Fade To Black: The Art Of Heavy Metal

Has there ever been a genre of music so attuned to font and logos?

Published on

Photo: Dave Etheridge-Barnes/Getty Images

With such a polarizing genre, aesthetic is the primary way one can find others in their metal tribe. A simple black band tee acts as an unspoken declaration of loyalty to the band and the metal scene at large.

The extremity of heavy metal, both visually and as a lifestyle, both peaks curiosity and intimidates outsiders. From bullet belts and military garb to the studded leather, vivid imagery, and undecipherable logos – each subgenre comes with its own coded set of visual cues that act as a litmus test to bewildered outsiders. Visual presentation ties into all musical genres, but no music scene values graphic design as much as metal bands do. Has there ever been a genre of music so attuned to font and logos?

Rejection of the mainstream

Like punk, metal grew out of a rejection of the mainstream and used fashion to create a sense of identity. While bands like Black Sabbath started out in the blues-rock fashions of bellbottoms and leather jackets, the real origins of heavy metal fashion came from biker and leather subcultures in the late 60s and 70s. In the Post-Vietnam era and after Easy Rider brought biker culture to the big screen, bands like Thin Lizzy, Steppenwolf, and Motörhead adopted the biker uniform, borrowing heavily from military uniforms, including bullet belts, cut-off or “kutte vests” adorned with patches, leather pants, and motorcycle boots. This would come in handy later with the development of mosh pits, where a pair of boots would double as protective gear.

But if you were to pinpoint the exact moment when the metal aesthetic came into being, it would be when Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford confidently rode onto stage on Top of the Pops on a Harley in head-to-toe leather gear in 1978, bringing the subculture to mainstream and changing heavy metal forever.

Judas Priest - Take on the World (BBC Performance)

Click to load video

Soon every heavy metal outfit in the UK and across the pond would be sporting studs and military caps with bullwhips in hand. While bands and fans appropriated many elements from the bondage world including leather, chains, studs, and skulls – no one associated it with the homosexual connotations it was intricately tied to. Halford would later be one of the first openly gay artists in the scene, but at the time it was seen as just an extension of the macho-biker image that represented the toughness of the music. As costume designer Laurie Greenan put it, “S&M was heavy metal long before heavy metal was.” Greenan was responsible for creating most of the legendary KISS costumes and was a long-time designer for Priest, earning her the nickname “Gloria Vanderbilt of heavy metal haute couture.” Greenan would later design costumes for Manowar and Billy Idol.

Punk influence

At a time when metal was still considered a fledgling genre, there was a lot of cross-pollinating both musically and stylistically from punk, as the scene drew heavily from punk’s studded and military uniforms. Motörhead was especially influential when it came to incorporating punk styles like spikes, studs bullet belts, and battle jackets in the late 70s. Just as punks and bikers swore the allegiances to different bands or outlaw gangs through patches, metalheads would take it one step further and turn these “knits” into an art form. With just one patch, fans could communicate their entire social scene. Patches not only served to bring fans together but they also operated as free advertising in the pre-Internet era.

As metal began to gain prominence in the 80s, it also began to splinter into innumerable subgenres, each with its own strict sense of visual presentation. Depending on what you wore, you could be assigned to the various scenes from thrash metal, death metal, black metal, glam metal groove metal, and later nu metal.

Accessing the occult

The biker look would continue to evolve; with NWHMB Iron Maiden frontman Paul Di’Anno adding studded belts and spiked bracelets or “gauntlets” to his look in the early 80s. Like bikers, metal bands also shared a similar fascination with Germanic and Pagan symbols like the Iron Cross and adopting Viking-like grooming habits with thick beards and long hair in the late 80s. The occult and old horror films would also influence metal fashion, from Ozzy Osbourne’s black robes to the corpse paint of KISS, Alice Cooper, and later, nearly every black metal band. Like warriors preparing for battle, makeup would play a key role in the birth of glam/hair metal stage bravado.

Alice Cooper - Welcome to My Nightmare (from Alice Cooper: Trashes The World)

Click to load video

Spandex and the Strip

Inspired by the androgynous glam rock of the 70s, bands like Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Poison, and countless others would dominate the Sunset Strip and MTV with flammable hairdos, drag-inspired makeup, and codpieces for days. Just as shows like Top of the Pops teleported Halford’s biker-clad image into the homes of Brits everywhere, hair metal’s entire existence was thanks to the likes of MTV, where the sex-drugs and rock and roll image went airborne.

While bands like Saxon had been sporting spandex for years, the in-your-face sexualized image of glam metal was born and died on the Strip. Some metal styles came about as a reaction to the excess of hair metal. With its punk roots, thrash metal adopted its own style codes as a way to distance its from the dominant hair metal of the day. Acid-washed jeans, battle jackets, white high-tops and black band tees were mandatory for the likes of Iron Maiden and any number of American thrash metal bands. Once Megadeth‘s Dave Mustaine turned up in Nike high-tops, the rest of the thrash world took note.

The graphic grandeur of metal

While concert and band tees had been around since the advent of screen printing and Woodstock, the metal community subverted the promotional power of the tee shirt and turned it into a defiant statement. After all, Metallica’s iconic Damage Inc Tour shirt with an impaled skull (designed by their long-time collaborator Pushead) is no Guess question mark tee.

T-shirts and album covers were just the canvases for the graphic grandeur of metal logos and artwork. Before album covers were reduced to thumbnails on streaming platforms, they were an arresting way to convey your musical vision.

Just as the music got faster, louder, and harder, so did the typography. Compare the bubbly front of Sabbath to the aggressively pointed lettering of Def Leppard. Metal logos draw from a wide range of sources, from medieval blackletter typography to Gothic and Old English fonts like Motörhead. In addition to logos, Motörhead also set the standard for band mascots in 1977 with the infamous Snaggletooth aka War Pig, who would appear on all of the band’s albums except two.

Megadeth - Wake Up Dead (Official Music Video)

Click to load video

Album artwork would spawn its own community of stars, who are legends in their own right. Like Joe Petagno, who’s responsible for Snaggletooth as well as Led Zeppelin’s famous Icarus logo. These mascots were akin to members of the band, appearing on album artwork, t-shirts, and countless merch designs.

From Derek Rigg’s ax-wielding psycho killer “Eddie the Head” on Iron Maiden albums to Megadeth’s Vic Rattlehead created by Ed Repka – these characters became cult figures in the metal scene. As metal’s sound became more extreme in the late 80s, so did the album covers. The Smiths may have thought they were courting controversy with their 1985 Meat is Murder cover, but it pales in comparison to another vegan-inspired cover for Reek of Putrefaction by British extreme metal band Carcass.

Grotesque metal covers both delighted young fans and horrified parents in equal measure. Slayer’s Reign in Blood still turns heads today and Judas Priest’s British Steel by Roslav Szaybo made the macabre look stylish. No matter how you feel about the imagery, no one can accuse the artists of being sloppy. When drawing from Satanic texts, you need to be dedicated to detail. Every generation has their favorite, whether it’s Ozzy Osbourne’s Diary of a Madman or Pantera’s Vulgar Display of Power, the art of metal is akin to the US Supreme Court’s characterization of pornography: you’ll know it when you see it.

What used to be considered the attire of misfits and outcasts has now been appropriated by the fashion world, Kanye West and Justin Bieber. Both of them recruited famous metal artists to created edgier apparel for their tours and accidentally created a rare bonding opportunity for old metalheads and their pop music-loving children.

Click here to follow the Metal History playlist, featuring classic headbangers from Metallica to Megadeth, Scorpions to Dio, and everywhere in between.



  1. Scott

    May 7, 2017 at 10:25 pm

    Metal is indeed a form of rock and roll where music and fashion are true bedfellows. While musically Black Sabbath is usually given credit as the first true metal band after their self titled debut, I do agree it was Rob Halford who was the other metal god who helped spearhead the leather and chains/S & M look. Likewise, the band Judas Priest was as important to metal’s development as Sabbath was. I was only nine when “Black Sabbath” came out, and as just a third grader, had no clue about rock music in 1970 other than maybe The Beatles and some of the most banal pop teen idol artists ever released to appeal to my older sister and her friends. This was stuff dominated by The Partridge Family, Englebert Humperdinck, and I will admit he had a great singing voice, all things being fair, Tom Jones, Bobby Sherman, B.J. Thomas and other lightweights of the day. She liked The Monkees too, and that was okay because they were not bad.
    So in the midst of Vietnam, three years of violent protests, a draft, and Nixon I can only imagine the impact “Black Sabbath” must have had. Even when I was older and in high school, Sabbath was still scary as hell to most teenagers, and their fans were surely Satanic drug using miscreants.
    Priest took the other route – speed and heaviness. They were the true forefathers of thrash, proudly declared themselves and still call themselves “heavy metal”, and without them the NWOBHM, Big Four, thrash and death metal would be impossible. Sure, there were other hard rockin’ bands at the time, but Priest did it right.
    The laughingstock was hair. While Priest, who even had to momentarily adopt a “hair” posture for a short time promoting “Turbo Lover”, they quickly dispensed with it and got back to slamming metal. Meanwhile, the coke soaked Sunset Strip hair scene and the multitudes of copy cat bands across the world got the bright idea of imitating Van Halen – long locks and stripey outfits, a hot shot guitar player, etc., etc. This movement also incorporated glam and not just a little fey dressing up, where we ended up with Poison wearing hairdos that would embarrass a woman who used to wear a beehive, copious amounts of make up that made them truly androgynous, rags for tops, leather pants and cowboy boots. Huh? Then, the usual “tough” guy posing. Only Motley Crue because they were so gnarly to begin with and Cinderella were actually pretty good, most of the rest joining the casino circuit trying to resurrect dead careers.
    I’ve been a t-shirt and regular shorts or jeans type of guy my whole life, and for me it was the music, not the uniforms. Oh well, we can’t say it was dull.

  2. Bob

    October 23, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    You forgot to mention the grandfathers of Metal BLUE CHEER.

  3. Uriah

    October 31, 2017 at 3:11 am

    Love this I found this actually hopping to find some site that actually has the art work from all the old 80’s to mid 90’s heavy and death metal T shirts. I was a kid in the 80’s and remember going to the local arcades and amusement parks and seeing the older kids wearing their shirts and being completely fascinated thinking one day I will have that. I wanted them all. I actually loved the artwork before I even listened to the band’s guess that was the point. My friend’s mother didn’t care what he wore or listened too and he would go to school wearing Metalica, Iron Maiden, Napalm death, Grim Reaper, and I remember one of my favorites I think was Testament? It had a skeleton doctor gutting a person it was awesome. I remember in those days wanting to go to the store just to go down the book isle and see the cool book covers, going to comic stores to get Hell Raiser Comics, because the art work was phenomenal. Now days comics are cartoony, band shirts are nothing attention grabbing and book covers holy crap just look at C J Box or what ever what garbage. Every book cover today is a man or woman or a shadow they really suck hardcore. This pc world is unimaginative, untalented, and it destroyed the mystery and mystique behind, bands, books, and film’s. I remember not renting some movies because the covers were so scary. Yet the logic today is make it not scary so the kids will end up watching I spit on your grave because they thought it was a twilight movie based off the art? I long for those days when artist were free to create intellectual pieces for adults without having to dumb it down because some a hole wants his kid to grow up stupid without experience, knowledge, or challenge. Innocence, they call it protecting the kids? I call it manufacturing idiots. Does a knight wear armor that doesn’t allow him to engage the world? No. The protection should be designed to better navigate not avoid reality. Kids are not allowed to see or connect to any reality and then people complain about them being disconnected and idealistic? They are products of your stupidity, the indoctrinators who care not for safety but for manufacturing experience lacking perspective-less morons susceptible to consume the low hanging fruits of Disney/lego/Pixar. To replicate a three year old mentality mind set looking at life through a prissy frilly idealist looking glass. But who am I to be critical?

  4. Charlie

    October 31, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    I love Metal but Blue Cheer was not recognized as the first metal band. Steppenwolf was with Born To Be Wild. Then,everyone else followed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter (Limited-Edition Smoke Color LP)
Johnny Cash - Songwriter CD
Johnny Cash
Songwriter CD
Johnny Cash - Songwriter LP
Johnny Cash
Songwriter LP
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP+7
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping (Limited 2LP + 7″)
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2CD
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2CD
Paul McCartney & Wings - One Hand Clapping 2LP
Paul McCartney & Wings
One Hand Clapping 2LP
uDiscover Music - Back To Top
uDiscover Music - Back To Top