Design & Creativity
August 23, 2023
6 minute read time

Art and Psychedelics: An age-old love affair

Migi Santico
Photos by
Illustrations by

Few illegal substances are as polarizing as psychedelics, a category of hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, that induce particular visual, auditory, sensory changes and an overall altered state of consciousness. To the general, law-abiding public, they’re the stuff of the insane, but for some, they’re a source of artistic inspiration – tickets to an entirely different realm worth endless exploration.

In a letter to Timothy Leary, psychologist and heralded father of the 1960’s psychedelic boom, Humphry Osmond, the psychiatrist who coined the term psychedelic, poignantly described the psychedelic experience. “To fathom hell or soar angelic, just take a pinch of psychedelic,” he wrote.

True enough, the psychedelic boom of the 1960’s saw both individuals who emerged from psychedelic trips with newfound wisdom and reports of bad trips that could endanger not just mental health, but public well-being.

“In stark contrast to televised reports of individuals consuming psychedelics, going insane and jumping off roofs, there is a long list of artists who have come out of the kaleidoscopic tunnels enlightened.”

Among those who have taken the journey are artists from the 60s like The Beatles, beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg, and modern-day psychedelic artists like Alex Grey. Some found answers to lifelong questions as they seeked “something” within their psychedelic experiences, while some simply lived on the more experimental side of life and explored substances.

While some of them didn’t intend to have such an experience, the work of these artists communicate their psychedelic encounters, both vividly and subtly. They convey the altered state of consciousness they discovered, or trip, that is often described as meditative, spiritual, and even physically transcendental.

The Beatles

Revolver, The Beatles’ most innovative and experimental album during the 60’s, was greatly influenced by the band’s, namely John Lennon and George Harrison, experiences on psychedelics. They first tried it unwillingly when they drank tea in their dentist’s home after dinner. When they found out their tea had been laced with LSD sugar cubes, Lennon, who had heard about the drug and its potential for harm, was furious.

Along with his wife Cynthia, and George Harrison and his wife Pattie Boyd, Lennon went on a trip that he would describe as both terrifying and fantastic. In a roller coaster of an experience, he and the group went from believing that they were on fire to seeing God in every blade of grass and having an overwhelming sense of well-being.

Later on, Lennon was able to make sense of his experiences when he came across The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a book written by Timothy Leary and other psychedelic researchers. Created as a guide for navigating ego-death during a trip and personality reintegration after, Lennon found clarity through it and even lifted a line from a passage that he resonated strongly with.

Found in the song Tomorrow Never Knows, Lennon expresses the clarity he found, seeing the seeming void as a light: “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying. It is shining. It is shining.”

“Whether they took psychedelics intentionally or not, and with or without the pursuit of artistic inspiration, these artists stumbled upon answers that we all search for and questions we might never think of asking.”

Alex Grey

Considered America’s foremost psychedelic artist, Alex Grey’s introduction to the world of psychedelics was fortuitous not just for him. Grey was a suicidal 21-year old atheist artist when he first tried LSD at a party. He was not exactly looking for a source of artistic inspiration, nor was he intentionally looking to try psychedelics. Throughout his life and on that day in particular, it was more of him challenging God to prove himself real, or seeking that “something” that he felt had been missing from his existence. He was not looking for it in a blot of acid, but he certainly found it there.

In his Facebook post he recounts the story of him closing his eyes then going into a spiral tunnel where he would come to know the light at the end of it as God. His work, Polar Unity, is an artistic rendering of his experience of going from dark to light. Describing the tunnel as his “spiritual rebirth canal”, he writes, “I was in the darkness, spiraling toward the light. The Light was God, infinite love and wisdom at the core of all being and reality. I had met the Ultimate Mystery and it gave me a reason to live.”

Since then, he has become a visionary artist, bringing insights back from his psychedelic experiences through art that tackles spirituality, sexuality, and the mind-body connection among many other dimensions of existence. He has also fostered a community with his wife, Allison Grey, leading prayer groups, meditations, and more.

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg is acclaimed as the founding father of the Beat generation and a true voice of post-war America. He was a sexually liberated poet at a conservative time, vocal about his drug use and an advocate for tolerance and spiritual enlightenment. With a blatant disdain for American life at the time, his voice echoed throughout the country and he became an icon for counterculture.

He was a prolific drug user, indulging in marijuana, opiates, ether, and psychedelics such as ayahuasca, LSD, and peyote. Unlike The Beatles and Alex Grey who experienced psychedelics by chance and grace, Ginsberg looked to these substances as mystical mediums that would help him reconnect with a lost feeling.

His poem, Wales Visitation was written under the influence of LSD. In it, he attempts to solve what he believed to be the self-contradictory, egoistic problem of going on a psychedelic journey and bringing back something “holy” to monetize it. For him, this was problematic in two ways: art shouldn’t be created for the sake of making money, and the pursuit of recreating something that is beyond all form and concepts (God) is futile.

“Beyond the bizarre visuals, distorted sounds, or dizzying poems, these artists, their lives and stories show that psychedelic art emerges from a newly transformed consciousness.”

The poem, while nonsensical and slightly incomprehensible at first read, simply paints a picture of what he was literally seeing during his psychedelic trip. It does not try to bring back an image of divinity because Ginsberg understood that it would be like sacrilege – another attempt of man to fathom what is simply beyond our understanding. In a way, it was the thought behind the poem more than the words themselves where psychedelic insight was manifested.

Whether they took psychedelics intentionally or not, and with or without the pursuit of artistic inspiration, these artists stumbled upon answers that we all search for and questions we might never think of asking. Their minds were transformed and illuminated by experiences that became a guiding light, and as artists and innovators do, they shared it.

They played a role that artists have been playing for ages: expressing existence as far as consciousness (altered or not) can perceive it. Like most other psychedelic artists, they were simply communicating their experiences, who they were, how they felt and saw life. Only this time, they were totally different people who viewed reality from an “enlightened” vantage point.

Beyond the bizarre visuals, distorted sounds, or dizzying poems; these artists, their lives and stories show that psychedelic art emerges from a newly transformed consciousness. And more than chants of peace and love, the culture that was born during the psychedelic boom was one of questioning the status quo, fearlessly expressing oneself, and turning inwards to seek purpose and spirituality.