Over the course of their career the Grateful Dead accumulated an array of iconic artwork that has provided a visual accompaniment to their music. Derived primarily from album covers, images such as Steal Your Face, the Dancing Bears, and the Terrapins have endured time staples of Grateful Dead merchandise including many of our most popular products. What follows is a brief history of these symbols and their origins.
Steal Your Face, often shortened to Stealie or SYF, is perhaps the most popular and recognizable Grateful Dead icon. Bob Thomas and Owsley “Bear” Stanley designed it for the Dead in 1969. According to Stanley’s website, the image of the red and blue circle divided by a lightning bolt was originally inspired by a sign he saw off the California freeway. Bob Thomas completed the design by surrounding it with a skull.
This image was originally used to identify the band’s equipment while they were on tour and later served as the cover art for the album Steal Your Face (1976), which is where its name originates. In addition to gracing countless pieces of Dead merchandise, variations of Stealie have been used by Grateful Dead reincarnations Bob Weir & RatDog, Phil Lesh & Friends, and Furthur.
If Stealie isn’t the most recognizable or popular image associated the Dead, then the Dancing Bears certainly are. The Bears are the work of Bob Thomas and were featured on the back cover of History of the Grateful Dead, Volume One or Bear’s Choice (1973). “Bear” Stanley insists that these “Dancing” Bears are not dancing at all, but are in fact marching.
Various skeletons have been featured on Grateful Dead album art and merchandise. Their self-titled album Grateful Dead (1971) features a skeleton with a head of red roses, designed by Alton Kelly and Stanley Mouse, which is often called Bertha after the album’s first track. The Grateful Dead Movie (1977) features an animated skeleton dressed as Uncle Sam designed by Gary Gutierrez. Images of skeletons are also featured on other album covers including Skeletons in the Closet (1974) and Blues for Allah (1975).
The Terrapins are another Kelly and Mouse design that first appeared on the cover of the album Terrapin Station (1977). Generally, the term terrapin refers to a coastal turtle native to the Eastern United States: the diamondback terrapin; however, in British English the word “terrapin” is a catch all term for any semi-aquatic freshwater turtle.
Originally depicted as a pair, one with a banjo and the other with tambourine, the Terrapins have since been depicted variously. Examples include our shell-backed friends equipped with an electric guitar or a lute, conducting a train, frolicking through sunflowers, hitchhiking, or truckin' up to Buffalo on album covers, tapestries, shirts, and so on.
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