“It originally came from working on the Grateful Dead poster and redrawing their ‘Stealie’ logo which I then redrew and adapted, and it took off from there.”
– Richey Beckett
The image is pure and simple – a skull with a bolt of lightning dividing the brain cavity. As printed, the lines are a crisp and dense black, making for an easy flood of color in any of the logo’s many chambers. Owsley Stanley and Bob Thomas collaborated on the iconic image that appeared on the Grateful Dead’s 1976 live album, Steal Your Face. It is a design born of necessity. Stanley, the Grateful Dead’s audio engineer, needed something easily identifiable to mark the band’s gear. Recalling a sign on the side of a highway featuring a line dividing two colored segments, he and Thomas devised the now-iconic Steal Your Face logo, or Stealie for short, as a means to single out the Dead’s equipment amongst a backstage swamped with gear.
The beginning of the modern idea of the gig poster can be traced back to the 1960s, specifically to the Grateful Dead and the emerging psychedelic movement happening in San Francisco. The posters were initially hastily made screen prints of found images and cryptic language. The saying went, that if you could not read the text on the poster, then it wasn’t for you. This gig poster scene continued to flourish across America and in 2015 when the surviving members of the Grateful Dead took to the road for a two-stop tour titled Fare Thee Well to celebrate 50 years of the band, they of course needed posters to commemorate the moment.
Coming off poster work for Foo Fighters, Mastodon, Metallica, and Robert Plant, UK based illustrator Richey Beckett was brought on board to create a poster for the Dead’s Fare Thee Well dates. Beckett’s style and methods belong to another time – the slow drip, sharp drag of a well-inked pen. Beckett’s marks are more akin to Albrecht Dürer than any of the artists who have taken on a Dead poster. For his poster, Beckett looked to the classic symbols found in nature – the sun, the moon, flowering vegetation, and the everlasting beauty of a youthful female figure. Venus in a field of flowers, and of course there it is, Stealie, placed at the foot of Beckett’s Earth Mother. The poster has hidden visual ties to the Grateful Dead, tucked away for the observant Deadhead yet styled and composed in pure Beckett fashion.
Beckett’s pieces can take months to finalize, from initial drawing to final colored piece. Each drawing plays like an improvisation of a theme — the woodlands and choked streams of Wales. Beckett’s sketches are thoughtful iterations of nature – a bird skull taken by moss, the churn of fallen trees to bog, and mound. He observes the marsh and moors of Painscastle from his studio window, that slow crawl of country living guiding his drawings. In those instances when Beckett finds himself at a poster event and asked by a fan for a quick sketch in a notebook, he is all too willing to oblige, yet his style and personal pace do not fit within the rushed need of a waiting fan.
Beckett returned to the Stealie image he created for the Grateful Dead and created a stamp of just the bottom of the skull, meaning he could stamp a blank page with a bulk of the drawing done and simply sketch a garden bloom or the entire universe within the frame of the upper skull. Soon, the stamp became a series of limited edition prints that Beckett would embellish with more depth and character. The Dead begat the stamp, the stamp begat the prints, the prints begat shirts, and finally, it all culminated in his Exploding Skulls project.
Beckett created a downloadable file of his blank Exploding Skull and encouraged artists of all skill levels to take his image and make it their own. Through the dedicated Exploding Skulls Instagram account, Beckett featured all of those pieces that were created and shared. Many treated the skull as they imagined Beckett would have, mimicking his pen, but many more did not.
The skull became reborn in a variety of mediums – paint, embroidery, animation, and baked goods yet the soul of Beckett remained, as Beckett kept the soul of Stanley and Thomas’s original design. As those at the five decades of Dead shows kept the soul of the music alive through the sharing of bootleg recordings. Through Exploding Skulls, Beckett has uplifted each one of us that downloaded his Exploding Skull to make it our own, adding our voice to his and the rich history of the modern gig poster.