Alton Kelley was raised in Connecticut, where his father worked for Chance Vought building Corsair fighter planes for the US Navy. Kelley always drew pictures as a child, but his passion was hot rods; pin striping in particular. He went to art school at the Philadelphia Museum and College of Art with a major in industrial design. In 1959, Kelley hitchhiked to San Francisco to join the North Beach Beat Scene; he traveled south to Los Angeles, then to Mexico. After returning to art school at the Art Students League in New York City for a brief time, he worked as a helicopter mechanic for Sikorsky for two years and after he got laid off there he started working at a motorcycle shop.
Kelley, Jack Towle, Ellen Harmon, and Luria Castell founded the Family Dog Collective; Kelley allegedly came up with the name “…because everybody in the building had dogs.” (see The Art of Rock -Part I: 1960’s Fillmore and Avalon Concert Posters)
Although he had designed the flyers for the original Family Dog shows, Kelley lacked real drafting ability. When he met Stanley Mouse there was an instant connection. The two formed Mouse Studios and Kelley’s drawing skills improved to the point that he would be working left-handed on one side of the easel with Mouse on the other. “He had the most impeccable taste of anybody I knew,” said Mouse. “He would do the layouts, and I would do the drawing.” They worked together steadily for 15 years and on and off thereafter. Their Mouse Studios was located in a converted Lower Haight district firehouse where Janis Joplin first rehearsed with Big Brother & The Holding Company.
In his later years, Kelley joyfully returned to illustrating hot rods and custom cars, as fine art paintings, and for t-shirts and other merchandise.
Alton Kelley passed away peacefully at home June 1, 2008 of complications from a long illness.