What came first: art or psychedelics? We have plenty of evidence to suggest that humans have been creating the former and leveraging the latter since before the dawn of civilization as we know it—frequently combining the two.
Cave paintings that portray psychedelic mushrooms dating back over 10,000 years have been found worldwide, perhaps the most notable — and elaborate — of which is the Mushroom Bee Figure discovered in Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria, which is nearly 7,000 – 9,000 years old. For the sake of timescale, that’s over 2,000 years before the Pyramids of Giza were constructed, right about when the first cities were just beginning to take shape.(1, 2)
A few thousand years later, the psychedelic rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries were central to Ancient Greek culture, inspiring some of its most prominent artists and thinkers. These included the playwright Aristophanes, who famously wrote of the Mysteries in a play that prominently featured a chorus of singing frogs.(3)
Over the ensuing millennia, early humans would create psychedelic art portraying psychedelic mushroom and plant use across Asia and the Americas. We’ve found psychedelic material alongside the 400-year-old art it inspired in a cave in California. Then more recently, in the 1960s, psychedelics famously helped to launch a cultural revolution that included such psychonautic musical acts as Pink Floyd, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles.(4)
Psychedelics have continued to be a source of artistic inspiration to this day.
The Psychedelic Art of Alex Grey
I recently had the opportunity to connect with one such psychedelic artist: Alex Grey — the visionary visual artist. Grey also co-founded the Chapel of Sacred Mirrors (a sort of psychedelic temple an hour north of New York City) with his wife, Allyson.
“The visionary, mystical, and philosophical dimensions of psychedelics deeply and permanently altered my creative path,” Grey told me. “I was an artist before taking LSD at the age of 21 in 1975, but afterwards my artwork pointed toward the subject of higher consciousness, and it has remained that way the rest of my life. I’m currently 69 years old. Many of my paintings attempt to depict an intense or meaningful moment from a journey. Over the years, I’ve learned that other people who have tripped could tell that my work was inspired from that realm, and many have reported seeing remarkably similar, if not exactly the same, visions.”
Grey’s psychedelic artwork portrays humanoid beings and faces emerging out of a kaleidoscope of fractals, often accompanied by direct references to psilocybin mushrooms and other drugs. Patterns and repetition are central to his creations, as they are with the psychedelic experience. His work has been featured in galleries, museums, and installations around the world. You can see a spectacular example at the Meow Wolf installation Omega Mart in the Las Vegas-based surrealism venue, Area15.(5, 6)
Beyond his art’s trippy content, it should be no surprise that Grey found expansive creative inspiration in psychedelic drugs. As he explained himself, “There have been recent neuroimaging studies that show how psychedelics can increase neural interconnectivity throughout the brain, returning one to a state of wonder, similar to the way a young child’s brain is super activated. Neurogenesis [the growth of tissues in the brain] is also a physical result of psychedelic use. More brain matter is better for most of us.”
“All that extra processing power and curiosity can profoundly impact the artistic process.”―Alex Gray
“Psychedelics can open us to experiences of transcendent awe at the beauty of existence, an especially potent source of inspiration for artists,” Grey continued. “Psychedelics can sensitize us to viewing psychological meaning in visual art, and hearing music with unforgettable depth. Endless patterns and visionary scenes of archetypal symbology fill the artistic imagination with novelty and aesthetic possibility. Artists can gain insight into the pattern, ornament, and designs of world art and may feel in touch with the very source of creation.”
While the creativity-boosting aspects of psychedelics clearly impacted Grey’s work, less blatant perhaps is the aid he received via the substances’ more therapeutic benefits. Studies have shown a very real connection between creativity and mood disorders, an affliction that Grey experienced firsthand. As it turned it, psychedelics provided the healing he required.(7)
“Before taking LSD, I was a suicidally depressed artist,” he revealed, “and one morning pleaded for a sign not to kill myself. At a party later that evening, during my first LSD experience, I found God in the center of my being. With my eyes closed, I was inside a giant tunnel made of living iridescent mother of pearl. The brilliant love light of Spiritual knowledge was around the corner of the spiral tunnel, and although I was in the dark, I was going toward the light. In the curling tunnel, all the shades of gray connected the two polarities of black and white. My path was reset: I would change my name to Grey and bring the opposites together as my artistic mission. A philosophical mystical switch went on in my soul. It was a literal turning point for me. When I talked to Allyson about my mystical awakening at her party, she told me of her spiritual opening through LSD, and we fell in love and have been on a lifelong journey together.”
“My wife and best friend, Allyson Grey, is my favorite psychedelic artist,” he admitted when asked for psychedelic art recommendations. He then went on to provide a long list of psychedelic artists readers should check out, which is included below. “The number of exciting artists who choose to portray their visions will just continue to grow as psychedelics become legal.”
According to Grey, the marriage between art and psychedelics will remain strong moving forward.
“Psychedelics will be an ongoing influence on the future of the arts,” he asserted. “Spirituality and love will return as legitimate subjects for creative works. Consciousness collectives will explore the boundary dissolving edges between selfhood and spirit and work together to build new kinds of sacred spaces for people to journey in. There will hopefully be psycho-activism for repairing climate change.”
While the psychedelic experience in itself has proven time and again that it has the power to inspire artists, Grey does have some specific guidance for those seeking techniques that will maximize the creative potential offered by psychedelic journeys.(8)
“Become familiar with what psychedelics can do first before taking them,” he advised. “Take them responsibly, in a sacred set and setting, with a trusted guide near if possible. Have an intention and write it out in your trip journal. Keep notes on whatever you can. Take a big enough dose, then ask your own cosmic creative spirit how you should integrate the substances into your creative process.”
As Grey pointed out, many who have viewed his art report that his visions correspond to their own. I myself have recognized my psychedelic visual experiences in his art, particularly those I’ve witnessed on DMT. The uniformity of this visual content suggests the profound connection between us all, between the personal and the communal, between art and the audience. That is the power of art—taking what is interior and making it exterior; taking what is personal and making it shared. Revealing the hidden links between us all.
The similarities are striking when you look at Grey’s art and the Mushroom Bee Figure of Tassili n’Ajjer. I wonder what the ancient Algerian who painted the figure would have thought about Grey’s art. There’s something powerful about the persistence of these visions.
Perhaps above all, psychedelic art across the ages intimates the illusory nature of then and now, the deception of the self versus the other.
These definitions, it hints, are not all they’re cracked up to be.
Alex Grey’s Favorite Psychedelic Artists
This material is not intended as a replacement or substitute for any legal or medical advice. Always consult a medical professional about your health needs. Psychedelics are widely illegal in the United States, and readers should always be informed about local, state, and federal regulations regarding psychedelics or other drugs.
- Samorini, G. 1992. The oldest representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms in the world (Sahara Desert, 9000–7000 B.P.). Integration 2(3):69–78.
- Matthews, S. (2019). Pyramids of Giza. Av2 By Weigl.
- Griffith, M. (2013). Aristophanes’ Frogs. Oxford University Press.
- Seaford, R. A. S. (1994). Sophokles and the Mysteries. Hermes, 122(3), 275–288. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4477020
- Gannon, M. (2020, November 23). 400 years ago, visitors to this painted cave took hallucinogens. Science. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/400-years-ago-visitors-painted-cave-took-hallucinogens
- Creative Team | The Infinitizer at Omega Mart. (n.d.). Credits | Meow Wolf. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://credits.meowwolf.com/omega-mart/dramcorp/the-infinitizer
- Jamison, K. R. Manic-Depressive Illness and Creativity. (1995, February 1). Scientific American. Retrieved February 28, 2023, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/manic-depressive-illness-and-creati/
- Kaufman, S. B. (2013, October 3). The Real Link Between Creativity and Mental Illness. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness/