CARDIFF-BY-THE-SEA — Steve Barilotti describes him as “the most influential artist you’ve never heard of.” And Barilotti is determined to tell his tale.
Barilotti, a Cardiff-based journalist and filmmaker, is referring to Rick Griffin, who died in 1991. Many don’t recognize Griffin’s name, but his images are instantly familiar — the Rolling Stone magazine logo; the iconic posters kicking off the Summer of Love. Those were Griffin. He also designed artwork for Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead and was Surfer Magazine’s first illustrator.
“His art radically changed the face of growing countercultures in the 1960s,” Barilotti said. “That’s what I want to capture.”
Barilotti’s goal is to create a feature-length documentary about the life, art and times of Griffin. To do so, he launched a Kickstarter campaign, a website that allows anyone to contribute money to creative projects.
Though Barilotti and Griffin never spoke, their lives are entwined in many ways.
“He was the cool big brother I never had,” said Barilotti, who describes himself as “the younger brother of all the hippies.”
Barilotti grew up going to a Catholic school in the Inland Empire. When he was 10 years old, he saw the classic surfing movie “The Endless Summer.” Barilotti credits the spirit of the film with stoking a passion for the ocean and inspiring him to rebel, or as he puts it, “Being an altar boy wasn’t on the menu anymore.”
Barilotti happened to find solace in the three areas where Griffin’s artistic shadow looms large: surfing, underground comics and psychedelic rock. It was only later that Barilotti put two and two together and realized that “Griffin was behind much of the art that I loved.”
“I’m sure there are a lot of people who were like me before, who adored his work and never made that connection,” Barilotti said.
In 1991 Barilotti was a junior editor at Surfer Magazine, the same place that featured Griffin’s illustrations in the 1960s and 1970s, including the famous “Murphy” cartoons. By chance, one of Barilotti’s early assignments was to cover Griffin’s funeral, after Griffin passed away from a motorcycle accident. Among the eclectic mix of people at the funeral was Jerry Garcia, who Barilotti gathered up enough courage to approach for an interview.
“He gave me this beautiful five-minute interview, going on about how important Rick was to the (Grateful) Dead’s image and how much they loved Rick,” Barilotti said.
Barilotti said the article was a major breakthrough for him. Thanks in part to it, he later became editor of Surfer Magazine and went on to write and produce surfing documentaries. Barilotti said his Kickstarter campaign, a way of raising money that wasn’t around until recent years, has given him a chance to revisit the subject that meant so much to him and helped springboard his career — Griffin’s life.
“He’s art is very influential, something that should be covered,” Barilotti said. “His personal story is fascinating, too.”
Griffin’s life was largely shaped by a car accident in the mid-1960s that dislocated an eyeball, put him in a coma and left dramatic scarring on the left side of his face. Once he came out of the coma, his artwork transformed dramatically, becoming more abstract and ornate. He then moved to San Francisco, where his images were welcomed and celebrated, particularly at the height of “hippiedom.”
But his style, personality and location were constantly on the move. Griffin even designed posters for local restaurants and surfed Swami’s Beach when he lived in Encinitas for about a year in the 1970s. Later in life, he became a born-again Christian and painted fine art.
“It’s been said that no two people ever met the same Rick Griffin,” Barilotti said. “I like the idea of a documentary about of someone who’s constantly changing.”
Barilotti’s documentary is officially underway. Day-by-day, he’s getting closer to shining a light on Griffin’s art.
“I think it deserves to be known,” Barilotti said.
Those interested have until Oct. 31 to donate to Barilotti’s Kickstarter campaign, which can be found by searching on kickstarter.com.