Richly talented artist and cartoonist originally from Palos Verdes, California; best known to surfers as the creator of Murphy, the cheerful cartoon gremmie who debuted in Surfer magazine in 1961; also celebrated as one of the San Francisco psychedelia movement's "Big Five" artists.
Griffin was born (1944) and raised in Palos Verdes, began surfing at age 12, and learned to draw by copying Mad magazine cartoons. As a high school freshman he charged 50 cents to sketch wave-riding surf characters onto T-shirts; at 16 he illustrated a price list for Greg Noll Surfboards in exchange for a new board; in late 1960 he met John Severson, who had just published the first issue of Surfer magazine, and agreed to produce a cartoon strip: "The Gremmies" was published in the second issue of Surfer; "Murphy and the Surfing Contest," the first in the Murphy series, appeared in the following issue. With his beaming smile and mop of sun-bleached hair, Murphy was quickly accepted as a favorite surf world mascot; he made the cover of Surfer in 1962, and he was featured in each issue of the magazine until late 1964.
A 1963 car accident left Griffin with a damaged left eye and long scars on the side of his face. It also affected him psychologically. Murphy vanished for five years, then turned up occasionally between 1969 and 1987, first as a kind of guide to a hallucinatory fantasy world, then as a chirpy born-again Christian, and finally as a somewhat muted surfing philosopher. All told, Surfer published 28 Murphy strips.
Griffin moved to San Francisco in 1966, after attending Chouinard Art Academy (now California Institute of the Arts) in Valencia, California. In 1965 he'd begun illustrating the zany Griffin-Stoner adventures for Surfer, with cartoon versions of himself as the cunning beatnik and Surfer photographer Ron Stoner as the gee-whiz innocent. Griffin's cartoons, while still fun and jovial, had become denser, and were occasionally populated with stoic Native Americans, as well as sly references to the counterculture scene he'd become a part of in San Francisco. A close inspection of the Griffin-Stoner strips reveals a Grateful Dead poster, a cluster of magic mushrooms, and background characters pulling on joints or hookah pipes. Eleven Griffin-Stoner strips appeared between 1965 and 1967.
Earning notice for the poster he made announcing the 1967 Human Be-In at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park—later rememberd as the Summer of Love's inaugural event—Griffin was hired to make coming-attractions posters for acts at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium, including Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane. He also created the original logo for Rolling Stone magazine, and did album cover artwork for the Grateful Dead (Aoxomoxoa), The Eagles (On the Border), Jackson Browne (Late for the Sky), and Quicksilver Messenger Service (Sons of Mercury). Griffin's cartoons were published in Zap Comix, the seminal underground magazine founded in 1967 by cartoonist R. Crumb. He returned now and again to the surf world, producing the artwork for three surf movies: Pacific Vibrations (1969), Five Summer Stories (1972), and Blazing Boards (1983).
Griffin died in a motorcycle accident in 1991, at age 47. His wake was attended by Jerry Garcia and other members of the late-'60s San Francisco art and music scene, as well as a number of his old Surfer magazine associates. Griffin was married and had five children.
Rick Griffin, a biography and retrospective written by Gordon McClelland, was published in 1980; his work is also featured in 2003's Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963–1975. Griffin was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame in 1997. A show of Griffin's poster art was staged at San Francisco's Artrock Gallery in 2001; Heart and Torch: Rick Griffin's Transcendence was staged at the Laguna Art Museum in 2007.
In 2013, surf writer Steve Barilotti was working on a feature-length documentary on Griffin.