Stanley Mouse

A founding member of the counterculture art scene, Stanley “Mouse” creates uniquely imaginative psychedelic artwork. His album covers and poster art made with Alton Kelley characterized Bay Area contemporary art during the sixties and seventies, influencing countless artists in the psychedelic tradition. Contributing iconic images like the ZigZig man on the cover of the rolling papers, the Grateful Dead’s Skull and Roses album cover, and the ice cream kid off the Europe ’72 album artwork, Mouse loves to dream up fun and beautiful ideas. 

In his studio in Northern California, he’s expanded his painting to landscape and figurative art. “For the last 15 years, I have been doing a figurative painting group and every Monday night we get together and paint. It’s funny how people come in here and they will walk right past all my great figurative paintings, and they will go, where’s the skulls?” Mouse shared.

Photograph by Bob Sideman

Considering he designed the first eight Grateful Dead album covers, it’s not that surprising. But before the skulls, Mouse drew monsters, hotrods, and pinstriped cars. Raised in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up in the heyday of Americana car culture and translated that experience into his artwork. “I liked the feel of the spray gun. It was hitting the surface really free flowing, and then I discovered the air brush. I had kids in the neighborhood bring over their T-shirts and I would draw pictures of their cartoons on them,” Mouse explained. He got so good at it he asked his parents if he could paint shirts at the state fair, and they built him a booth. “That went on for several years at hot rod shows and fairs. I got really good with an air brush and my hand was like an Olympic athlete,” he said.

After college, Mouse decided to move to California. “I heard that things were happening really cool in San Francisco and I was searching for something new. I thought this might be it. I went out with a caravan of people.” He drove a $3500 Porsche that he’d bought with money from painting T-shirts, but shortly after he arrived, his car somehow broke an axle. He heard Alton Kelley was a motorcycle mechanic. “I thought maybe he might be able to fix it. He came over and we talked a lot and realized that we had a lot in common. He became the art director of the Avalon Ballroom and the Family Dog. He brought Chet Helms, who was running it, over and I did a poster. Kelley was doing posters too, so we got together. I was the hand and Kelly was the lay out guy.  We did some earth-shaking posters, and they appeared in museums almost immediately around the world. I knew we had the tiger by the tail then.” he said.

Mouse and Kelly lived at 715 Ashbury, in the Haight neighborhood across the street from the house most of the Grateful Dead had taken up. “In the ‘60s San Francisco was so pristine. All the secondhand shops were full of all kinds of Victorian, Edwardian kinds of clothes. Everybody was dressing up in this these great clothes, high top shoes, granny boots, all these fashions, and having parties. The parties kicked in bigger until they had to rent a hall to have a party, because so many people would come to them. They were getting so big, and they were like Friday, Saturday, Sunday, we would dance to these great bands that were forming,” Mouse shared.  

Pulling from the beatniks, funk art, and psychedelic experimentation, Mouse combined his ideas into extraordinary designs. “We used to go to the San Francisco Library, where they had a ton of great books on old poster art from the turn of the century. We would study the lettering, the imagery, and old styles and bring a lot of that into the new stuff. I discovered Alphonse Mucha. I ripped off one of his ladies and it made a great poster out of it and changed the color of her hair and her skin. Years later, they made a documentary on Alphonse Mucha and came here and made me part of the documentary, because he was a big poster artist in Paris in the turn of the century and I had brought Alphonse Mucha into the new poster scene,” Mouse explained. Not only did his style evolve, but he found a collaboration for the ages with Kelley.

Working with the Grateful Dead, Mouse created several symbols, characters, and designs that essentially branded the band. “The thing about the Grateful Dead, aside from everything, is that it’s a great name. And what it refers to is the afterlife and the Egyptians. It’s something that’s a big mystery, a giant mystery, so the name is mysterious, and it refers to a whole lot of imagery,” he shared about the Dead aesthetic.

The story behind the legendary Skull & Roses image goes back to the days Mouse and Kelley spent at the SF Library looking at old poster art. It is a 19th century illustration in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Mouse said, “We ran across that illustration. We went, ‘wow that has Grateful Dead all over it.’  Kelly actually cut it out of the book with a pen knife. I colored it in and did some lettering on it, and it came out and it became like the Grateful Dead’s image.”

Today his style continues to grow with rich colors and important symbols. “I have been doing new versions of Skull & Roses and I have been naming them from acid. Names like Purple Haze, Loose Purple Flowers, Little Blue Flowers, and I call it Blue Dawn.  I’m working on one called White Lightning and Strawberry Fields Forever,” he shared. Mouse is designing a Mardi Gras poster for Skull & Roses and will be at the festival with prints for sale.

Trina Calderón is an LA-based writer, proud to be a part of the sunshine daydream of the Grateful Dead.