Vintage rock and roll posters have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Take a closer look at the ingenious, mesmerizing, mysterious art form.
In the mid-1960s the world, America and, more specifically, San Francisco were undergoing a renaissance of culture, music and art. The Summer of Love unofficially began on a day in January 1967, with a call to arms in Golden Gate Park known as a “Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In.” Not a call to bear arms, but rather a raising of arms in unity where the actions of the thousands who attended, and the millions who would learn of it, would change the course of history.
A teenager named Rusty Goldman had seen a poster advertising the event and was in the crowd that day. Now with 50 years in the rearview mirror, Rusty Goldman is considered a historian and archivist of rock and roll posters, a storyteller and chronicler of the era.
Rusty Goldman, aka Professor Poster, has been collecting posters since he was 15. Sharing the knowledge of the art is his passion. “What good is the knowledge if you don’t share it? What good is the art if you don’t share it? That’s the premise of what Professor Poster does,” Goldman said. “Do you remember the movie City Slickers? Jack Palance put his finger up and said, ‘Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that…’ And that one thing you have to find out for yourself. I have found out for me what that one thing is. That’s being able to bring joy into other people’s lives, and a person who brings joy into others’ lives and makes them smile is a successful individual.”
“When the music is finally finished and the crowd is all long gone, within the poster lies the memories that linger and live on.”
At the start of the San Francisco music scene, two promotions companies were largely responsible for the majority of rock and roll posters. The Family Dog was famous for promoting shows at the Avalon Ballroom and the artists who became known as the San Francisco Five, or the Big Five, were the creative talent behind many of their posters. They were Rick Griffin, Alton Kelley, Victor Moscoso, Stanley Mouse and Wes Wilson. The poster Rusty Goldman had seen for the Human Be-In was created by Rick Griffin, and Wes Wilson gave Goldman the name Professor Poster in honor of his knowledge on the subject. Legendary promotor Bill Graham commissioned artists for his shows at the Fillmore Auditorium and Winterland. Artists such as Randy Tuten, Bonnie MacLean, David Singer, Lee Conklin, Greg Irons and the SF Five all produced work for Bill Graham.
Artists would bring their work to Graham or Chet Helms at the Family Dog as an audition of sorts and, upon acceptance, would have very little time to complete the poster. Professor Poster explained, “Sometimes people would come in and bring their artwork, and they would be assigned a certain date. Sometimes an artist like Lee Conklin would bring in his sketchbook and Bill Graham would pick out a few sketches and say, ‘Make me a poster. I like this one.’ And he’d have a week or so to incorporate that into a poster.”
The artists were young, and while the posters were a way to make some money, most of the artists didn’t think it would lead to a lifetime career. According to artist Randy Tuten, “Any of us who were doing that, including Mouse and Kelly and Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso and Wes Wilson and all the people who came next, of which I was one — we never thought we’d be doing this for more than two or three years.” Though a few have left us physically, 50 years later most are still creating stunning art.
The dawn of the art form known as rock and roll posters, or psychedelic posters, can unofficially be traced to a poster created for the June 1965 opening of the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. The artwork for the Charlatans was created by Michael Ferguson and George Hunter, two members of the group. Though not on the level of the art to come later, that poster became known as the Seed. It was where graphics, lettering, photography and music began to meld to create a distinctive form of art that continues today.
Randy Goldman credits his older brother with exposing him to the world of art and music at a very young age. It was through his brother that Goldman ended up as one of the artists on Janis Joplin’s psychedelic painted Porsche. His brother’s roommate was David Richards, who worked for Joplin’s Big Brother and the Holding Company. Still a kid, Rusty cleaned brushes for the artist at first but eventually moved up to filling in the colors in a sort of paint-by-numbers direction.
Goldman first started collecting posters over 52 years ago. “The Family Dog series of posters from San Francisco has 147 for the Avalon Ballroom, and there’s a number for each one. As they came out week by week, you remembered the numbers, who the artists were and which bands played. I can look at just about any poster and tell you who the artist was. In many cases I know which numbers they are too. And there’s 289 Fillmore posters. Then there was the Carousel Ballroom and a lot of other venues too. There were a lot of different places and they all had posters, and they were all freaking cool. So part of what we did as we were growing up was like in the movie Oliver. You know the Artful Dodger and all the kids that he worked with that lived with Fagin? Well, we were a band of kids who grew up in San Francisco — I like to call them the Poster Rascals. We all knew each other and the addresses of the stores where the posters were and when they were coming in. How to get posters out of store windows without getting caught, and who had what, and we could trade with one another. That was an adventure in itself. Of course, they didn’t have the value they have now. They have become commodities to be bought and sold. Not too long ago, a Family Dog #1 poster not in the greatest condition went for $37,900. It’s all relative: who wants it and how much you’re willing to spend. We just wanted to get them up on our walls. You didn’t care about using tape or thumbtacks to hang them. Now we treat them like they’re pages from the Gutenberg Bible.”
Goldman explained why some rock and roll posters from the ’60s are extremely valuable. “In part it’s because they were printed multiple times. The first printing, in some cases there’s only a handful that survived. In other cases only a couple hundred were originally printed. Fifty years later, how many of those 200 survived? The ones that did survive are sought after because they’re first printings of a series of posters and collectors want to complete a full series of posters as first printings. Very difficult to do.” When you take into consideration the finite number originally printed and think of how many posters have been lost to fires, floods, moving or stupidity, it’s not hard to comprehend how some have become so valuable.
For the past five years Rusty Goldman has shared his knowledge and collection on his Professor Poster Facebook page. On it he offers all available information on the featured poster of the day. From the artist to the bands playing, the poster number, to the number of printings, each post is a virtual encyclopedia listing. “On my page I’ll have pictures of the first, second and third printings. So you can show examples of what makes them different: the paper does, there are little things printed on some, sometimes it comes down to one dot. One dot on a poster is how you can distinguish one from another. A little blue dot. It’s become a science, the science of posterology, and I’ve got a PhD in it.”