T-shirt Tuesday: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

We recently discovered this vintage shirt from the psychedelic cult comedy film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, featuring the film’s iconic poster. Released in 1998, the movie was adapted from Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name. It starred Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro as journalists Raoul Duke (Thompson, pseudonymously) and Dr. Gonzo on an odyssey through the American west with psychoactive substances as their guiding light.

While the film was commercially unsuccessful, it re-introduced the ethos embodied by Thompson to a new generation. The counterculture of the 1960s had ultimately failed, and his literary work is seen as an emphatic depiction of anti-establishment politics that consequently arose in the 70s.

In the film, Duke travels to through the Mojave Desert to cover the Mint 400 race, just outside of Vegas, along with his attorney Dr. Gonzo, based on Oscar Zeta Acosta. From the psychedelic styles to the music, Terry Gilman’s depiction is as much of a tribute to latter mid-20th century American culture as it is to Thompson himself.

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 Set in the early 70s, the anti-Vietnam war sentiment is apparent, shown by war footage contrasted by images of peace and music at Woodstock in 1969. Thompson's Duke reminisces about living in 1960s San Francisco and the music and drugs that came to define it. A recurring image throughout the film that reflects Thompson’s real-life political stance is a tattered or American flag.

Thompson first entered the limelight with the release of Hell’s Angels, a book retelling a year of his life living and riding alongside the motorcycle gang. He also became well- known for his dislike of Richard Nixon, recounted in his book covering his 1972 reelection campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. 

Thompson’s blend of fact and fiction, known as gonzo journalism, or the New Journalism of the 60s and 70s, was at the time revolutionary. Rather than the objective style of reporting that dominated journalism, he broke free from these standards, writing in first person and using his own experience as a reporting lens.

In Fear and Loathing, Thompson pursues the murder of journalist Ruben Salazar, killed by Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department during the National Moratorium March against the Vietnam War in 1970. Thompson traveled with attorney and Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. The hope was that they could discuss Salazar's death and racial injustice in L.A. without the eyes of police on their back.

The 1980 film, Where the Buffalo Roam, also recounts the story of Hunter S. Thompson’s rise to fame, starring Bill Murray as Thompson and Peter Boyle as Acosta, referred to in the film as Carlo Lazlo. Acosta and Thompson first met when Acosta was the subject of the article, “Strange Rumblings in Aztlan,” wherein they decided on their trip to Vegas.

Often followed and harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department for his role in the Chicano Movement, Acosta was a revolutionary in his own right. In ‘72, he published his first novel, Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, telling the story of a lawyer fighting for marginalized peoples rights, and in ‘73 released The Revolt of the Cockroach People, a fictionalized account of the Chicano Moratorium and Salazar’s death. Acosta disappeared in 1974 while on a trip in Mexico, believed to have died from an overdose or in drug-related conflict. 

Another major aspect that became definitive of the hype surrounding Fear and Loathing are its graphics. Ralph Steadman, a Welsh illustrator, is best known for his collaboration and friendship with Thompson. Steadman is renowned for political and social caricatures, cartoons and picture books, featured in several articles and books by Thompson. 

While Thompson’s coverage came to define gonzo journalism, his controversial, drug-filled stories were colored by the berserk and splattered illustrations by Steadman, exemplified on the shirt above, reading, "Heart of Gonzo."

The two men first joined forces in 1970 for a trip to the Kentucky Derby for a Scanlan Monthly feature titled, “Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.” This article was major in putting Thompson’s name on the map and established him within counterculture credibility. 

Steadman also illustrated cartoons to accompany Thomspons’ coverage of the Honolulu Marathon, as well as book covers for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. At the time, he sold his illustrations for a fraction of their value. 

He’s also responsible for the trippy graphic that has become indistinguishable from the '98 film, as well as illustrations for Alice In Wonderland, and album covers for the Who, Frank Zappa, and Ambrosia. As recently as 2017, he illustrated the album cover for Travis Scott and Quavo’s Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho in his signature style. He also designed logos for Flying Dog beer, coming up with the original and controversial motto, “Good Beer No Shit.” 

Thompson holds his place in the literary historical canon for his new approach to journalism, and Fear and Loathing continues to receive praise from fans and critics alike. While we celebrate his legacy, it is equally important to recognize Oscar Zeta Acosta and Ralph Steadman as essential contributors to the cultural phenomenon.

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Piper Rosenberg
Piper Rosenberg