Sometimes Stolen. Always Dead.

Dr. Romanelli returns with the second rendition of the Stolen Faces collaboration series, featuring contemporary artist Ted Gahl

Skeletons, specifically skulls, sometimes dancing. Bears, definitely dancing. Roses, especially red. Terrapins, turtles to most of us. The list goes on, as long as the line of faithful stretching behind the metaphorical bus, meandering from city to city, from venue to venue, from year to year, forever further, even when the band stopped touring, , they followed, to the numerous side projects, the re-inventions, the any-chance to reconvene, the commune and pay forward the love, and move the movement. And any great movement has great iconography. We can argue plenty about the Grateful Dead, but throughout the long strange trip, the images transcend—the tie-dye, the t-shirts, the art. Like the music, renditions remix readily to rarely be the same, yet always remain recognizable as the Dead.

From Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions to Dead & Company, the colorful characters are ever present, eventually elevating poster art and album covers into a lexicon of iconography. The Grateful Dead community continues to prove pervasive and even as the origins age, younger generations jump on the bus, adopting the images and symbols and making them their own while paying due respects to the originals, whether sometimes they know it or not, which is part of the American beauty.

Nowhere is this more true of than Steal Your Face, the Stealie, SYF, the logo first designed by longtime soundman and legendary bedroom chemist Owsley Stanley and friend Bob Thomas to keep track of the band’s equipment on tour. It’s now, quite simply, everywhere, posted and printed more than anyone knows and in just as many forms. The frontal bone of the toothy smiling skull, which originally held the 13-point lightning bolt, creates a perfect canvas for which to create, a frame to fill with anything from sport team logos to graffiti tags to just about any other iconography that allowed a Grateful Dead connection to be had by just about anyone and any brand.
Call it co-opted or call it straight stealing (forget the irony of it being called Steal Your Face, once it adorned the album of that name in 1976), the Dead were never ones to care about trademarks. Though they certainly came around to the commercialization of their carnival, the community’s foresight helped expose both what was possible and in-demand from the lot scene alone. The band and its limitless logos were mashups and memes before such words prescribed cultural controversy.

Perhaps the only thing more diverse than the inspirations from which the Grateful Dead pulls its music, is that of the people and places it pulls in, which in turn affects the way in the which any one of that audience interacts with the music and all that swirls around it, especially the symbolism. It’s the beauty of the band that is too often lost behind the saccharine stereotypes that just weren’t ever really true. The Dead Head is not easily lampooned.

Enter Stolen Faces, the spawn of Darren Romanelli, an independent artist, designer and Dead Head. “I just wanted a Popeye Stealie tee from the Fare Thee Well Grateful Dead shows in Chicago,” Romanelli says, tying the Chicago cartoon to band forever tied to the windy city. But he had the vision to see it as more than a one-off and partnered with the band to send-up the storied SYF logo by engaging artists across disciplines and genres (though always Dead Heads) to fill the frame as they saw fit to create a series of lot shirts for the ages.
“I wanted to invigorate the modern dialogue around the Dead,” Romanelli says, “and push that conversation into a new space to a new generation. The visual history of the Dead is so linked to the legacy of the band, and I wanted to allow artists to explore and pay tribute to that history, in a timeless yet timely manner, just as the Dead continues to thrive.”

On the dancing heels of Romanelli’s Lost Sailor arrives contemporary artist Ted Gahl, whose work adheres to no definitive style while showing a reverence (and irreverence) for art history. Sound familiar? “Beyond the Grateful Dead’s music,” Gahl says, “I have always been inspired by their refusal to be pinned down. As a visual person, a painter and drawer, I was drawn early to their extensive, highly involved lexicon. I became intrigued by the off the cuff album art and its immediate relationship to the time frame and feel of the albums. I dove into the posters, the characters, the entire culture of parking lot mashups that continue to circulate and multiply, seemingly forever. As a painter who consistently works in different modes, I really feel like I can identify with that spirit.”

What’s next? Wouldn’t we all like to know. But like the music, like the magic, like life, it’s anyone’s guess. Enjoy the ride.