The History of and Story Behind The Grateful Dead Logo

Grateful Dead

It’s not fair to say a band lives and dies by the quality of its logo, but a good one doesn’t exactly hurt. The Roling Stones’ “Hot Lips”, Social Distortion’s dancing “Skelly”, Led Zeppelin’s “Zoso”… all iconic bands, all made that little bit more iconic thanks to their excellent choice in logos. When it comes to band emblems, though, few are quite so legendary (or quite so many) as the Grateful Dead’s. As anyone who knows their music history will tell you, the Grateful Dead has a long, proud association with the visual arts. As the Dallas News notes, they were one of the first bands to use psychedelic light shows and among the first of their peers to realize the pulling power of a well-designed gig poster. With so much visual iconography to draw from, it’s little wonder they struggled to put their name behind just one emblem. And why would they need to when they had such a fabulous array of images to choose from? But for most people, there’s one design in particular that screams ‘Grateful Dead’ – the “Steal Your Face” lightning skull.

The Story of the ‘Steal Your Face’ Logo

If you’ve heard of the Grateful Dead, you’ll know their ‘Steal Your Face’ lightning skull logo. As intrinsically linked to the band as psychedelia, it’s been a part of the Dead’s history for more years than most of us have been alive. Weirdly enough, it was created less from intent and more by necessity. It all started with a man called Augustus Owsley Stanley III, or ‘Bear’ for short. Along with being the first known private individual to manufacture mass amounts of LSD, Bear was the Dead’s very first soundman. In 1969, the Dead were doing the festival rounds – great for raising their fan numbers, maybe, but a nightmare for Bear and the other members of crew who had to sort out their gear from the other bands. “The Dead in those days had to play a lot of festivals where the equipment would all wind up in a muddle bacstage. Since every band used the same type of gear it all looked alike. We would spend a fair amount of time moving the pieces around so we could read the name on the boxes. I decided that we needed some sort of marking we could identify from a distance,” he’s since recalled on his blog.

Sometimes, inspiration strikes you in the most unlikely of places. In Bear’s case, the light bulb moment came as he was driving along the freeway one night in the rain. After glancing to the side, his eyes were drawn to a particular sign. The sign was a circle with a white bar running through it. The top of the circle was orange, the bottom was blue. Unable to make out the name of the firm it was advertising, all of Bear’s attentions were given to the visuals… and that’s when he had an idea. What if he swapped the orange for red? What if he binned the white bar for a 13-point lightning bolt? After discussing the idea with Bob Thomas, a close friend and graphic design artist, Bear set about committing the idea to paper. During a brainstorming session with Thomas, the pair came up with the idea of adding a skull. And thus, a logo was born. Bear had his marking for the band’s equipment, and the band had an image that over 50 years later, is as ingrained in their DNA as Jerry Garcia’s beard.

The Meaning Behind ‘Steal Your Face’

The inspiration behind the lightning bolt logo may have been something as banal as a street sign, but the myth around it is far from mundane. And the debate surrounding it are far from over. Why, for example, did Owsley choose 13 points for the lightning bolt? Some have posited that the 13 points represent the original American colonies. Others think it’s a reference to the 13-step process that goes into making LSD (probably the more likely explanation of the two, considering its creator). Some think it’s a reference to the Sumerian Zodiac, while still others think it’s a nod to the 13th Tarot card: ‘Death’. Owsley himself has stayed out of the discussion. Maybe he can’t remember the reason (recreational drug use has its consequences). Or maybe he just likes to keep us guessing.

The Other Logos

‘Steal Your Face’ might be the image most of us best associate with the Dead, but it’s far from the only logo in their cannon. As per WIKI, some of the other famous images associated with the band include:

Skull and Roses

Designed by Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse, the Skull and Roses logo draws it inspiration from the black and white drawing by Edmund Joseph Sullivan that appears in the 1913 edition of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. After Kelley and Mouse added a splash of color and some lettering to the image, it was deemed worthy of appearing on the cover for the album Grateful Dead (1971) after making its debut 4 years earlier on a poster for the Dead’s live shows at the Avalon Ballroom.


What band other than the Grateful Dead could take the image of a flute wielding skeleton dressed as a jester and turn it into a logo? The ‘Jester’ was created by Stanley Mouse in 1972 and used on the cover of The Grateful Dead Songbook.

“Dancing” Bears

Just as iconic as the Steal Your Face logo are the ‘Dancing Bear’s. Coincidentally enough, they’re also the handiwork of Owsley Stanley. Although just to make one thing clear, those bears aren’t dancing. Not according to their designer, anyway. “The bears are not really ‘dancing’. I don’t know why people think they are; their positions are quite obviously those of a high-stepping march,” he’s since insisted.

Dancing Terrapins

Owsley Stanley aside, Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse are responsible for more iconic Grateful Dead graphics than anyone else. Case in point, the ‘Dancing Terrapins’, a pair of tiny turtles that first appeared on the cover of the album Terrapin Station (1977) before dancing their way into Deadhead legend.

Uncle Sam Skeleton

Created by Gary Gutierrez for The Grateful Dead Movie (1977), Uncle Sam Skeleton eludes to the movie’s main theme song, “U.S. Blues”.

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