like this one

VicesFebruary 05, 2020 By Will Brendza

The year was 1971. Mark McCloud was a student at Santa Clara University and he had just dropped some fire orange sunshine acid. Things were getting weird; the trip was peaking and his doors of perception were opening wide.

Then, it happened: McCloud slipped, or tripped or was nudged by God himself, and fell out of the seventh-story window of his dorm room.

He survived. But, he says, “only because I was on acid.”

The experience of that moment, he describes as “rapture” — as a death/rebirth event that changed the very fabric of his being, revealed his purpose and gave his life new meaning.

That was when the Institute for Illegal Images was truly born — or, at least, the moment when it’s seeds of conception were planted. McCloud, convinced that he now owed his life to this chemical, decided he needed to do something to give back to it; he needed to somehow spread the love and light of LSD.  

So, he started collecting sheets of blotter paper.

“I was a numismatist as a kid, collecting little finely made things,” McCloud says. He’s also a lifelong artist, he tells me. And at that time, blotter art was just starting to become a thing. Prior to this, acid had been put on sugar cubes, in Ken Kesey’s venison stew, or just on plain white blotter paper.

“So, as the quality of the blotter and the art improved I got more and more interested keeping examples of it.”

At first, though, he admits, it was difficult not to eat into his own collection.

“It wasn't until I framed a few that I realized, ‘Hey, you know, by framing these, I prevent myself from eating them,’” he says, chuckling.

Today, the Institute of Illegal Images, the only blotter art museum on the planet Earth, contains over 33,000 blotter sheets — each divided with around 1000 hits.

You do the math.

Images courtesy of the Institute of Illegal Images

The Father of Blotter Art

McCloud is an interesting cat. The first few years of his life he lived in Argentina, then he moved to California during the peak of the Summer of Love. As he puts it: he went from the tango to psychedelic rock overnight.

“I was just in the right place at the right time,” he says.

His first trip was with mescaline (peyote) at the tender age of 14. He finally got his hands on some window-pane acid a few months after that and his life changed forever.

Since then, LSD has been a huge part of McCloud’s life. Not just because of his death/rebirth experience, not just because he has so much of it plastering the walls of his museum, but because he sees blotter paper as one of the most potent forms of American art that exists in our culture, today.  

“It's what I call ‘the smallest billboard,’” McCloud says, of blotter art. “In many ways, it's an amulet. It represents the kind of health conditions of society itself.”

Like any great art, the blotter art that McCLoud collects doesn’t just look good, it’s reflective of the times it came out of — it’s got an element of the zeitgeist embedded in it. McCloud points to one sheet he recently found on the streets as an example: a blotter image of Donald Trump leading Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un through the Amazon rainforest on an ayahuasca vision quest.

Images courtesy of the Institute of Illegal Images.

If only...

Beyond that cultural commentary, though, good blotter art has the capacity to change the way people see the world. Literally. Should you choose to consume the art, the art will in turn consume you; and when you come out the other side you’ll be a changed person.

That’s a powerful concept. One that was so attractive and alluring to McCloud that he started to design blotter art himself. Why not? He had become something of an aficionado, after all.

So, he put his mind and his artistic talents to work and started churning out some truly fantastic blotter sheets: his best seller is an image of Alice in Wonderland crawling through the looking glass; but he also created his own version of ‘orange sunshine,’ (the acid he was on during his rapture experience), a Beevis and Butthead blotter, and one called “lips and noses,” among many others. 

He even created a blotter he dubbed “the Dirty Dozen,” fondly named after his DEA prosecutors (oh yeah, he’s been busted a few times, and we’ll get to all that).

“I was able to connect with some of the bigger manufacturers [of LSD] so that my little paintings got spread out all over the world,” McCloud says with pride. “Except, It's mostly in people's stomachs. That's usually where my work ends up.”

He’s an internationally famous anonymous artist, and you might have experienced some of his work.

It’s why McCloud is sometimes called “the Father of Blotter Art.” He recognized its value as a powerful medium very early on; he began the first and largest collection of blotter art in the world (and defended it from the government); he has created his own blotter masterpieces, and as his connections with LSD producers grew, so did his capacity to uplift other psychedelic artists by putting their images on his blotter sheets.

Images courtesy of the Institute of Illegal Images

The Institute of Illegal Images

Blotter art sits at one of the coolest intersections of any medium. It’s situated squarely on the confluence of visual art, underground (illegal) contraband and powerful psychedelic chemicals. You can be arrested and imprisoned for life if you’re caught with it; it can send you on a mind-bending spiritual journey and it usually looks pretty rad, too.

It’s a modern sacrament for the spiritual psychonaut.

And the only place on Earth to see it in a museum/gallery setting, is at Mark McCloud’s Institute of Illegal Images in San Francisco, California.

Which, also happens to be his home. McCloud has dedicated the entire ground floor of his Victorian two-story to the Institute: there are shelves and shelves of record albums, Salvador Dali clocks melting off of shelves, concert posters, empty jars and vials, and . portrait oif George Washinton smoking weed out of a pipe. And, of course, the walls are lined with framed blotter sheets of all colors and different depictions, some are even signed by people like Albert Hoffman (the father of LSD), Laura Huxley and Alan Ginsberg.

It’s as eclectic a place, as it is psychedelic.

Images courtesy of the Institute of Illegal Images

Legally collecting illegal images

Of course, having the largest known collection of LSD blotter sheets in the world has brought McCloud under some serious legal scrutiny. He’s been prosecuted twice by the DEA, once under the threat of a consecutive double-life sentence.

“They said that I had manufactured and distributed over 200 grams [of LSD]!” McCloud says, still clearly disturbed by the accusations. “Which made me eligible for this thing called ‘the kingpin act.’”

In both cases, though, McCloud was acquitted. The court could never level their charges against him, because, quite simply, they were false. McCloud has always maintained that he never produced or distributed any LSD — he’s always just been the art guy. The man behind the blotter. A collector and an enthusiast.

And, for the record: the blotter sheets that fill McCloud’s illegal Institute are all “dead,” he says — they contain no active LSD and are therefore legal to own.

Still, though, to this day McCloud says he has undercover fuzz come around snooping, even after he’s twice been cleared of all legal charges associated with the Institute.

“They send agents in every once in a while since I do these tour groups, just to see if they can stir something up,” McCloud says. “But they're pretty easy to identify.”

And honestly, they’re a little late to the party anyway. If McCloud was holding as much LSD as the rumors would have you believe, he wouldn’t be giving public tours of the real collection.

Images courtesy of the Institute of Illegal Images

Freeing America’s ‘Prisoners of Consciousness’

Although McCloud was acquitted, there were others in similar shoes who weren’t so fortunate.

“Leonard Piccard, ‘the Missile Silo Cook,’ went to trial three months after my [second] trial,” McCloud says. “He got smeared … He's now serving two consecutive life sentences.”

Piccard, who was arrested in 2000, ran the largest known LSD lab in the world out of an abandoned missile silo in Kansas. According to the DEA, when he went to prison, the global supply of acid decreased by a staggering 95 percent.

Obviously, Piccard with his silo was a stretch more culpable than McCloud with his Institute. So, when the double life sentence came down on him, it wasn’t exactly a surprise. But that doesn’t make it right, McCloud asserts. There are thousands of people serving life sentences for possession, distribution or production of LSD — a fact that McCloud says is “very, very tragic.”

“My main peeve is the treatment of prisoners of consciousness,” he says. “There is no way we can justify putting these people in prison for their entire lifetimes, just for an attempt to bring understanding and light to others.”

Which is really the ultimate goal of the Institute of Illegal Images, McCloud says. Sure, it’s a cool and quirky museum. And yes, it gives the “great American miniature” a platform to be given the respect it deserves.

But at its core McCloud’s Institute is a tool to educate and advocate for the decriminalization of psychedelics like LSD, and the liberation of all those prisoners of consciousness. If his Institue is even remotely successful in those regards, then McCloud's trip down this strange road will have been well-worth it.