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Design, Music History

The Inside Story of Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite for Destruction’ Album Cover

Featuring an exclusive new interview with Guns N' Roses cover artist Billy White Jr.

appetite for destruction album cover art

'Appetite for Destruction' final artwork (left) and original drawing by Billy White Jr.

The album cover of Guns N’ Roses’ masterpiece Appetite for Destruction has a complicated history. The final Appetite for Destruction cover (with Celtic cross design) was chosen after a painting by Robert Williams was rejected (more on that later). First, let’s delve into the iconic cross design featuring skulls of the five band members.

The cross design on the Appetite for Destruction cover was designed by Billy White, Jr. In an email exchange with Culture Creature, Mr. White explained that his cousin introduced him to Guns N’ Roses while White was an art student in Long Beach, California. Billy and the band became friends. “One day Axl called,” Mr. White explained, “and asked if i could draw him a tattoo, after he’d seen a drawing I’d done on my cousin’s wall. I said sure, and we talked. The cross and skulls that looked like the band was Axl’s idea, the rest was me. The knot work in the cross was a reference to Thin Lizzy, a band Axl and I both loved.” Irish rock greats Thin Lizzy used Celtic border elements on the cover of their 1976 album Johnny the Fox.

billy white jr guns n roses

Drawing by Bill White Jr.

Mr. White described the above pencil sketch as “a rough draft that i got approval from Axl on to move forward” to a final, full-color image done on Bristol paper using watercolor, gouache, and ink. White speculates that his final painting is likely in the possession of Geffen records.

Axl then had the cross design tattooed on his arm by Robert Benedetti at Sunset Strip Tattoo in Los Angeles (Benedetti is credited for “tattoos” in the Appetite for Destruction liner notes). During a phone call, Mr. Benedetti confirmed this, and said that his friends Axl and “Duffy” were at the tattoo studio often, and “then they got signed and they were gone.”

White’s pencil sketch was sold at a Grammy awards charity auction in 2009 (according to one commenter, the drawing sold for for $6,200). “I didn’t have anything to do with the auction, and don’t know who offered it for sale,” White noted.

An artist named Andy Engel made some refinements to White’s cross design, and it was approved for use as a secondary element in Appetite’s packaging – which was planned to have Robert Williams’ painting of a hallucinatory rape scene (see below) on its cover. Williams’ painting is titled ‘Appetite for Destruction.’ The album was actually shipped to stores with this original cover design – but this original version didn’t last long.

Appetite for Destruction cover

Original ‘Appetite for Destruction’ album cover by Robert Williams

The Robert Williams cover started harming album sales when some stores refused to sell it. “David Geffen gave me a lecture about the wrong cover,” Axl said during a 2011 interview with ‘That Metal Show,’ “the first cover gets banned, we go with the second.”

Billy White recalled, “Axl called again, and said [my design] was going to be on the cover of everything, because the Williams painting got rejected… I was okay with that!”

Today, Mr. White and photographer Robert John share the site FusedArts.com.

Early Appetite for Destruction Cover Concepts

Axl was obviously in the mood for controversy while making Appetite. During his ‘That Metal Show’ interview, he revealed that his first concept for Appetite for Destruction cover art was to use a photograph of the Challenger spacecraft exploding (he intended to use a photo that had appeared on the cover of Time magazine). That was deemed to be “in bad taste” for obvious reasons, so Axl moved on to Williams’ painting, and finally, Billy White Jr.’s Guns N’ Roses cross design.

The band referenced the Williams painting on the design of its 2016 Nightrain fan club materials:

guns n roses nightrain

The final ‘cross’ design works much better than Williams’ painting as an album cover; its bold simplicity has a symbolic graphic quality. The design has become iconic and was used almost like a logo by the band for decades.

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