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Cover artist: How a music-loving kid from Greece became an album art icon

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“I was 15 years old and daydreaming that I wanted to work with bands to create visuals and graphics. It was a preposterous dream, about as ridiculous as a dream can get.” - Ioannis

When you consider some of the most iconic rock albums of all time, there’s a good chance that the first thing to appear in your mind is the cover art image. Indelible classics like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “American Beauty,” “House of the Holy,” “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Fragile” and “Who’s Next” are each adorned with touchstone images that are impossible to separate from the music contained within.

In the world of album cover artists, a handful of names have become synonymous with the genre. The fantasy landscapes of Roger Dean’s work provided appropriately fantastical visual accompaniment for the progressive rock experimentation of YES.

The surreal imagery of graphic designer Storm Thorgerson graced all-time classic LPs by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Phish.

Psychedelic poster artists Stanley Mouse and Alton Kelley produced eye-popping album art for the Grateful Dead, Journey and The Steve Miller Band.

These trailblazing artists took what had once been considered the domain of a record label’s art department and made it available to anyone with the skill, imagination and good fortune to follow suit.

Beginning in the 1980s, a next-generation self-taught artist and rock-obsessed fan known simply as Ioannis began designing artwork that has since appeared on more than 175 albums, singles and concert posters for a vast array of artists including rockers Deep Purple, The Allman Brothers Band, Bon Jovi, Styx, Starship, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Blue Oyster Cult.

Fantasy images by Ioannis have graced albums for numerous heavy metal bands including Fate’s Warning, Quiet Riot, Heaven and Souls at Zero.

Ioannis’s story of how a kid from New Haven (by way of Greece) became one the best-known album cover artists in his field has served as inspiration to many artists struggling for a breakthrough. He modestly attributes his success to a series of happy accidents that plucked an art and music-loving boy from his lonesome Athens bedroom and dropped him in the middle of a rock and roll world he couldn’t have imagined.

Ioannis emigrated to the United States with his family in 1967 and says he immediately immersed himself in American culture. He laughs now when he remembers that his introduction to rock and roll came from watching TV with his cousins. Shows like “The Monkees” and “The Partridge Family” stirred his love for music while Saturday morning characters like Johnny Quest, Batman and Spider-Man and sci-fi shows “Star Trek” and “Lost in Space” fueled his imagination and a love for comic book and fantasy art.

In the early 1970s, Ioannis briefly returned to Athens to attend school when his parents considered resuming life in Greece. They ultimately decided to remain in America, but Ioannis says that lonely period of limbo served to ultimately set him on his path.

“I was coming of age and was influenced by everything around me,” Ioannis remembers of the era when he was glued to pirate radio stations playing wild new sounds from Uriah Heep, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath that national radio wouldn’t touch.

At Christmastime 1972, Ioannis’s uncle gave the rock-possessed youngster just enough money to purchase his first two LPs: “Demons and Wizards” by Uriah Heep and “Machine Head” by Deep Purple. Ioannis remembers locking himself in his bedroom and playing both endlessly.

“I remember how alone I felt at that time and how the music made me feel,” Ioannis says. “I would play the Uriah Heep album and stare at the Roger Dean cover art. Little did I know that two decades later, both of those bands would be my clients and I consider them good friends to this day.”

Ioannis says Roger Dean’s influence was massive, adding that Dean became the sole reason he became an album cover artist.

“I was 15 years old and daydreaming that I could work like Roger with a band like YES and create visuals and graphics,” Ioannis says. “It was a preposterous dream, about as ridiculous as a dream can get. Nobody at school knew what I was talking about when I said I wanted to be an album cover artist. It would have made as much sense if I’d said I planned to go to Mars.”

When Roger Dean published the 1975 art book “Views,” the first of two volumes collecting his art and design, Ioannis says he was profoundly affected by the images splashed across the pages and made an overnight decision to follow in Dean’s footsteps.

From Storm Thorgerson, Ioannis says he learned that if he wanted to survive, he had to become more than just an illustrator.

“In the beginning, I would knock out a painting, hand it to the art director, get paid and mosey on my way,” Ioannis says, adding that he craved a more creative challenge. He wanted to collaborate directly with the musicians to create a visual equivalent to the music.

“Rock and roll musicians were looking for answers visually to accompany their music to promote their work,” Ioannis said of the era. “What I loved about the art of Storm Thorgerson was the way he thought things through.”

Ioannis’s entry point for creating musical art design began in the late 1970s with a single black and white image promoting an upcoming concert from a New Haven band.

A local singer named Michael Bolotin approached Ioannis about designing a poster to help spread the word about his group’s concert. Before the summer was out, Ioannis had been commissioned to design concert art for every nightclub in the city, including the famed music venue Toad’s Place.

Less than a decade after he designed that first concert poster, Ioannis and Bolotin shared the same manager after the singer had modified his name to Michael Bolton.

Ioannis created his first album cover in 1979 for Sony Records and the progressive rock band Art in America.

On the advice of a local radio program director, Ioannis blindly sent one of his designs to famed radio consultant Lee Abrams, the man credited with creating the FM album-oriented rock radio format of the 1970s. Expecting nothing but hoping for the best, Ioannis received a call from Abrams two weeks later inviting him to New York City to meet the band and show off his work.

Ioannis grabbed his brother, a few designs, and headed to the Big Apple dressed to impress in a three-piece suit. Feeling more than a little out of place when summoned to the band’s suite, Ioannis and his brother stood back as Abrams perused his art with YES bassist Chris Squire and guitarist Steve Howe.

Ioannis quickly consulted with his brother in hushed Greek tones. “This is the big league, I shouldn’t be cheap,” he whispered, adding “I’ll ask for two hundred.”

When Abrams told Ioannis the musicians had decided on an image, he asked what it would cost. Ioannis’s brother slyly countered with “Make an offer.” The radio and record label consultant responded with “Five grand.” Ioannis tried to maintain his composure while realizing the offer was nearly twice his annual college tuition.

While attending college and working part-time in his uncle’s restaurant, Ioannis was commissioned by Sony to direct his first MTV video which ultimately featured his animation and a cameo.

“The product manager of Epic Records called me at the restaurant and asked what else I could do,” Ioannis recalls. “I told him I was taking an animation class. The next thing I know, I’m in New York City working on storyboards. Then I fly to Detroit where they shot the video where you see me painting the album cover. MTV wanted to interview me about that video, but I was scheduled to work in the kitchen and couldn’t break away to go back to New York.”

Throughout the 1980s, Ioannis created countless poster and logo designs for bands and labels.

Ioannis’s friendship with Mick Rock, the late rock photographer and celebrated album artist, led to the first cover design Ioannis created that didn’t employ one of his paintings. Rock’s striking photos had adorned classic albums by Queen, David Bowie and Talking Heads but this time he needed a cover for blues guitarist Johnny Winter.

Ioannis remembers MCA’s art department was bewildered at the prospect of hiring a guy best known for fantasy images and science fiction art for a blues album.

“Because Mick was part of it, I proposed this concept that was impossible to execute because Photoshop hadn’t been invented yet (laughing). A series of comedic events went down but we did the cover (“The Winter of ’88”) and it worked, and that opened the floodgates that allowed me to do more.”

As art director for Mechanic Records/MCA, Ioannis created designs for the progressive metal band Dream Theater and soon began receiving commissions to create art for other labels and artists, including Extreme, Bob Weir, Eddie Money, The Tubes and dozens more.

Ioannis says the secret to his success has always been his fan-first approach to creating art.

“I approach everything from the point of view of a fan,” he says. “If I were a fan of the band, what would I like? What really gets me off is what I dreamed about when I was a kid: collaborating with another artist. I listen to a piece of music and they ask what I think. Then I show them an idea.”

He says the synergy created by matching great art to great music matters deeply to fans. The image serves as a brand in the mind of the fan marked by that union of high art.

That meeting of the minds where Ioannis listens and develops visual impressions of the music on canvas is the most exciting part of the job, he says.

“It’s how I worked with Deep Purple, with Uriah Heep, with King Crimson,” Ioannis says. “What I do is the fusion of art and music. They ask how their music makes me feel and I give them my interpretation. I see the music as a soundtrack to my art.”

I asked Ioannis to share the first thing that came to mind when I mention some of the bands and artists for whom he’s created album art.

Styx – “Brave New World” (1999)

Ioannis: They are all great guys, especially James Young, but I sort of got caught up in the crossfire because it was the last album with Dennis DeYoung. He’s a great guy too, but he had specific ideas about what he wanted, and the rest of the band had their ideas. There was severe disagreement, and I was sort of caught in the middle. It’s funny you ask about that one because I’m doing limited edition signed prints of the cover for “Brave New World.” The artwork just went to Vegas where Styx is doing a residency at the Venetian Resort. There are only 100 pieces signed by me and the band. They just became available online at Hypergallery in London to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary.

The Allman Brothers Band – “Where It All Begins” (1994)

Ioannis: Another amazing experience and really another happy accident. I was supposed to do a merchandising design for them, so I went to Boston to meet the band’s manager. While we were talking, he mentioned they needed a cover for a new album and wanted to know how quickly I could put it together. He pulled out a drawing guitarist Dickey Betts had done of four ladies dancing around a giant mushroom. He asked, “What can you do with this?” I wasn’t sure about the ladies, but I knew what I could do with the mushroom. My daughter had just been born when this was happening. I remember coming up with that design and her putting her little hands in the paint and touching it. The band loved the cover and brought me to Woodstock ’94 with them. I created artwork that adorned the walls there. It was also when I developed a great friendship with the late Butch Trucks that lasted until the end. Thanks to the Allman Brothers Band, I was introduced to Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and I’ve done two projects for him.

Uriah Heep – “Wake The Sleeper” (2008)

Ioannis: I did an interview with Record Collector magazine in 2004. The interviewer asked since I’d worked with most of my heroes, was there any band left that I’d really like to create art for? I told him of my love for Uriah Heep and that their album was the first one I bought. A couple of months later, I got an email from Mick Box himself but I thought it was a joke at first. He said he’d love it if I would create an album cover for them. My first one for Uriah Heep was their big comeback album “Wake The Sleeper” (released in 2008). They saw the cover for the first time while on a flight to Russia when their road manager showed them the image from her laptop. They crowded around her and started flipping out. The minute they landed, she emailed me with the good news. It was an incredible moment for me because they were my favorite band when I was a little kid. When they came to the U.S. to tour, they had me appear with them at one of their concerts. When it was over, and they finished signing artwork for fans, each member came over to me to shake my hand and give me a big hug. I will take that full-circle moment to my grave.

(Fans can check out more of Ioannis’s album art designs at www.DangerousAge.com where he offers prints, signed editions, T-shirts and in some cases (including The Allman Brothers Band), the original artwork.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 February 2022 11:18

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