The mail art of Ray Johnson

Originally published at: The mail art of Ray Johnson | Boing Boing


When I was in design school in the late '90s, some of my classmates rediscovered the postal system. They were young adults who had several years of email behind them and perhaps had never really used the post before.

So like good designers they set about establishing the boundaries of the thing to discover that pretty much anything would be delivered if it had a more or less legible address.

I recall receiving a crushed plastic cider bottle in the mail with the address barely readable inside.



I think I’ve got the coolest Ray Johnson anecdote that’s going to be posted here.

I grew up two blocks away from Johnson. Same house number, two streets apart.

We occasionally got his mail. Mostly junk mail, or bills, which I or one of my sisters would walk over and drop on his porch. His house was small and tidy and had papered-over ground floor windows.

We didn’t know the guy. I’d see him in the library. It was openly speculated that he was gay, but despite dumb-ass Long Island prejudices of the time, it seemed to be “no big deal” even in the 70s and 80s. Just an eccentric late-middle-aged guy who kept to himself.

The neat part:

My sister and cousin wrote to each other frequently, and engaged in a tween-girl version of correspondence art. Envelopes with collages glued on them. Envelopes made from pieces of construction paper stitched together with yarn. Envelopes artily scorched along the edges.

Well. On a few occasion the post office delivered these to JOHNSON, assuming they were a part of his Correspondence Art project!

He would put these in an envelope with the correspondence school logo and mail them to my sister, sometimes with a very brief note of appreciation and a sketch of his “pooky” character.

It would be interesting to see if Johnson photographed and shared these outsider-art versions of his life’s work.


Dang, that’s a great memory. Happy New Year.


Other than this questionable and unnecessary sentence, nice anectdote.


This guy?

/ OK Boomer


Not to be confused with the Youtube artiste Ray William Johnson.



Make sure to check out the documentary on Johnson, ‘How to Draw a Bunny’. I had been meaning to watch it for years and when I finally did I was very glad. A very inspiring person who it turns out inspired many other people whose work has been inspiring me for years.

one fine fall day in 1988, while i was taking some time off from college to earn enough money to go back, i started sending out letters to a friend of mine going to indiana university. the letters were return addressed to various addresses across the country and the enclosed letters were appropriate to the return address. the letter “from” truth or consequences, new mexico was all about the consequences he would face if he didn’t tell the truth. the missive from ozona, texas was a sexy note which was also a complaint about how “just because i like to have sex with multiple partners doesn’t mean it’s right to call me the ozona hole.”

i spent a month writing and mailing numerous "punny"letters. i concluded the project by mailing out 10 postcards i had purchased from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. all dropped off on the same day into the same mail slot at the post office in my hometown in central texas.

the results were a study in bell curves. my friend reported that he got one postcard the very next day. he got two on the second day, three on the third day, two one the fourth day, one on the fifth day, and then there was a pause, nothing on the sixth day which was a sunday, nothing on the seventh day, nor on the eighth day, nor the ninth, nor the 10th, and then on the 11th day he received it. oddly enough it was postmarked minneapolis/st. paul. after some discussion with a neighbor of my parents who was a counter clerk we decided that that postcard got caught up with a piece of mail that was headed to minnesota and it dropped out at a sorting facility and then went to its intended destination.

that was a lovely adventure in postage. truly a bargain. the cost of a first class stamp at the time was $0.22 which is roughly equivalent to $0.50 today. even at the present $0.58 first class postage is an incredible bargain.

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