Recently I had a conversation with one of my personal favourite artists, New York based graphic artist and illustrator Arik Roper. Arik’s best known for his bold and mysterious work adorning several genre-defining albums of the past decade, and though his work is lent in the majority to stoner, doom and other heavy metal outfits, his art and his ethos speak volumes to an ever growing natural consciousness that is often beyond description.
Interview by Hell Beelzbub
Artwork by Arik Roper
What are you working on, what shows have you got lined up?
That’s during Roadburn Festival which you helped brand, right?
Yeah it’s connected with that, it’s not part of Roadburn but it’s coinciding with the event so everyone can be there. I did the poster for the Roadburn event this year, which they’re using for all the ID for the festival in 2015. I was there last year too, I was out there doing some art panel stuff and some live painting, it was a lot of fun.
How was that, doing the live painting?
It was cool, I think people liked it, they got a kick out of seeing me, you know, sit there and work for a little while. It’s kind of you know, a little high pressure to have to work with eyes on you.
It’s got to be a little nerve racking painting out of your home environment, being under a spotlight…probably not why you got into painting is it?
Yeah, exactly, preforming in front of people – it’s quite different than having your own privacy to make mistakes and so I had to pretty much stick in my comfort zone of imagery and do something that wasn’t too challenging for me cause I don’t want to have to show everybody my shortcomings (laughs).
What was it like growing up in Richmond, Virginia?
I lived there from about age 2 until 18, so basically my childhood was spent there, definitely all my school years were spent there. We lived outside of Richmond as well, we lived in the city and outside at different points. We lived out in the woods in the country for many years when I was in elementary and back in the city when I was in high school. It was good, there’s a lot of art and music because of Virginia Commonwealth University has a really great art school and there’s a lot of new blood coming through and a lot of creativity and there’s something about the town that does have some soul and it tends to create some good art and music, and I got to get in touch with that stuff when I grew up. When I left in ‘91 I felt like I was ready to see new things of course, but it’s gotten better since I left, it’s beginning to grow. The city there is finally getting its act together with management, stupid politics and some crime issues.
Did your folks find themselves living there for the art community and nature being so close at hand?
I think we ended up there because my father grew up there and because of his involvement with at Virginia Commonwealth University, he attended the school and got into teaching there. We moved away for a while and lived in Alaska while I was young, eventually came back because it was sort of a home base for us, we didn’t necessarily want to live in Richmond at the time and my dad was reluctant to come back.
So moving to Alaska was a breath of fresh air?
Yeah we really liked it there, it was just so hard to make a living there and the economy was very limited, he had to take a job as a fisherman and working in the sawmills, this was the late ‘70s and there wasn’t a lot of opportunity there, and I was pretty isolated as a kid. It didn’t seem like a practical plan for the long run so we went back to Richmond so it was easy to set up there and have a good life there. I was only 3 and 4 in Alaska but it left a big impression on me. It’s gorgeous.
Your work portrays a strong sense of natural surroundings, is that due to a spending a load of time outdoors or more as something your work grew into as your style evolved?
I always had an affinity to that sort of environment. To me natural landscapes have that mystery that are very open and more fertile than having some kind of obvious action happening in an image, I enjoy creating an environment for the mind to do with what it wants. The forms of nature are what we’re all made of so it feels right to go to that for inspiration because it’s endless, it’s very intrinsic.
How did the Sir Menelik ‘Cyclops 4000’ piece fit into there?
(laughs) There’s one out of left field. That was somewhere between ‘95-‘97. I did freelance art after school for lots of different clients, and at one point I was doing work for Rawkus Records, did some 12 inches for Mos Def and some of the other electronic music they had and Sir Menelik somehow…this is when Dr. Octogon was kind of popular and Sir Menelik was sort of a protégé of his, he was into some weird shit, out of the norm for hip-hop stuff, he was into sci-fi. The dudes at Rawkus liked me and tried to give me and tried to get me in on stuff, it was sort of a post-graffiti time you know and I was influenced by that at that age so it was sort of an easy thing to do. Yeah, looking back on that it looks really primitive and I would never show that to anyone (laughs).
Was graffiti something that you got into, regularly bombing?
I got into it, I wasn’t as dedicated as some of the guys, I wasn’t a hardcore bomber. I wasn’t really exposed to that until I moved to New York in ‘91 but it hit me in a good way and I found it really inspiring. I was already into Vaughn Bode and some of the stuff that was the foundation of graffiti style so it was kind of an easy match to gravitate toward this cartoon graffiti look. I like the aesthetic of it and the artwork side of it, I did a lot skateboard decks in that style, but I wasn’t too serious about it and didn’t get out too much to do it, was really just more into the artwork. Lots of my friends were way into it.
There’s a lot of freedom in graffiti it but it can also be kind of limiting unless you find some sort of commercial gateway…
Yeah, and that’s what happened in the ‘90s you know, it went kind of commercial and it started turning up in galleries and stuff like that, I got really burnt out on it to be honest, just completely tired of it. By the time the mid-to- late ‘90s came around I was just done, I thought it got to be really repetitive and derivative. Some of it is great, and it’s evolved even more and some of the stuff is just mind blowing, I definitely respect the good stuff, personally I just got tired of that quote-end-quote graffiti styles, I guess I outgrew it you could say.
What’s the first or earliest commissioned piece that you can recall?
I was doing art in high school, not really commissions, just doing stuff to get my work out there. I did some work for a local science fiction bookstore, and I did flyers around Richmond for some metal bands and things, did some work for GWAR who are from Richmond. One of the first album covers I did was for Buzzoven (editors note ‘At A Loss’), I think in ‘96, which was my first music related paid job, but I’d done some things before that like skateboard decks and storyboard designs for ad agencies. That Buzzoven one stands out though, especially for one that people would recognize my work for. I did a cartoon in before that which people also saw but that was a few years before and kind of obscure. I was working within a realm of people whom I knew in New York who needed help but actually happened to be really creative people, the whole X-Large and Grand Royal skate world in New York but that was kind of anonymous.
Who were some of your earlier musical influences?
I think my first record was a Kenny Rogers record, not like a high school Kenny Rogers phase… stuff I actually liked was like Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and a lot of the heavier classic rock stuff like that. I was really into The Wall when I was like 13 or so, especially the artwork.
Yeah, I mean the kind of cool thing the artwork did a lot of speaking for the record but the music also told a story that delved into the background for the artwork.
Yeah really, I thought they flushed it out really well, some really interactive thing almost. You had this kind of visual world to go along with the music. That’s the thing I’ve always liked about making art for music, you have a chance to sort of marry the two together, like make this complete picture in your head.
Did you find yourself doing art in certain mediums to emulate those kinds of graphics you saw growing up to that music?
It took me a while to actually start experimenting with certain mediums, just pen and ink stuff in high school. My mom was an illustrator as well, a graphic designer, so she had a lot of supplies so I was using permanent markers, the real toxic kind that make your brain cells (pauses) go away (laughs). She had some nice drawing pens, but it wasn’t until art school that I got to experiment with other mediums, oil painting, acrylic, sculpture, everything, but I kind of stuck with permanent markers…I liked the colours and the saturation. It worked for my style at the time, but then I picked up watercolours and kind of dropped the markers and just realized I could only go so far with these big fat markers, as they were cumbersome, and you know toxic, and limited. So I got into using watercolours and that’s kind of where my preference has been since then, sometimes working with gauche and acrylic as well.
Did you find that your schooling aided your growth as an artist?
I don’t really think that I learned that much in school artistically, but I did learn a lot by coming to New York and school brought me to New York again. That was invaluable to come back and make the connections I did and be in that scene I was in at that time in history that was far more educational. School was okay, some classes I enjoyed but I don’t feel like I learned a helluva lot of artistic skills from it. I got exposed to certain mediums I wouldn’t have been exposed to. I was a little underwhelmed by the quality of the work by the people in my class, I had some good teachers, but I wouldn’t advise it. Getting into debt is huge. The scam of getting students into debt these days is a real travesty.
What does the word progress mean to you?
I think it means evolving, something that’s getting closer to a desirable state. When I say that in reference to artwork, I mean it’s evolving, it’s maturing, it’s refined, it’s moving towards something that is better for lack of a better word.
Are there any challenges you’re facing in the day-to-day growth of your own progression?
The main thing is space. I’m quite limited by my workspace because I live in New York and real estate is extremely expensive. I don’t have a work studio, I’m fortunate to have any space to work in at home, but I have limited space here on my drawing board…and it’s okay for working on paper and stuff like that but I would sometime like to expand and not feel it’s limitations of hitting the wall, literally. I’d like to be able to stretch out and not have the limitations if I wanted to do something bigger. I feel like whenever I get around to having a space like that it will probably affect my artwork, as it has been a little confined by my physical restrictions.
Is it out of the question to work in an artist shared studio space?
It’s not out of the question but I would prefer to have my own space because I like to get into my own world.
You’ve done a few collaborations, namely with David V. D’Andrea, how did those projects come about?
The stuff with D’Andrea came about because we had a lot of mutual friends and finally we met. We’re both the only ones who do any artwork for Sleep and it seemed like a natural thing to get together and do some collaborations on posters for Sleep and it was a cool chance to work with him as he’s a great guy, it was really easy as he’s a very creative fellow and has a good eye for his own style. We started with doing some sketches, passing them back and forth by email, he would do his section, send them to me and I would place them together in Photoshop, these are screenprint designs so using Photoshop to place them together you don’t lose anything. I sort of matched them together and made the line weight was somewhat consistent and it worked out that way, we would do different aspects of the colouring, that’s usually how that goes. It was fun to do that kind of stuff with him cause we got to do what we wanted to do for the most part.
Between Sleep’s ‘Dopesmoker’ 2003 Tee Pee release and the 2012 Southern Lord release, did you find that your art or artistic process had changed that drastically?
Yeah, it definitely changed a lot with 9 years in between, I evolved a lot in that time with my technique and my abilities as well. Also gaining more control how this stuff turns out on a production level, cause when I first started doing these things I didn’t know how to use Photoshop very well, consequently a lot of things got botched by handing them over to other people then having it not work out. A lot of that early stuff, to me, didn’t come out exactly how I wanted it to or in retrospect it really could’ve been so much better because of some of the technical aspects. That being said, the 2003 Dopesmoker release, that one, I did spend a lot of time on that one and I feel it’s fairly successful for what it is but that was entirely my vision, there was no input from the band on that. That was just me, I wasn’t really in touch with the band, well I was in touch with Matt (Pike) but he didn’t have much input. It was all Al’s (Cisneros) vision and he wasn’t really involved with that release which is unfortunate…so I did that one on my own, it captured something that I saw. But when we did the 2012 release, Al and I worked together to make be more like what he had envisioned which is more of a science fiction theme as opposed to an ancient biblical theme which is what I had in mind for it.
So it was more cohesive to Al’s vision?
Yeah very much so, it was really a collaboration but he had much input and say about the way it came out. He is a visionary.
Do you have any kind of ritual before you sit down to work? For instance with Dopesmoker, did you burn one down and listen to the record?
I’ve done that so many times before I even started that, I do it every time (laughs). I feel like that’s kind of in my blood, it kind of goes with out saying that it’s going to come through with my artwork. I don’t do that as of habit necessarily because I work at all sorts of hours and have a very busy life with my family and I, you know, I just have to come in and work for 20 minutes which isn’t the sort of way I want to work but…yeah, no I don’t have a ritual so to speak. Making art has always been sort of second nature, I don’t need to summon things so much…I can kind of just do it while I’m on the phone. I do like to create my environment though, I used to make my room into the cave, like the headshop that it was just so I could work, cause that’s how I lived and that sort of seeped into the art itself as a part of the vibe of it.
Do you find any influences in film or comic books, anything that affected you growing up?
Yeah, yeah. I was really into film a lot as a kid. I used to think I knew about film until I started meeting people that knew about film then I realized I knew nothing about film. I knew a few obscure movies…I was into animation like (Ralph) Bakshi and stuff like that, I was really into the midnight movie circuit when I was in middle school and high school, I’d go see ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ and ‘The Toxic Avenger’, and all these things would play on the big screen, me and my dad would go see these movies, really into the cult cinema stuff. I was into some comics, underground comics mainly, not so much the superhero comics. I was into this comic called Cerebus, by Dave Sim, a Canadian guy, and all the classic stuff like (Robert) Crumb, Vaughn Bode, Heavy Metal, all the main stuff I was really into.
To what capacity were you working with (now-dormant) Aurthur Magazine?
Jay Babcock, the editor and founder, asked if I was interested in illustrating their columns and I said sure, so I was an all around illustrator for the mag, I did some poster designs for some festivals they had and some tee-shirt designs. That was really great while it was around, one of the greater pieces of media that’s been around in the past 40 years.
With the prevalence of social media everywhere do you find as an artist that there is an important role to play spreading awareness surrounding issues that matter to you personally?
Yeah, I definitely think so, and I try to be aware of that because anyone who has a voice today should use it for something somewhat responsible or at least inspiring. As I get older I can’t imagine being so self-centered as to just promote shitty things that are making the world a worse place. If anyone has a voice then use it to say something positive or use it to rally people, even if it’s just saying something online. I think about it a lot, I kind of wish I could do more, I probably can but I consider that in what I do as well, I wouldn’t do work that I thought were promoting things that were really backwards.
Recently you lent an illustration to ‘Save Joshua Tree’.
That’s actually Jay Babcock, from Aurthur Magazine, who lives in Joshua Tree now and he’s involved in some of the local politics as well as gardening and permaculture and some other environmental issues there, he’s living a really humble satisfying lifestyle. He’s involved in this campaign, where they’re trying to defend the area from these developers, some evil shit like Walmart was trying to creep in there, and they were fighting that shit and they were successful, Walmart and possibly some other chain stores. They won the fight for now…so I happily did a couple t-shirt designs for them to raise awareness for the cause for what it’s worth, so that was direct thing that came from Aurthur.
Have you taken advantage of any social media platforms at all?
I sort of resisted for a while, I’m kind of late to these things anyway. It didn’t feel so natural. I mean I was 30 when Facebook came out, it felt like it was for teenage girls to me. It’s obviously more than that. It’s certainly helped, there is no denying that, for all the privacy you lose, I’ve used it very minimally. I’ve kept it at a distance but I definitely employ it. Although, the real thing that’s been useful is Instagram, it seems to reach so many more people, it’s like sending a wire out all over the globe instantly. I like the idea of it more as it’s more about visual things and less about politics.
You recently went on tour with the guys from Sleep for a couple dates.
Yeah they asked if I would help them out with merch cause they wanted someone they could trust, I did the East coast shows and D’Andrea did the West coast shows, and sold my poster at the shows and it was crazy, man the merch situation at those shows is like ravenous wolves. Constant line the whole show and everything is gone at the end.
The music industry has changed so much just with bands having to support them selves, merchandise is such a great way to go about it, and it’s crazy to see the amount of money being injected into it.
Yeah, that’s the good side of the music industry coming down and not being very successful on the whole, they’re having to be very creative about the output and making the product something you want to buy rather than something you download.
For sure. fans are going to download the music for free so the labels need to give the fans something tangible, an opportunity to buy a piece of that band.
Yeah, that there is pretty much their only shot at making any real money is to sell stuff like that and play live shows. That’s the kind of thing I always tell labels, is that you know, if you don’t want to put money into the art, or the budget, I always tell them, this is your main chance to make people buy instead of download it, because if people want it, they can get the digital version online. If you want people to buy it, make it something worth buying. Make it a piece of art, make it something you want to hold instead of something you put on your computer and hear a compressed version of.
Yeah it sounds like shit.
(laughs) Yeah I know. I still insist, I mean, mp3s have their place if you’re on the go but not a replacement.
There’s been a lot of revival lately, with some of the originators of genres like Hawkwind, Sabbath, King Crimson, Saint Vitus, Pentagram, Roger Waters, have you gotten to check any of them out lately?
Ah man, I would love to see the Roger Waters thing, I can’t believe I missed that. I’ve told myself I’m going next time it comes through New York. That’s supposed to be really fantastic spectacle, the animation projection is supposed to be really mind blowing.
What are some of the most vital illustrations that stand out to you?
All the Roger Dean stuff is really magnificent. I love the Iron Maiden covers of course, that was really big for me when I was a teenager, the complexity in the Maiden covers, really unique and really mysterious and dark but humorous at the same time, much like horror comics. Some of the Hipgnosis stuff like Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy cover. Most of the Hawkwind stuff, the early stuff is really well done in terms of using combination of illustration, done by Barney Bubbles, I really like his work a lot.
Another group with some good output and solid humor is Weedeater. You’ve done all their albums up-to-date, are you designing their newest record?
Yeah man, funny you should say that. I spoke with their manager today. I know those dudes from way back. But yeah, I’m doing their album. Those dudes are characters man. I don’t know how they do it still.
Can you tell me about your jam effort Koi Pond?
Oh that was a one-time project I did with two good friends of mine, it was like 2009 or 2010. We got together and just jammed in a rehearsal space and made a tape. Someone heard it and said ‘Hey, let’s release this as a cassette’, so fine whatever, it’s just a tape we made. And people actually liked it, I think it was Night People (NY) was the label released that cassette, then Sonic Meditations (MO) came to us and asked if we wanted to make a real album in a studio. So we agreed to do it, we’ll do it the way we did it in the rehearsal space, which was to improvise the whole thing. We recorded it on tape, like reel-to-reel tape and it actually sounded really good and it was mastered and all this stuff. It was cool, it was really fun and it came together really organically. We made this vinyl, vinyl only, no digital at all, and it got surprisingly good reviews and people bought it. I mean it was a really small run. I’ve played in some other bands as well and we’ve recorded and put out other records, so I mean, I play music as well, but I chose to stick with art rather then dedicate my time to both. I love playing music but it’s more of a hobby. I would of easily chosen that if I hadn’t of gotten into visual art.
You were recently in Singapore and Indonesia in the summer, what was that for?
My wife’s parents live in Singapore so we went for a visit so it was kind of a family trip. I was actually involved in an art show in Indonesia with a creative agency from Singapore called Villians, whom I’ve been working with. So we put this show on in Indonesia because there’s this huge scene of music and art there, that doesn’t ever really get seen first hand because no one goes to play shows or do art shows or whatever, but there’s all these cool people there, tons of metal heads and rock people. A few metal bars, people are right up to the minute with what’s going on in the culture that we deal with. The show was great, big turn out, I was interviewed by Rolling Stone Indonesia. The new president of Indonesia, he wasn’t there unfortunately, but he’s a huge metal head, he’s got his Metallica shirt on (laughs), throwing up horns in interviews.