Orgy of Ink + An interview with Arik Roper
Some time ago, I came to the realization that although there is a great appreciation for the tremendously powerful visual aspect of heavy metal music, little is known of those who put their talents and creative vision to the task. As time went on, there was sense that beyond a desire to know more, there would also a great injustice and terrible shame if this part of history were to be lost.
So, The Bone Reader has reached out to some of the brightest minds – and indeed, some of the darkest – for a deep and introspective series of interviews with some of the most talented visionaries working today. It’s been a long time in the making, but some things are worth the wait.
TBR is proud to kick off this series featuring Arik Roper. The vast realm of his imagination has led him to working with clients from Alternative Tentacles to Volcom. From Sony to Southern Lord. From Relapse to Real Skateboards. Arik’s signature style has led him through the looking glass to a well-deserved place among the upper echelon of artists working today.
Read on and let all things be known…
Arik: My mother was a fashion illustrator and commercial illustrator for ad agencies, newspapers and the print media mostly. She also did photography and pairing – very well I might add. She’s extremely talented.
My father was a painter and sculptor. I learned some skills and techniques from my mother, I used her art supplies and watched her. My father probably influenced a lot of the content of my work. He’s into movies, comics, books, music and art and introduced me to a lot of cool subjects when I was young. He loves seeing what I do. He even has a couple tattoos of my art.
TBR: Going back even further, what is the first interesting visual image that you remember?
Arik: I spent a lot of time in the blacklight poster section of a certain store in the mall when I was really young in the late 70s. Those posters mesmerized me and obviously made an impression. I recall a lot of the Grateful Dead stuff – the skulls and roses – were intriguing and charmingly sinister looking to me.
TBR: What was the first album cover you saw that really blew your mind?
Arik: Probably Powerslave by Iron Maiden or The Wall by Pink Floyd.
TBR: Do you prefer to work within any specific genre or sub-genre of music?
Arik: Not necessarily. I do a lot of rock and metal which I like for the most part, but sometimes I like to work for other types like ambient/experimental stuff because it allows me to delve into new imagery without constraints or expectations. I woudn’t say no to something strictly based on genre.
TBR: What were some of the the first jobs that you were commissioned for?
Arik: In terms of band related art, I did a flyer for a local band called Malevil when I was about 15-16. Around the same time in high school I worked on some art for another local band, Gwar, doing animation and painting latex guts. That was all volunteer work. I think the first actual commissioned cover I did was for Buzzov•en‘s The Gospel According II… in 1996, I believe.
TBR: To the best of your knowledge, has any of your work ever “offended” anyone or landed you in some sort of trouble?
Arik: I remember hearing something about that same cover for Buzzov•en being interpreted as offensive, possibly. In the background of that drawing was a silhouetted person hanging from a tree, which I just intended to the body of a farmer, or preacher who the other character in the foreground – a wolf – who had killed him and taken over his herd of pigs, representing his congregation of followers. Metaphors, metaphors…
Anyway, someone mistook that as reference to racial lynching I think, especially given Buzzov•en’s use of the confederate flag and embracement of southern outlaw biker aesthetics. But they were not racists, which I’ll state for the record. They just liked to offend, like all good young metal crust punk bands do.
TBR: Yeah, I’m really glad to hear that. There seems to have been some unfortunate misconceptions about this stuff through the years. For what it’s worth, I’ve met some of those guys who and getting to know them just a bit, I’m glad that some truth has come to light here.
Moving on, have you ever had to refuse work or cut a client off for an interesting reason or out of principle?
Arik: No. I turn down a lot of work but not for any interesting or scandalous reasons that I can think of. Although there are of course things I wouldn’t work on out of principle.
TBR: Such as?
Arik: I wouldn’t do anything overly violent for example. I’m not into promoting violence, especially gun violence. I don’t mind supernatural horror and violence so much. In fact I like that stuff if it’s got style and substance, but doing hollow shock value art is uninteresting and fairly juvenile in my opinion.
Most morbid art for death metal bands is trite, it’s got no real impact because it’s cheap and obvious. I think suspense and subtlety is much more interesting. And obviously I wouldn’t do anything racist or hateful and I probably wouldn’t do anything for any current political party.
TBR: Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?
Arik: The Dopesmoker reissue for Sleep came out well, though there were some minor things I’d like to have done differently. The art for The Black Chord for Astra came out successfully. It’s really elaborate and epic, I pretty much had carte blanche to do what I wanted. My goal with these things is to make a visual/mental world for the music. When that works Im happy with it.
TBR: You mentioned Sleep and have also done some amazing work with High on Fire and have been called on to work with them several times. Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Matt Pike and the gang?
Arik: I guess I met Matt (Pike) and Al (Cisneros) back in 1994 when Sleep came to New York on tour with Hawkwind. My friends in Buzzov•en knew them so maybe we met through them. When I saw Sleep I thought, ” These guys are on exactly the same wavelength as me”. It was like seeing other versions of myself on stage playing the same thing I wanted to hear. They were just absolutely epic, that’s the only word for it.
Sleep was everything I wanted in a band at that time. Anyway, we talked after the show. I don’t recall exactly what happened , this was long time ago now – most likely some debauchery followed. I remember Al yelling across the room something about being born the same year Dark Side of the Moon came out, for some reason, and Matt drinking a large full glass of whiskey while wearing his red Union Suit with corduroy bellbottoms – that’s this thing in case you don’t know.
Later when Matt got High on Fire up and running we reconnected and I started to doing some art for the band – from there it just continued. Matt and I always got along well, we seemed to be cut from the same strange cloth in a way. Al and I also reconnected and got to be friends when he formed Om, more so than back in the Sleep days. I have a great deal of respect for the artistry, vision and drive that they have. They’re both visionaries.
TBR: Speaking of visionaries, who are some of your favourite artists that currently working in the scene today?
Arik: I can’t say I have a favorite. There are some very good people out there, and I’m fortunate to know some of them personally. I like Dan McPharlin‘s work. His style and execution are interesting and well done. I like Killian Eng‘s art also. His stuff appeals to my affinity for the psychedelic sci-fi vibe.
TBR: Thanks for turning us on! Both of them are AMAZING! What are a few of your favourite album covers of all time?
- Screaming for Vengeance by Judas Preist (Doug Johnson)
- Live Evil by Miles Davis (Mati Klarwein)
- Badger – S/T (Roger Dean)
TBR: Do you prefer to work with bands who really have a clear vision about what they want or prefer to have freedom to do whatever you like?
Arik: I like for bands to have some idea of what they want but also open to ideas. It’s nice to have freedom but some direction is helpful.
TBR: Who was the first band or couple of bands that commissioned you to where you you shit your pants and could not believe your good fortune? How did the experience turn out, in the end?
Arik: That hasn’t really happened in the way you described. I was once asked to do some mock up designs for Led Zeppelin merchandise which Jimmy Page would be reviewing. It was a fun project but nothing ever happened with it.
TBR: Who are a few bands – past or current – that you’d like to work with but haven’t yet.
Arik: Iron Maiden, Darkthrone, Hawkwind. They all have potential for rich imagery.
TBR: Speaking of “rich imagery”, I’d like to talk a bit about the book you illustrated, Mushroom Magick. First off, are you or were you ever a fan of their psychedelic capacity?
Arik: Yeah, that’s what the entire book is about – psychoactive mushrooms. The book is basically an art book, not a field guide. It’s a celebration or homage to species of mushrooms with the capacity to expand awareness. I think psilocybin mushrooms in particular can open doors to creativity and insight about ourselves and the structure of reality. Some people seem to think of them as minor forms of entertainment which I find strange, but they can be earth-shatteringly profound if you approach it correctly.
TBR: Right on, brother! In terms of the job, where you were working a project for a client or did you find yourself learning/contributing to the subject matter as well?
Arik: A contact who was an editor at Abrams Books brought up the idea of doing a book on mushrooms. She asked if I was interested in doing it as my own project not as a hired illustrator, I said “yes”, of course.
I developed the idea, we refined it, and eventually got the approval to create it. I did a lot of research, collected photos to work from and asked a couple other friends (Daniel Pinchbeck and Erik Davis) to write some introductions and we had the president of the New York Mycological Society, Gary Lincoff, contribute some technical information for each chapter header. So the book is my project, with a little help from friends, and a couple small compromises to make Abrams happy.
Mushrooms are something that appeal to a wide range of people. They’re iconic: they’re both “innocent” and “poisonously evil” and they’re powerful tools for those who know how to use them.
TBR: This brings us ’round to the work you’ve done for a bunch of stoners called The Black Crowes. How did you come to work with those guys? Any interesting adventures come out of that or was it strictly business?
Arik: Chris Robinson got in touch with me in 2004 to do some design work for The Black Crowes. I think he may have seen some of my work in Arthur magazine. It was a honor to hear from him, as I had always regarded the band as the most constantly authentic classic style rock band. They were truly real deal rock n roll as much so as any of the classic rock bands, like the Stones, Allman Brothers, etc. They lived it and meant it. Their music was quality and didn’t succumb to the transient trends.
I had a respect for them as band. Chris invited me up to their rehearsal space on the West Side of midtown Manhattan to hang out and meet them and just connect with them. From there I did some posters and shirts and an album cover for them and continued to do work until they disbanded a couple years ago. Now I do some stuff for Chris’ solo band sometimes.
Chris and I have a lot in common and easily became friends – we have a lot similar taste in music and literature and areas of weird counterculture. We’ve had some good times hanging out all night, and going to shows together. We once ate some mushrooms and went to a concert at Carnegie Hall. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to find your seat in the dark at Carnegie Hall in that state of mind.
TBR: When it comes to “state of mind”, tell us a little about your inspirations. Who are a couple of visual artists – living or dead – outside of the metal scene that you most enjoy. Painters, sculptors, writers, whatever. What about their work do you appreciate?
Arik: Too many to name. As far as writers are concerned I really like Philip K. Dick, Alan Watts and Terrence McKenna, mainly for their views on reality and consciousness.
I like many classical visual artists: Rembrandt‘s use chiaroscuro is amazing. Gustav Dore‘s line work is stunning. Ernst Fuch‘s layered psychedelic drawing and pairing is mind blowing, I love Ivan Biliban‘s design and color – just to name a few.
Check out more of Arik Roper’s work at