Cover Stories: Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
It's an album cover that stands at the threshold of an enormous cultural shift, and it remains the Red Hot Chili Peppers' most iconic sleeve: Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
This may be hard to believe a generation later, but as the '90s dawned tattoos were still the province of sailors and bikers, two groups of people unlikely to use the word "province." Tats were for outcasts and degenerates, not regular people, but no one ever accused the Chilis of being "regular people."
One need look no farther than the cover of 1985's Freaky Styley to confirm that the band's love of ink predates tattoos going mainstream. Like the Chili Peppers' blend of funk and rock, their fondness for tats was ahead of its time. But, by the end of 1991, times were catching up with them. I was living just off of the Sunset Strip at the time, and I saw firsthand the seemingly overnight switch from spandex and teased hair to Doc Martens and flannel shirts. I even remember getting into an argument with my girlfriend over her desire for a tattoo.
Grunge was the big driver of that switch, of course, but not the only one. In 1989 V.Vale, the brains behind the legendary punk zine Search and Destroy, published a book entitled Modern Primitives, which for many people was their first peek into what was then the underground world of body modification. The book profiles prominent names like Lyle Tuttle, Anton LaVey and Ed Hardy, but it also touches on people with names like Tattoo Mike and Manwoman. In between rests Leo Zulueta, a protege of Hardy's whose emphasis (both as a tattoo artist and as a tattooed artist) was tribal designs. The five pages dedicated to Zulueta are richly illustrated with the all-black tats that would morph into the ubiquitous barbed wire armbands that we see today.
So we had the seeds of the '90s alternative music phenomenon and the beginnings of the body modification craze. No band was better positioned to merge that delicious peanut butter and creamy chocolate than the Chilis. Jason Draper's A Brief History of Album Covers takes a shot at explaining why:
The '90s saw a resurgence of West-Coast American rock, largely thanks to the popularity of Red Hot Chili Peppers among surfers (the band would prove hugely popular in the British West Country, where surfing was rife in town such as Newquay). Part of the 'surfer dude' imagery incorporated elaborate tattoos, and Blood Sugar Sex Magik saw the band revelling in the art, while creating their most memorable and iconic sleeve (not too difficult, given that their other artworks are largely forgettable) for their most essential album.
Well, maybe. Draper is writing from a British point of view. I have no idea what was happening in Newquay in 1991, but I can tell you this: In the late '80s the Chilis were one side of a holy triumvirate in Hollywood – the other two bands being Jane's Addiction and Fishbone. Sure, the Strip was all glam metal, but away from the Rainbow and the Whisky those were the three bands that personified Hollywood's dirty, funky cool. Maybe down in Santa Monica and Venice the Chilis were popular with surfers, but it was in the clubs of Hollywood where they were already legends long before the rest of the world caught on.
Now, the thing about the Chilis is that they didn't seem to own shirts, so catching them live meant seeing a lot of ink on the coolest guys in L.A. Singer Anthony Kiedis's back piece was particularly cool -- a Native American thunderbird design -- as was his tribal armband, which looked a lot like the Zulueta designs in Modern Primitives. Both tats (along with many other RHCP, Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam tattoos) were done by Dutch artist Henk Schiffmacher, a.k.a. Hanky Panky.
Schiffmacher is a true renaissance man, described by Kiedis as “an underground philosopher, artist, Hell’s Angels associate, booze hound, drug hound, girl hound, an absolute rapscallion of Dutch proportions.” The artist's website adds:
Henk Schiffmacher is a tattoo artist, painter, writer, collector, world traveller… You can see immediately from this list that it is impossible to briefly summarise either the profession or the activities of this creative and cultural gadfly. Nor is it simple to compile a record of service, a so-called curriculum vitae....
Here were all of the elements for a classic album cover: great band and great artist, both catching the zeitgeist like one of those waves off of Newquay. Schiffmacher designed the tribal-style artwork and the roses were back from the cover of Mother's Milk (or maybe they were an allusion to "Apache Rose Peacock"). All that remained was band photos, a task entrusted to director Gus Van Zandt, who would just a few years later bring Elliott Smith to the masses via his film Good Will Hunting.
Art direction wasn't Van Zant's only contribution to the album: He also directed the video for "Under the Bridge."
Draper concludes that "the album's booklet largely consisted of a collage of each band member's many and varied tattoos, making the Chilis partially responsible for the '90s craze for having tattoos based around Chinese symbols and other strange imagery that wasn't usually found on your everyday heavy metallist's bicep." Whether that's true is disputable, but what isn't is that Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the right album cover at exactly the right time, weaving together the disparate cultural threads that would come to define the '90s as well as your Grandpa's castoff cardigan.