Sziporka (‘Sparky’)

– The State Drug 1970-74 – 

(research together with Milos Toth)

– The State Drug 1970-74 – 

In the 1960s and ’70s, the flourishing drug culture of the West, mainly the United States, caused a stir in the Eastern Bloc as well, and especially triggered the curiosity of the younger generation. The state propaganda attempted to demonize the phenomenon by any means, but the heightened interest threatened with getting the youth’s entertainment habits out of the state-controlled framework. Therefore, the Central Committee decided to introduce a state-produced and propagated pseudo-drug, which was put on the market in various forms (soft drinks, pills, cigarettes), under the name Sziporka (‘Sparky’). Sziporka was produced by the State Institute of Psychedelia, established for this sole purpose, and was the Eastern Bloc’s resounding response to the decadent drug culture of the West, as a domesticated, state socialism-adjusted variety of „psychosis”. The primary target audience was the younger generation, whom they sought to address through the period’s pop-culture products (musical films, posters, newspaper ads, magazine articles), thus taking the wind out of the sail of the youthful rebellious spirit. As Sziporka did not contain any real active substances, its effect was different for each individual, and naturally worked on a placebo principle.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

(Thank you! It’s going to be delicious!)

A bottle of ecstasy – the Hungarian Coca-Cola

Sziporka was also given a thorough, elaborate, comprehensive image, and became one of the defining, emblematic brands of the ’70s. The most popular creative professionals worked on the multitude of newspaper ads, posters and packaging designs. Sziporka – depending on the chosen medium – was presented in a target group-specific way, from classic, monochrome, graphical ads, through creatives imitating a youthful, energetic, western design, all the way to psychedelic visual phrasing.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

From clean sources only – the state drug

The greatest challenge for the central propaganda-machine was adjusting the approval of drug consumption with the dominant ideology. Similarly to many other Western phenomena that Kádárism implemented into its own ideology, they referred back to folk tradition as a clean source in the case of Sziporka, as well. The purpose of introducing the drug was evoking a sort of „valve effect”, but in its forms of appearance, we can recognize a tendency to overcompensate, marking the era of peripheral existence. As they managed to make the jazz genre, which was previously regarded as decadent and therefore prohibited, presentable by emphasizing its stylish class-warrior, folk characteristic by domestic ideologists in the beginning of the ’60s, referencing Hungarian folk tradition confirmed the support for drug use in the case of Sziporka, as well.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

Wise-harrow – the dubious intoxication

According to the official narrative, the name Sziporka is the colloquial term of the active ingredient of the drug, a plant named wise-harrow (Onosis visionarius), but in reality, it was the artifice of the State Institute of Psychedelia’s (SIA) propagandists. Wise-harrow has been used in folk medicine since the late Middle Ages, but there are no historical or ethnographic records about its recreational use. Wise-harrow, or Sziporka has been preserved by many myths and folk songs, but it appears that its usage was the privilege of people with special abilities. According to scientific evidence available today, the drug does not contain psychoactive substances, so it can be assumed that the effects previously attributed to it could only result in self-suggested intoxication.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

Died-away sparks – the end of triumph

The story of Sziporka took a surprising turn in a few years: it became a loose cannon. The placebo effect developed in sudden intensities, and often resulted in unexpected mass psychosis, especially at beat concerts. By that time, it became apparent that Sziporka has a psychoactive effect even without active substances: it released the genie from the bottle, which had to be put out of action.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

Real changes took place in the personalities of Sziporka-using young people; they felt the smell of freedom, and had less and less respect for authority. After a while, the drug users produced real symptoms of addiction, and were willing to do anything for another dose, even if that meant taking the path of sin.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

The state authority had to withdraw. First, they prepared for the prohibition in the media: they published reports describing atrocities of furious young people swimming in Sziporka-ecstasy one after another, and did not primarily blame the drug, but its excessive, abusive use. They justified the failure by claiming that the socialist youth, due to a lack of ideological commitment, was not mature enough to use the drug responsibly. They hoped to find the solution by strengthening the ideological role of the Communist Youth League and a „tighter grip”. In the end, Sziporka was quietly removed from the market, the National Institute of Psychedelia was shut down in 1974, and the topic was considered taboo for a long time. However, Sziporka’s „legacy” was perceptible for a long time, and many trace back the formation of the „bum” subculture to the mid-seventies.

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

(The special cigarette made with Sparky was one of the most popular product of State Psychedelic Institute. Some 1,5 M was produced the best years.)

János Brückner - Milos Toth – Sziporka 'Sparky' – The State Drug 1970-74

(exhibition view)

All text by Milos Toth



The Rhapsodic Tonsure

Shown at the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum, Budapest

János Brückner, Mátyás Falvai


The artists of the romantic era were often belted by legendary cults, which sometimes lives stronger in people’s mind then the effect (reading, listening, etc.) of their works; it can be merely because of the period style’s idiosyncrasy. Franz Liszt’s personality is the prototype of the cult-formation around a romantic musical genius. The cult-formation has numerous manifestations and root cases; the undisputed musical genius that is not even necessary is just one element. The contemporary adoration around the artist is much more important and if the adoration is intensive enough in that age it can be inherited through centuries.

Franz Liszt’s typical hairstyle is one of the most emblematic manifestations of the somewhat cliché-like ideal about the romantic artist according to the public opinion. László Marton’s Liszt-statue at Liszt Ferenc Square, Budapest, shows well that his mostly vagabond-like tonsure is such a characteristic part of our view about Liszt. The statue also portrays him with an extreme emphasis on his rumpled hairstyle during he plays piano tempestuously. This is an important feature of Liszt’s image in other portrayals too, among others in the contemporary newspaper caricatures.

Surveying the materials of the Liszt Ferenc Memorial Museum it can rise to view that the master’s hair was highly cherished by his contemporaries and – which is somewhat entertaining – they kept themselves medallions with Liszt’s mop of hair in it. However, not these medallions were the most extreme part of the phenomenon; a minor cosmetic industry was built around Franz Liszt’s personality. The traders tried to sell cosmetic and barber products labelled by his name and face sometimes promising almost impossible effects, bidding the users that they will have such locks like the master’s.

Although these attempts were mostly naive, they models well the commercialised – and in Hungary maybe firstly documented – cult based on the artistic achievement and the phenomenon about how can a simple external feature become a self-beyond-meaning cultural complexity.




The advertisement of ‘Samson Elixir’ (cca. 1880)

It was mentioned in contemporary reports that the biblical story of Samson and Delilah touched Franz Liszt deeply. Rumour has it that it was in connection with his legendary hairdo and which is very presumptive that it was not just adored by his fans, but Liszt himself as not clear from vanity cultivated his hair with utmost care. He disclaimed his plan he was thinking about for years, when he got to know Camille Saint-Saëns was writing an opera in the same topic and he found it unworthy to compete with his friend. Although Saint-Saëns seemed to give up writing the opera because he worried about none of the theatres will admit his work, finally Liszt himself was the one who encouraged him to finish it as the subject deserves the proper theatrical and musical processing. The opera Samson and Delilah at least was premiered under Liszt’s conduction in Weimar, 1877. The ‘Samson Elixir’ probably refers to that episode.



The advertisement of Mór Gannsperger’s ‘Friseur Salon’ (cca. 1880)

The illustrious beauty shop of Mór Gannsperger’s in Pest took seat at 23 Váczi Way (today Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Way). Unlike the utmost swindle like “Samson Elixir” and “Tasso” magnetic hair-mesmerizer, Liszt was a common guest in Gannsperger’s salon and in gratitude that the respectable barber made perfect work every time Liszt participated in the salon‘s advertisements with his name and face.


‘Tasso’ magnetic hair-mezmeriser (cca. 1881)

Huba Flösch’s hair-mezmeriser shows it well that a Hungarian common civil had such an obscure image about the novelty-rated electricity around the end of the 19th-century. The directions for use to ‘Tasso’ magnetic hair-mezmeriser wrote about the machine’s working principle:

‘The “Tasso” magnetic hair-mezmeriser while rotating the handle it retrieves the electricity circling invisibly in the stratosphere and the especial spiral-fabrication construction nearing to the hair nourishes it through. Change the spiral to an especial spool! You can nourish your scalp immediate just like watering plants’ root!’

Huba Flösch advertised his machine as Nikola Tesla’s patent that according to his advertisements Franz Liszt would use with predilection. However, none of these words was true. It was really bothering Liszt that his name was abused constantly and as the old tag has it Liszt invited over the young Tesla, who in those days (1881) made a stay in Hungary. Tesla then was a less known engineer working at the telephone exchange in Budapest. When Liszt fronted Tesla with the hair-mezmeriser Tesla was screamed with laughter. This episode ended with a brief but respectful friendship among them, and with Tesla’s and Liszt’s intervention Huba Flösch was forced to withdraw the hair-mezmeriser.




The ‘Liszt-boys’ – from Pesti Múzsa, 21 April, 1875.

The contemporary press reported an interesting fashion phenomenon. At these days Liszt’s popularity reached its peak in Hungary. So much so that the elderly artist did not lose his charm in the circles of ladies in Budapest. More and more young man idealized the master’s look and because of the thing that Liszt got grey strongly they not just grew their hair, but dyed it grey also for the sake of the similarity. In the journalist language the followers of this fashion-craze were called ‘Liszt-boys’.




The so fruitful and legendary friendship of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner was staggered by the marriage of Liszt’s daughter Cosima and Wagner. At these days arose the letter from Wagner to Hans von Bülow written in a somewhat saucy manner about one of Liszt’s most suggestive stage-look element: his cultic hairdo.

‘The other day Liszt got on stage in Weimar again. I do not deny it made me wondering so I cloaked myself to go to his concert. It was sad to hear that Franz’s technique staled, his music is muddled and the pristine glory almost vanished. And that mannerism! In contempt of my benevolence nausea took me as I contemplated his Saint Vitus Dance. He tumbled his grizzled hair like a splurging pubescent! All the women in the rows of the audience, younger and elder equally shook like a legion of freezing chicks. I was in the mood to run for a scissor, razor, let me see how the many bosoms will enthuse if not Liszt’s locks are in the centre of their attention, but that pathological way of piano playing.’