Updated: Apr 13, 2021
Penning a portrait of the high priest of underground cannabis art, Pat Ryan.
Throughout modern history, a great many artists and musicians have used marijuana to help enhance their creativity. But while creating art under the influence of cannabis has been fairly common, featuring it as the subject matter of art is far less so. When weed did begin to overtly manifest in works of art, it mostly did so in what was considered underground, even "degenerate" art forms of the time: jazz songs in the 1920s and 30s, beatnik poetry and novels in the 1950s, and comic books and rock concert posters in the 1960s and 70s. Naturally, many of the artists who created these bold, brilliant new genres of art would eventually be regarded as counterculture icons. One such artist is Pat Ryan.
Raised in suburban Long Island, Ryan found his calling early— beginning to paint and draw cartoons by the age of eight. A born rebel, he was heavily influenced by Mad Magazine , whose irreverent satire exposed "the shortcomings of the Leave it to Beaver generation."
“I just didn't buy the shit,” Ryan recalls. “I grew up in a very conformist society, and I wanted more out of life than that.”
His teenage years were spent in Greenwich Village, where he hung out in jazz clubs and coffeehouses and got into Dylan, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. Apparently though, even NYC’s happening beatnik scene wasn't enough to satisfy Ryan’s yearnings. As soon as he was old enough, he left for the Left Coast.
“I actually left home on a two-week vacation and I just never came back,” he chuckles.
In 1962, Ryan moved to Hermosa Beach, where he discovered the SoCal surfer party scene, as well as weed and psychedelics. In the ensuing years, he married an African-American singer named Cyretta, moved to South Central, and started a family. He landed a well-paying gig as an art director at an ad agency on Sunset Boulevard (just across the street from the Whiskey a Go-Go), started “hanging out with lots of Hollywood weirdos from Laurel Canyon,” and doing tons of acid. Despite these fun times, however, he soon grew tired of city life: afraid for his family’s safety amidst the 1965 Watts Riots, and disillusioned by phony Hollywood types and corporate execs at his job, he decided he wanted out.
“Ad agencies are total bullshit,” Ryan complains. “I was making money, but I was spending all of my time taking clients to lunch and looking at portfolios, and I thought, ‘this is not being an artist—this is being a flunky.’ I had to leave.”
So in 1971, Ryan packed up his family and moved up to the small town of Fairfax in Marin County, where he opened up a tiny studio and jumped into the area’s vibrant art scene. Within the first couple of months, he met a kindred soul that would become his best friend and partner—comic artist Dave Sheridan.
“I got a copy of a comic he was doing called Mother's Oats,” Ryan recounts. “Inside the front cover was a fake ad that said, ‘Would you like to get fucked by a famous artist?’ and he’d put his home address at the bottom! Well, the address was mere blocks from where I was living, so I packed a few joints and a six-pack of beer, walked over to his house, and knocked on his door. I introduced myself, and we became best friends right away. I had met somebody who had the exact same mindset as I did. It was amazing.”
Ryan moved into Sheridan’s studio, and the duo formed C.O.D. (Consistently Over Drawn!) Grafix. Sheridan created the comic character Dealer McDope, which he licensed to a popular weed-themed board game (Last Gasp Publishing, 1971), and a few years later collaborated with Gilbert Shelton and Paul Mavrides on the cannabis cult classic The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Meanwhile, Ryan produced a series of 12 Native American-themed paintings commemorating Wounded Knee, as well as a comic about hitchhiking called Hit the Road (The Print Mint, 1972), which Sheridan helped him get published.
THE PEANUT GALLERY
In 1974, the doobious duo moved into a large, two-story building in San Rafael that served as a collective studio space for a group of now-legendary artists, including rock poster greats Alton Kelley, Stanley ‘Mouse’ Miller, and Victor Moscoso. Officially named the Concrete Foundation of Fine Arts, the art collective was better known as "The Peanut Gallery." To raise money for rent each month, the artists threw huge, outrageous gatherings dubbed the “Black Death Parties”—so-named for the Black Death beer (and t-shirts) Sheridan made and sold there. Eventually, the group also hosted a big art show they called the Concrete Foundation of Fine Art Show, for which Ryan painted a Chinese communist propaganda-style poster.
CALIFORNIA HOMEGROWERS ASSOCIATION
It was during their salad days at the Peanut Gallery that the two partners came up with the idea to collaborate on a series of iconic marijuana brand label parodies they called the California Homegrowers Association.
“Dave and I, we’d sit around smoking joints and coming up with fictitious brand names [for weed]...we made a whole list of them. And that’s what became the California Homegrowers Association.”
Some of the fake brands they created included Harvest Moon, Sticky Fingers, and High Society, among others—each one a humorously charming illustration inspired by the California produce crate-style agricultural labels of the day.
They planned to market a line of merchandise to stoners all over America—both in headshops and via ads they placed in the back of High Times magazine. Unfortunately, however, their products hit the market in 1982 just as Reagan's drug war was getting off the ground—leading to the wide-scale closings of head shops across the country and kneecapping their dream before it ever had a chance to run.
In 1979, the Peanut Gallery was evicted from their building. Though no longer all under the same roof, they soon reconstituted under a new name: The Artista Gang.
"[Artista] was basically Alton Kelly's baby," says Ryan. "He was into hot rods and car clubs, and he thought if we wore these jackets, we could be like a gang. We weren't really a gang, but we had these cool black satin jackets with piping and the dragon logo on the back." (The logo is an image of a rainbow dragon squeezed out of a paint tube, which he and Sheridan collaborated on).
Throughout the 1980s, Artista Gang members designed album covers and concert posters for several classic rock performers, including Journey, Santana, the Grateful Dead, and Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits, for which Ryan did the lettering.
In 1983, he painted a killer “Don't Tread on Me” t-shirt design  for his friend Doug Green of The Family Dog.
It was also during this time that Ryan created his famous “Indoor Bud” painting, which now resides in our collection : Prominent against a red background is a dense, dark nug that sparkles with crystals—an effect he achieved by coating it with clear acrylic paint and sprinkling it with glitter.
That image ended up gracing the cover of the Fall/Winter 1985 issue of the legendary Sinsemilla Tips magazine. Another of Ryan's paintings, an outdoor bud, had appeared on their previous issue .
Sinsemilla Tips wasn’t the only reefer rag Ryan was featured in during this period: the March 1983 issue of High Times ran an article on the Cali Homegrowers Association, and their t-shirts were featured in the December gift guide. HT also ran a couple of Dr. McDope comics drawn by Ryan.
Like the Peanut Gallery before them, The Artista Gang were notorious for their wild parties. One particular rager in 1983—held at a clubhouse in the upscale San Anselmo neighborhood of Sleepy Hollow—featured a parade of guys in gorilla suits roller-skating down the street and the group’s first-ever cannabis judging contest. By Ryan’s account, strain samples were brought in from all over California, and the winner was a clear standout.
“The winner was a guy from Santa Cruz named Dave Watson, a.k.a. Sam the Skunkman,” Ryan recalls. “He had something so sticky, nobody had seen anything like it before. It was outrageous. He won hands-down.” Ryan had first met the Skunkman (who's also a member of our advisory board) when Sam reached out to ask if Ryan had any real cannabis labels to add to his collection. (Two years later, Skunkman would smuggle around a quarter-million seeds to the Netherlands, where that sticky Skunk strain would become the progenitor of around 90% of the kind bud we smoke today. In fact, it was after speaking with Sam in Amsterdam about these California weed competitions that High Times editor-in-chief Steve Hager was inspired to create the Cannabis Cup.)
Unlike the Peanut Gallery, which consisted of only nine artists, the Artista Gang grew exponentially—eventually numbering over 700 members and continuing to this day. Sadly though, Dave Sheridan would never get to see what Artista would become: diagnosed with lymphatic cancer on March 3, 1982, he died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage less than a month later—just a week shy of his daughter’s birth. He was only 38 years old.
“We went out to spread his ashes in the waters surrounding Angel Island and were hit by a giant storm that tossed the boat all around,” Ryan remembers. “When it finally broke and the sun came out, so did the ganja! I’d rolled about 50 joints which I passed all around. Whatever was left, we threw overboard with his ashes. Watching those ashes and joints floating away across the bay was a memory I will treasure forever.”
HIGH IN HUMBOLDT
In 1992, Ryan moved up to a log cabin in Redway, in the heart of the fabled Emerald Triangle. There he spent several years living pioneer-style and cranking out over 50 posters for clients like the Mateel Community Center, Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, and Reggae on the River, as well as a series of t-shirts featuring new characters and fake brands he’d created, such as Seaweed, Red Eye, and Hightops.
He moved back down to Sonoma County in 1999 where—with some help from his Humboldt pals—he turned his garage into a grow room and started producing his own “really wicked bud." An avowed sativa man, Ryan grew mostly Orange Crush, but now says his favorite strain is Blue Dream.
“Blue Dream is just perfect for me—it gives me a very creative high for like two to three hours and I still can function perfectly.”
The past decade has been one of Ryan’s most prolific yet. In 2011, Last Gasp published a forty-year anthology of his art entitled Sinsemilla Sinsations—a book of 30 postcards emblazoned with his signature works . He also came out with a set of greeting cards called “High Again,” based on the designs he did while living in Humboldt. In 2013, he returned to his roots with a series of weed-themed comic books for Golden Frog Press called Tales of the World Famous Drive Thru Bud based on many of the iconic characters he’s created over the years, including Humboldt Honey, Super Skunk, and Budzilla    .
Golden Frog has also released a full line of related stoner swag, including bong wraps, buttons, postcards, coffee mugs, and magnets—most of which we have in our collection, and all of which they sell online, and at cannabis events and comic conventions up and down the West Coast—bringing the merchandising dream he and Sheridan once shared full circle.
Ryan is currently working on a new series of paintings based on popular strain names (similar to the “Purple Haze” painting we have in our collection ). He recently completed art for “Ice Cream Cake” and “Blueberry Kush” and next plans to take on “White Widow.” He also created a killer custom "World of Cannabis" poster for us last year.
At the ripe old age of 78, Pat Ryan’s party days may be a fading memory, but his creativity, talent, and drive have never been sharper. We’re proud to feature his amazing art in our permanent collection and honored to have him as one of our esteemed 420 Icons and advisory board members.
 Mad magazine; April 1968 Issue; Item #M021
 "California Homegrowers Association" Button; Item #C029
 "California Homegrowers Association" Postcard Set; Item #C026
 "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt; by Pat Ryan; 1983; Item #C084
 "Indoor Bud" original painting; by Pat Ryan; 1972; Item #A002
 Sinsemilla Tips magazine; Summer 1985 Issue; Item #M027
 Sinsemilla Sinsations; Last Gasp Press, 2011; Item #B056
 "Purple Haze" original painting; by Pat Ryan; 2003; Item #A001
For a deeper dive into Pat Ryan's life and career, listen to Episode #4 of our Cannthropology podcast here or wherever you get your podcasts.