Robert Beatty described attending The Weeknd’s sold-out concert at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium in early September 2022 as “absolutely surreal.”
Though The Weeknd’s show was cut short when the singer lost his voice, Beatty still spent the evening awestruck — he stood among tens of thousands sporting “Dawn FM” merchandise that featured his artwork. Beatty saw his designs on sprawling stadium screens as well as T-shirts sold by bootleggers on LA streets, the latter of which he joked was much cooler than it was alarming.
“I’ve never been in a situation where so much of my artwork was just staring at me,” Beatty said.
While his art hasn’t ever confronted him head-on quite like it did that night in LA, Beatty and his work are no strangers to international attention.
The 41-year-old Lexington, Kentucky-based artist and musician has spent the past decade growing more and more in-demand after being commissioned by music industry titans like Tame Impala, Kesha, Kacey Musgraves, as well as bands and acts like The Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket and Oneohtrix Point Never in addition to lesser-known and independent acts to create album and single covers, posters, merchandise designs and tour visuals. Beatty’s illustrations have also appeared in publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Surfer Magazine and The New Yorker.
Raised in Nicholasville, Kentucky, not far from Lexington, Beatty aspired to become an artist and create comics as a kid, but didn’t necessarily grow up around art. Aside from his art classes in school and an aptitude for drawing, Beatty said much of his early exposure to art was limited to watching his mother make dolls and paint knickknacks, using a wood burner that he would occasionally tinker with.
In a pre-Internet era, Beatty was without today’s limitless connectivity but said he developed his taste and found inspiration by watching cable TV, citing MTV’s uncanny, experimental animation showcase “Liquid Television” and the public-access stations that plugged him into various artistic and musical niches as driving influences.
“[These stations] were totally different, just this weird window into another world that is easy to take for granted now because you have access to pretty much everything, but back then it was pretty important,” Beatty said.
As Beatty grew older, Lexington became a source of creativity. After graduating high school, Beatty and his friend Trevor Tremaine started volunteering at the University of Kentucky’s student-run radio station WRFL, which Beatty said he had listened to for several years prior to joining.
At WRFL, Beatty said he and Tremaine met the hosts of radio shows that played the so-called “weird music” they were both into, and eventually, they all started to play music together.
Enter Hair Police — the experimental noise band started by Beatty, Tremaine and their fellow radio show hosts in 2001.
Just as inspired by the inspiring weirdness of Japanese noise and free jazz bands as they were Van Halen, Beatty said, Hair Police was born out of the friends’ desire to merely enjoy themselves, though their moderate success would eventually follow.
“We were just trying to make the most fucked up music we could, just [creating] chaos … We were trying to mash everything together and do something that was fun more than anything,” Beatty said of Hair Police.
Armed with their distorted, eerie sound that incorporated traditional rock instrumentation in addition to electronics and tape manipulation, Hair Police released several albums under various labels which garnered the band a cult following and sent them on multiple tours across the United States and Europe playing in bars, clubs and houses, including a spell opening for noise rock pioneers Sonic Youth.
Beatty quipped that “people did not like” Hair Police when they opened for Sonic Youth. Be that as it may, the artist still credits touring as a gateway into his career now.
“[Touring] was how I started meeting people. I’ve been in Lexington this whole time, but getting out and traveling and meeting like-minded people was really important and directly responsible for what I’m doing today,” Beatty said. “There’s people I still work with today that I met touring noise music.”
Along with Hair Police, Beatty played with Tremaine and their friend Spencer Yeh in another experimental noise band, Burning Star Core, on top of creating and releasing his own music under various monikers like Three Legged Race.
It was during this time of touring and releasing, from 2001 to 2006, that Beatty’s career as an artist began to take shape. Because of his graphic inclination, Beatty said he did most of the artwork for whatever Hair Police was putting out, whether it be cassette or small CD and vinyl releases. Additionally, Beatty would create flyers for WRFL as well as art for Burning Star Core. It wasn’t until 2009 that Beatty began doing artwork for projects he was not directly involved with. These included artists who had previously heard of Beatty’s work along with bands and musicians he met through touring and at shows — most notably Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), who would be the one to connect Beatty with The Weeknd over a decade later, he said.
In 2015, Beatty’s career reached new heights when he was commissioned by psychedelic alternative act Tame Impala to create the now instantly-recognizable, mind-bending artwork for their landmark third studio album “Currents.”
Beatty’s work for “Currents” was his first done with a major record label.
“[That artwork] was kind of the one where I was like ‘Oh, I could make a living doing this if I do it the right way,’” Beatty, who had formerly worked as a janitor and construction worker to support himself while touring, said.
Two years later, in 2017, Beatty was commissioned to do the album artwork for Kesha’s GRAMMY-nominated album “Rainbow” and The Flaming Lips’ “Oczy Mlody.”
In the time since, Beatty has arguably become one of the most sought after figures in the realm of art and music, known for his airbrushed, unearthly style, which he said is inspired by the likes of Alan Aldridge and Japanese graphic designer Tadanori Yokoo.
Beatty’s home office, acting as a source of creative inspiration itself, is lined with art prints, old monitors and sound equipment, shelves of records (many of which he designed the covers for) and a plethora of books. He pulled a large one off his shelf — “Codex Seraphinianus” by Italian artist and designer Luigi Serafini, an illustrated encyclopedia written in an imaginary language, which Beatty said has had a significant impact on his work.
“That book was a huge influence on me … it definitely gave me a kind of direction,” Beatty said. “It was a miracle that crossed my path.”
He pulled another book off the shelf — his own, “Floodgate Companion,” a monograph of his art originally published in 2016, though since out of print. Beatty described the book as “something that feels like it’s from another world” and said he’s been trying to get it back in print.
In fact, “otherworldly” is a word that Beatty uses to describe all of his art.
“Across all of the things that I’m doing, that’s a little bit of the goal, to make it feel like it’s from some other time or place,” he said.
To transport viewers and listeners to said worlds, Beatty uses a combination of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and while his creative process has evolved over the years, he said his work always starts with drawing.
“Everything I’m doing kind of goes back to drawing in some way,” Beatty said. When he started out, he drew on paper then scanned those pieces into his computer or drew in Illustrator and Photoshop with a mouse, humorously saying, “What was that? How did I do that for so long?” It was only a few years ago when Beatty transitioned to using a Wacom drawing tablet for his art.
Beatty said his airbrushed style involves building up shapes and making the composition, then going through and working on shading and color. He explained this isn’t too different from physical airbrush art, which is made by masking off shapes and spraying shading and color.
Regardless of his methodology, though, Beatty’s philosophy surrounding the creation of album covers remains the same, no matter the musical genre.
“Make [record covers] that’ll invite you in, where you’ll have some expectation of what it’s going to sound like or that make you curious as to what it sounds like,” he said.
Beatty cited the cover he did for indie folk artist Christian Lee Hutson’s 2022 album “Quitters” as a prime example of this. He said it’s “one of the best covers I’ve done in the past couple of years” because it nails the dark but humorous emotion of the record and its somber sound.
But as Beatty’s clientele has grown further outside of the small niche in which he began creating — with pop giants like Kacey Musgraves enlisting him for her “star-crossed: unveiled” tour visuals and The Weeknd commissioning Beatty for nearly all of the art for his “Dawn FM” album cycle — the artist has at times found navigating the requests that hit his inbox difficult and the pitches bands and musicians make for commissioned art unappealing.
“I think it’s nice when you can tell [an artist] has a slightly deeper understanding of what I’m doing and what I’m interested in,” Beatty said.
Today, over half a decade after the release of “Currents,” Beatty said potential clients still request similar art for their own music, and while it remains one of his most famed works, he has no interest in replicating its style nor does he think he’d be able.
“There’s a lot of people that come to me and they’re just like, ‘I love the Tame Impala album cover,’ and I’m like ‘Cool, but I did that already, and I’m not going to do it again,’” Beatty said, laughing. “That came together in just the right way, and I couldn’t do that again if you asked me to.”
Beatty said one perk of being an in-demand artist is that he’s able to be more selective about his work, passing on major-label musicians because he didn’t feel confident about the commission and turning down bands who ask for album cover art in two weeks.
“How long did you work on this album? Two, three years?” he teased.
When Beatty is racking his brain for ideas for an album cover, he said it’s nice to be able to take a break and play music for a couple of hours or work with a different graphic technique.
“There’s so many different styles that I have that I can switch gears and do something that’s a little more automatic than drawing or trying to come up with an album cover,” he said.
Additionally, the easygoing pace of life in Lexington has proven itself fruitful for Beatty, who said there’s plenty here to immerse himself into when he’s not creating art for commission.
“I’ve never felt like [Lexington] was a cultural wasteland,” he said. “There’s always enough to keep me entertained.”
The artist said he prefers working in the background, and in the relatively quiet Lexington, he’s able to do so.
“I like [the idea of] the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, turning the dials but nobody sees,” he said.
Beatty’s comfortable life in Lexington has afforded him the opportunity to not only pursue art but also music here, which he said he missed when COVID-19 closed down venues. When he’s not working on graphic art, Beatty enjoys performing his experimental noise music under the name Ed Sunspot at locales like Al’s Bar and The Green Lantern.
“Most of the time I’m playing to 20 people,” he laughed. “But I love doing it and I love playing music with my friends, and I can’t imagine not doing that.”
Looking forward, Beatty said he would like to try to do more for himself after finding tremendous success in creating art for others.
“I’d like to put out a new record. I haven’t released any new music in a long time, and I’d like to make another book and some videos or do art shows,” he said. “[I’m] just trying to get back to doing more stuff that feels like my art instead of part of someone else’s art.”
Reflecting on the past decade, Beatty said he never thought he’d be able to make a living with his art, nor did he ever plan for this to eventually become his career.
“I never really had a goal in mind other than making the coolest, weirdest thing I could,” Beatty said. “I’m always going to be making art whether I’m making money doing it or not or if anybody pays attention or cares.”
See more of Robert Beatty's artwork at robertbeattyart.com.