Throughout their career, the Grateful Dead (and subsequent spin-off bands) have used numerous logos and mascots. These designs and characters have become instantly recognizable cultural icons, featuring on albums, merchandise, and countless concert posters. In this article I’ll explore some of the most popular ones and posters they appear on.
Steal Your Face Skull (“Stealie”)
Designed by Owsley “Bear” Stanley and Bob Thomas, this iconic logo started out as stencil art originally used to mark the Grateful Dead’s equipment while on tour in 1969. It soon appeared on the album cover of 1972’s “History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice)”.
The name Steal Your Face Skull (often just referred to as “Stealie”) comes from the 1972 song “He’s Gone”. One of the lyrics, “steal your face right off your head“, was originally about the band’s former manager (and drummer Mickey Hart’s father) who had stolen money from them.
However, the term “face stolen” caught on with Deadheads as a form of “mind blown” (usually in reference to hearing particularly good jams).
In 1976, the Dead released an album titled “Steal Your Face” with the skull on the cover. The term has fittingly stuck to it since.
The Stealie is one of music’s most recognizable logos, and can be found on countless concert posters throughout the Dead’s career. One example is the poster for their famous 1977 performance at Cornell University, often considered one of their best shows.
Skull and Roses (“Bertha”)
The legendary poster for the Grateful Dead’s 1966 shows at the Avalon Ballroom supplied them with one of their most used mascots: the skull and roses. Alton Kelley and Stanley Mouse designed the poster, but the famous skeleton originally comes from a 1913 “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” illustration by Edmund Joseph Sullivan.
The band later used the design again on their untitled 1971 album (often called “Skull and Roses”). The first song on the album was “Bertha”, and fans sometimes refer to the mascot as such.
Uncle Sam Skeleton
The 1980 Radio City Music Hall poster designed by Dennis Larkins and Peter Barsotti is one of the most famous to feature this skeleton. According to “So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead” by David Browne, the poster was not well received by the venue. Rockefeller executives argued that the skeleton “suggests the Music Hall’s impending death and is unpatriotic”. They also claimed that the building’s façade shown in the poster was copyrighted and could not be used. Radio City first tried to shut down the performances completely, but in the end only stopped the band from selling the poster and demanded all copies be destroyed.
Like the Stealie, the colorful Grateful Dead bears first appeared on the aforementioned 1972 album, “History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One (Bear’s Choice)”. Designed by Bob Thomas, they appear on the back cover and are a reference to the band’s soundman, Owsley “Bear” Stanley, who chose and compiled the songs on the album.
According to Stanley, “a 36 point lead type-slug of a generic bear” originally inspired Thomas’ design. It was “a standardized figure from a printer’s font of type”, though the specific font is unknown. Stanley has also stated that while people usually think the bears are dancing, they are actually marching.
Along with many of the Dead’s other mascots, the bears continue to be used heavily on concert posters for spin-off and sequel bands such as Dead & Company. Of the 19 shows from their 2019 Summer tour, at least 12 posters used the bears in some form. This includes the poster for their June 26th performance in Bristow, VA. The design is by Gregg Gordon, and prominently features the bears in their classic look.
Terrapin Station Turtles
For the Grateful Dead, the famous jamming turtles first appeared on the cover of their 1977 album “Terrapin Station”. Kelley and Mouse designed the cover, but the turtles are based off a drawing by Heinrich Kley.
The Kley terrapins had already appeared on a 1966 poster for a concert by The Turtles at the Fillmore Auditorium. However, after “Terrapin Station” they quickly became a prominent logo for the Dead. Turtles featured in their art ever since.
One of many examples is Michael Everett’s tour poster for the Grateful Dead’s 1995 Summer tour, which shows a large turtle with Stealies on its shell. Unfortunately, this poster is also noteworthy as it is from the Grateful Dead’s final full tour. Jerry Garcia passed away one month after the final date in Chicago.
Besides the ones mentioned earlier, many other skeleton mascots also appear throughout Grateful Dead album covers and concert posters. Some examples include the lute playing jester skeleton (designed by Stanley Mouse in 1972), “The Fiddler” skeleton seen on the album cover of “Blues For Allah” (designed by Phillip Garris in 1974), and the iconic row of colorful dancing skeletons.
Of the many musician and band mascots/logos that can be found in music history, there is no denying that the Grateful Dead have some of the most iconic and well-established. Seeing these designs anywhere instantly evokes the Dead and the culture of Deadheads that surrounds them.