Institute of Illegal Images – San Francisco, California - Atlas Obscura

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Institute of Illegal Images

A museum befitting the city responsible for supplying the majority of the world's LSD. 


Sometimes it can be a challenge when one’s passions and predilections overlap. Just ask Mark McCloud, proprietor of the world’s largest collection of acid blotter art. McCloud recalls that he originally, “kept tabs in the freezer for a long time because I was still snarfing them, but then when I first framed them I realized that truly was the way to avoid eating them!”

Enter the Institute of Illegal Images.

From his home in San Francisco’s Mission District, McCloud has amassed a curio of the Acid Age that is rumored to be larger than that of the entire United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Victorian house’s lower level is a more ‘official’ gallery of chemically inactive sheets and individual samples of acid collected from the 60’s through the “Noughties.”

Famous artwork ranging from Mickey Mouse in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ to comics by Robert Crumb have appeared on blotter sheets, but the images are used without the permission of the artists in order to protect them from being prosecuted as co-conspirators in illegal activity. McCloud also made blotter art for years, though is careful to note that he is an artist and art advocate, not a chemist.

Curating this flashback incarnate hasn’t come without its share of drawbacks. McCloud has twice been brought to trial based on the Institute’s contents, and his collection has undergone inspection from the FBI. Both times, judges and officials have agreed with McCloud’s original statements: none of the sheets are dipped, it’s just a very specific genre of art!

Of course, part of the potency and perceived danger of the Institute is its demonstration of just the opposite argument: in its personal and societal effects, the image cannot be separated from the hallucinogenic chemical, for the two work together to influence the experience of those partaking in LSD. This idea has provided artists a foundation from which to build the myriad of subject matter appearing on the blotters, ranging from the spiritual (Hindu gods, lotus flowers) to whimsical (cartoon characters), as well as cultural commentary (Gorbachev) and the just plain demented (Ozzy Osbourne).

Whether taking a stroll down memory lane, or appreciating the ingenuity and sense of humor in each framed pane, either way McCloud’s enormous Institute of Illegal Images has a bit of good old subversive fun for everyone.

The Atlas Obscura Podcast is a short, daily celebration of all the world’s strange and wondrous places. Check out this episode about the Institute of Illegal Images.

Know Before You Go

The institute is open by appointment only, at no charge. It's best to make an appointment way in advance, though stopping by without one may sometimes work too. Contact Mark at or leave a message and phone number at 415-821-6432 !When making an appointment, give your main reason for wanting to go so the owner can decide who to group you with.

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