The mystic sci-fi and fantasy art of Arik Roper.
Arik “Moonhawk” Roper has been essential in helping define a visual style for countless bands and projects that use the word “stoner” in their description. His instantly recognizable illustrations look like a cross between something from an old pulp fiction novel and Heavy Metal magazine. The wild, sci-fi fantasy feelings that Roper’s work evokes have made him a household name in both the music and design world.
A graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Roper’s lettering and art have helped forge an artistic schema for the genres of stoner metal and stoner rock. If music dedicated to weed had a Sistine Chapel, its hallways would be painted by him.
In April, Strange Attractor Press in London released Roper’s book, Vision of the Hawk, which is a retrospective of the last 20 years of the artist’s vast career. It’s a collection of sketches, illustrations, and more, that tell the story of a talented individual who carved out his own place in pop culture, providing imagery for Ozzy Osborne, the Grateful Dead, Mishka’s Sesame Street collab, a Thundercats cartoon, and his own book on exotic mushrooms.
Alongside the drawings and stories in Vision of the Hawk is part of the history of how Roper came up with all three editions of the art for the band Sleep’s highly revered second album. Countless examples of Roper’s work have become widely recognized, but perhaps none have gone on to create such an impression as the final album artwork for Sleep’s Dopesmoker.
Since the recording’s initial release as a bootleg in the ’90s, the album is considered to be a masterpiece by critics, musicians, and record collectors alike. The New York Times referred to it as “one of the most formidable recordings of the last 20 years.” Together with the music, the art Roper developed for the 2012 version has endured 10 different vinyl pressings on at least 14 different types of wax, some with foil covers, etched vinyl, even pressed with actual cannabis leaves, (during that process, Doghouse Farms said the presses got so gummed up with resin that they had to stop every few copies to clean the plates).
“Follow the smoke to the riff-filed land… caravan migrates through the deep sandscape… procession of the weed priests to cross the sands.”
These are some of the opening lyrics to the title track “Dopesmoker.” The cover depicts a single-file line of robed figures crossing red-sanded dunes. Their faces obscured by hoods, these figures hold strange breathing tubes connected to tanks on their back. Leading a herd of alien pack animals across the sand, an alien ship hangs in the clear blue sky behind them. The song itself speaks of a journey to deliver bales of weed to a sacred location, and a grow-room temple where the air is thick with sacramental smoke and the chanting of “drop out of life with bong in hand.” These mystic figures walk an endless sandy sea in search of the divine.
They’ve been called Weedians, Lungsmen, Weed Priests, Herbsmen, and Creedsmen. They’ve adorned bumper stickers, toys, patches, T-shirts, posters, skateboards, keychains, costumes, tattoo designs, countless memes, and an ocean of bootleg merchandise. Their likeness has gone on to become a symbol. When asked for the official moniker, Roper said that despite having multiple names between him and the band, “just to keep it simple, I call them Weedians.”
While at first taken aback at how far the impact crater of these pot pilgrims stretches, now he feels thankful that the image has taken on a life of its own.
“It’s like the Keep on Truckin’ thing [by Robert] Crumb,” Roper said. “How it just got bootlegged forever until it became an icon for a certain scene. Now, when people make variations of the art, I feel like that’s just helping it to keep defining a piece of pop culture.”
Now over 10 years old, Roper’s Dopesmoker album cover has become beloved by fans who started listening to the band in the ’90s and whose children are now doing the same thing.
It all began in 1994. As an avid music fan, Roper was drawing designs for T-shirts and fliers for local bands. He went to see the English rock band Hawkwind perform with Sleep, a “stoner metal” band which had released its first album Sleep’s Holy Mountain just two years earlier. Roper was introduced to the band members and immediately offered them his services as an illustrator.
“I basically told them what Keith Moon said when he met The Who,” he said laughing, “Sort of, ‘You need me as your drummer.’ I said ‘You guys need me to do artwork for you because I get it and there’s no better candidate.’”
They exchanged phone numbers but didn’t start working together until four years later. Finally, Roper was contacted to make the cover for Sleep’s anticipated marijuana opus. Dopesmoker, which at the time consisted of just one song that was over an hour long. Through multiple sessions, the band labored to record and release the album under their new label, London Records. However, the company had no idea what to do with the unorthodox album and shelved it without a release date. In an answer of defiance, the band turned a blind eye to the release of a bootleg version and Roper was tasked with illustrating without any prompt from the band.
“I had the cassette tape that I had received a few years before when they first made the album,” Roper said. “It was a mixing board copy a friend of mine had given me so I was really familiar with the music already.”
Without any input he started on the design, drawing what he thought the music sounded like. He described it as “a vast desert landscape kind of thing, related to marijuana cults and with this religious theme. Which is really similar to what we ended up coming back to for the version most people are familiar with.”
The bootleg album credits Roper simply as “Moonhawk” and sonically, had issues that still bothered the band after its release. Later in 2009, after a 12-year hiatus, the band reformed and Roper was asked to draw the official release of Dopesmoker by Tee Pee Records founder Tony Presedo. Previously, he had been doing work for Tee Pee Records since 2006. Though at the time he was in contact with the band, it was actually the visuals guy who handed him the vision board for the album.
“They had this guy named Doug who would project massive live footage behind them, I guess you’d call him the visual engineer. He sent me a couple pictures of a coconut bong,” Roper said “Again I elaborated on what I felt the music was telling me, which was this narrative about a hash cult roaming through the desert.”
What came out was a smoke-filled scene gatefold cover that depicted the iconic group of holy men characters around a smoking chalice. Rising above the smoke, a strange deity rides a multi-faced horse, wielding a sword in one hand and snakes in the other.
“I think I nailed something about the vibe of the album with that artwork,” he explained. “I was into religion and drugs at the time—reading a lot about the Arc of the Covenant, the Ethiopian Coptic Church, drugs, and even the Old Testament. It was this combination of things I was really interested in reading about but I also felt fit very well with the music. It was another step in reaching the place we’d finally end up.”
That place would finally come into view when, in 2012, Southern Lord Records approached Sleep to release a definitive version of Dopesmoker—one where the band has total control over the look and sound of the album. Arik has been in regular contact with Sleep members Matt Pike and Al Cisneros, and had been working on art for Pike’s other band, High On Fire. Since that 2002 cover, Arik had done a few Sleep posters but mostly he and Cisneros had talked about artistic influences and bootleg records.
This is where we get the origin story of this strange and mesmerizing world from the album art. Cisneros and Roper got together to discuss the concept.
“There was a list of imagery we wanted to include but Al was pretty open,” Roper said. “He didn’t have anything specific, it was left to me to come up with some ideas and see if he liked them.”
Roper remembers that they landed upon the final idea rather quickly.
“The first thing I came up with was this idea of druid-like characters wandering the desert, breathing THC instead of oxygen and making their way on a pilgrimage towards a sort of mecca,” Roper said.
Driven by the lyrics, which he’d been studying since 1998, he says the choice was pretty easy from the start.
“If I remember correctly, I didn’t do any other concepts before this,” Roper said. “Once I came up with that sketch and we refined it a little bit, the band was like, yeah this is it.”
Together with Cisneros, Roper began fleshing out part of this world. The ship on the horizon that appears on the back cover, for example, is intended to represent a way station, the place where the weed comes down from a cultivation satellite orbiting the planet, ferried to the surface, and lowered on ropes to the Weedian’s pack animals.
“It’s a sort of science fiction, fantasy version of a supply chain,” Roper explained.
Over the years, the band has continued to develop this unique story in their posters and merchandise, showing fans what’s happening all over this strange corner of the galaxy, and even revealing other key characters like the Aquarian, Antarctican, and Cultivator. Though Roper says whether or not they all share the same planetary system is a question for the band.
Having already created two other versions of its cover, I asked Roper what he borrowed for inspiration for the third time around. He mentioned how Frank Herbert’s book Dune provided some of the ideas for the look of the Weedians and their world.
“Both Al and I really love the aesthetics of that novel,” he said. “Something about the smoke made me picture this scuba tank they’d need to survive—kind of like the spice in Dune that lets them see and exist beyond this reality. A lot of people guess Star Wars but it was Dune.”
When asked if he or the band had any sense of how legendary the 2012 version would become, Roper admitted that they knew it would sell quickly due to the large following for the band and the album but added, “the band’s career skyrocketed and the artwork really went along with them for the ride.”
“I feel like a whole new generation of people discovered Sleep at that point and this image became the visual identity for them,” he said. “It’s kind of defined an era in time or this mindset of dedicated stoner lifestyle and music.”
Roper noticed that, as the latest version of the LP grows older, and stoner lifestyle becomes more of a broad definition.
“People who aren’t typically into stoner metal now seem to appreciate it—something about this earnest dedication to their vision and their sound and this world and even if it’s just a novelty for someone, they respond to it and see something here that’s really cool,” he said. “I have people who tell me they remember the artwork from when they were a kid. It’s cool how there’s a new generation that sees this as almost like classic rock.”
The widely recognized version of Dopesmoker has evolved from a piece of music into something that’s part of the cultural consciousness. It’s hard to realize that our stoner culture has evolved so far from where it started that even the “modern-day” marijuana movements of the ’90s are flagstones of the past. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked Roper if he’s spent any time since 2012 imagining what else the world of the Weedian holds. He revealed that he’s been drafting out a sort of graphic novel in his head, fleshing out what grows and dies out in this seemingly desolate world.
“Believe me I’d like to expand on it,” he revealed. “I’d love to do a full graphic novel but we’ll just have to see if there’s a story that we can all agree on.”
Like countless other stoners out there, this reporter will be watching the horizon for the next chapter of the Weedian pilgrimage. Ready to drop out, bong in hand.
This story was originally published in the October 2023 issue of High Times Magazine.
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