By Sebastien Hayez. Published March 15, 2023
Christophe Szpajdel is one of the rare names known in the Metal scene although he is not part of any band. However, since the end of the 1980’s, he has designed almost 10,000 logos for bands such as Emperor, Wolves in the Throne Room or Moonspell. Szpajdel was born on September 29, 1970 in Belgium, where he lived throughout his youth. He is a curious child, fluent in Polish and French, but learning Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Ukrainian or Dutch very easily. He was fascinated by the Art Nouveau lettering encountered in Belgium, and by nature, both vegetal and animal, inspired him daily for his logo design.
The interview took place over two days. Christophe answers with passion and conviction, not hesitating to quote many bands whose music and logos he appreciates.
In terms of training, are you self-taught?
Indeed, I had practically no artistic training. So at this level, I can say that I am 100% self-taught.
Did you discover calligraphy through logo design, or was it an interest you had before?
I actually became interested in calligraphy when I was 9-10 years old. I was very interested in the different medieval calligraphy styles. But above all, I was very interested in typography linked to Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and then in oriental, Arabic and Turkish calligraphy. It's something that interested me a lot independently of logos.
But apart from Metal logos, I was also interested in the typography of brands. A very memorable logo that has changed very little is the Coca-Cola logo. Logos have become very important in the Metal scene.
Have you ever signed logos in other writing systems than the Latin alphabet?
Indeed, I made several logos in Cyrillic, in Greek. I was also interested in Kanji (Japanese ideograms drawn vertically). It also inspired me to make some logos for Aetherial in Black, a clothing brand that never saw the light of day. It's a pity because in the book Logos from Hell, I inserted two drawings that I had made and that were never exploited.
I have done calligraphy of quotes in Cyrillic or also a logo for the group Maroдer, ("marauder" in English). I have even recently worked for the Armenian group Ildaruni and I would like to make a version of it in Armenian alphabet. It's something I've already tried and it's quite difficult, especially to manage the symmetries and to play correctly on the positive and negative spaces. Same thing with the Arabic alphabet: it's very difficult. But on the other hand, I also make logos in Latin alphabet inspired by Arabic, Georgian, Armenian, Cyrillic, Balkan, Turkish calligraphy...
You talk about Ottoman calligraphy, do you know the tugras?
I was also very interested in the tugras. It's something I had already explored before I knew their names. I was inspired by them in my logos just as I am influenced by Ottoman or Middle Eastern calligraphy. An example is the logo of the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera, which has a beautiful lettering that inspired me. I have marked this interest in the aesthetics of some of my logos, for clothing brands or more rarely for tattoos.
Can you describe to us a little bit how you got interested in the Metal logo ?
At the age of 7, in 1978 to be exact, I came across Kiss' "I was made for Lovin you" by accident. I fell in love with this logo, this visual, and then, one thing leading to another, I continued with Metal. I had a great interest in Metal logos, and in 1986, it was my confirmation as a metalhead: King Diamond, Sodom, Slayer, Candelmass, Halloween, Vulcan, Killers, Killer (Belgium), Crossfire, Sodom, Destruction, Protector. Morbide Death (precursor of Blasphereion and then Enthroned) was one of the most important logos for Belgian bands.
The real launch of your career in the extreme metal scene is the Emperor logo. Can you tell us about this adventure ?
In 1989, I met Thierry Prince and his fanzine Septicore. We published 7 issues between 1989 and 1992, but it's thanks to the correspondence that I exchanged with Samoth. He edited a fanzine called Z.A.S.T. and played in a metal band called Xerasia, then in Embryonic. Then one day, in his mail, he tells me that he forms a new band called Emperor. I took him by surprise, you know, with a logo that was very strong. A logo that had an impact. I really like the simplicity in the logos, that they are immediately legible.
This Black Metal lettering aesthetic was quite new at that time. But were you already influenced by other logos?
In the logos of bands that really inspired me, well, it's the South American scene of the late 1980s, with Brazilian bands like Sarcófago, Genocidio, Sepultura, Dorsal Atlântica, or MX. More generally, Masacre (Colombia), and the Chilean bands Death Yell, Sadism, Atomic Aggressor and Torturer. These are really the logos that spoke to me the most. It was in 1989, when I was receiving a lot of flyers for the Sala Lautaro concert in Santiago de Chile.
Can you describe in which aspects these South American bands' logos influenced you ?
In fact, if you look at very specific logos (Death Yell, Sadism, Torturer, Massacre), you notice a great mix of curves and straight lines. The curves are lined up and it forms hooks. It's a kind of semi repetitive pattern but with a gradation: these curves are decreasing towards the center of the logo. By the way, it inspired me to design the logo of the Brazilian group Desdominus. I'm talking about the years 1988 and 1989, when I was starting to work and was amazed by really beautiful logos: with only sharp points and angles. But also logos with curves, like for Atomic Aggressor. That's a logo that inspired me a lot.
I have the impression that these logos were designed by the musician and graphic designer Enrique Zúñiga (also member and leader of Atomic Aggressor). In the Brazilian bands, precisely, the Sepultura logo was really perfect. It's a little bit the pinnacle for the career of this band.
Oh yes, Morbid Angel, as an important influence, with each time this double-dash, this type of curve in the lettering which forms a little bit like scythes, like mandibles... Well, it's a little bit all that which stimulated me for the creation of my logos. I was inspired a lot by Old School Death Metal logos for my creations. We'll put a leading band, inventor and pioneer of the style: it's Possessed and of course Celtic Frost who followed. Finally, if I had to quote other logos that really inspired me, well, it's the logo of Sinister (Nl) and Nihilist (Swedish formation evolving to become Entombed).
And at the moment, logos that really stand out, well, they are the logos of original Ukrainian bands, for example Jinjer, or Necrom and Fleshgore.
I would like to come back to the notion of style in logos. It seems to me that a Metal logo is related to its musical genre. A Heavy, Grind, Death, or Black logo has slight differences that the fan is able to perceive. Does this seem right to you and can you possibly highlight these differences?
So, the logos now reflect more and more the musical style of a band.
A heavy metal logo is usually very simple, a dynamic shape, which strikes the eye: Judas Priest, Dadly Blessing.
A Grindcore logo will have very messy, disheveled lettering, with generally little structure: Agatocles, Napalm Death.
A Brutal Death Metal logo will normally be an illegible logo with lots of ligaments: Gurglectomy, Vaginal Dissection.
Death Metal logos, as I like most, are made of sharp, aggressive curves: Possessed, Sepultura, Morbid Angel, Invocator. But Mayhem, a Black Metal band, is also a logo that oscillates between the Black and Death styles.
The logos of Black Metal bands generally exploit pentagrams and the lettering is inspired by gothic calligraphy: Watain, Dark Funeral, Marduk, or even King Diamond in a more Heavy Metal musical style.
But you shouldn't generalize. There are bands of Ultra Brutal Death Metal, or of another style, who prefer to use a logo that does not belong to their musical genre. But sometimes, this kind of band can choose a very simple and effective logo, like for example the French band Sufficide, with a devilishly simple, readable, very angular logo.
Now more and more groups are mixing elements, for example in the development of "Tech" logos. There are a lot of artists who were inspired by the Archspire logo and the work of Christopher Horst (graphic designer and illustrator, also type designer), with very straight and geometrical letters, a bit in the spirit of the logo for Transformers.
One of the great features of Metal logos is symmetry. It probably comes from the music logos of the 1970s with lettering between Psyche and Prog. For you, is it something you're looking for at all costs? What does symmetry bring to a logo?
Symmetry is something I liked a lot even before the logos were created. In logos, it's something I've always liked, but it's no longer a necessity. Symmetry is a reflex in the subconscious. It's something that comes by itself and that I let come. In Psyche or Stoner logos, I am quite open to imperfect symmetries. In fact, I'm starting to get a taste for asymmetrical logos, or logos with an imperfect but balanced symmetry.
What makes your style different from the rest of the Metal production ?
With the logo of Emperor, I tried to propose a logo which leaves the clichés and the stereotypes. Example of stereotype: Dark Throne; example of simplicity: Bathory; example of majesty, strength of power: Emperor, and that's really what I tried to illustrate with this logo, simplicity, efficiency and immediate impact.
For my part, I was very inspired by the Art Nouveau logos which could more easily correspond to Stoner bands or more in the vein of Yes or Progressive Rock, or like Black Sabbath, it's a bit of a 1970s revival. But Art Nouveau logos also allow for a lot of flexibility.
Art Nouveau is an influence that I continue to develop, because it allows to organize the positive and negative spaces inside the letters, but also between the letters, a kind of compensation of negative and positive spaces. For example, Evgeniy Krivtsov made the beautiful Hostile logo, where the H can be perfectly counterbalanced by the L and the E.
You talk about the balance between the negative and positive spaces within the logo. This is the main notion that type designers keep in mind in order to find the balance between the letters. Did you learn this finesse of understanding through practice, readings, meetings with calligraphers or artists?
In terms of balance, this came mostly through practice, as well as meeting other artists. I spend a lot of time looking at how other logo designers do it, including Krivtsovartwork, who I really like. I love his work, especially I love how he manages to balance positive and negative spaces, and get harmonious logos, without gaps, that all letters are well balanced. Ah but, it's mostly practice, looking at other logo designers, looking at how they do it and how I can apply it to my work.
You started out when very few artists were doing logos for music. How did you experience the evolution in this niche sector?
In the 1980s, the logos were drawn by hand. So it was quite difficult to make changes, modifications. Most of the time, the bands used a local artist or an amateur, sometimes a member of another band, and usually the logos were very primitive. At that time, many bands had a member who was a designer or who had the ability to design logos.
In the 1990's and 2000's, with the advent of the Internet, and now with Facebook, when a band needs a logo, they don't bother to look for and contact artists. They'll just put up a Facebook post asking who can design a suitable logo. So a post like that sometimes gets close to 500 recommendations, and many artists sometimes submit their proposals. So much that some groups take a small fee (a dozen dollars or so) to validate that proposal. It gets epic. Some graphic designers spend their time hunting for these kinds of ads on social networks with groups offering a handful of dollars.
In the videos showing you at work, we see you with paper, a pencil, a ruler, an eraser and some thin liners...
I happen to work on about ten different projects in a day. I take my notebook, my notepad, and especially my drawing sheets, because I can start sketching at absolutely any time, an idea or something that inspires me around and I stop. I draw in a very unpredictable way. It's really impulsive.
I can produce about ten quick sketches in five minutes that I submit to the client. I scan it in black and white, with maximum contrast and a definition of 300 dpi. This allows the client to have twenty, thirty, sometimes even a hundred quick sketches. Then they can easily choose their favorites. So it's much faster to do multiple pencil sketches on paper.
And, if the symmetry of the sketch, if everything is perfect for my eye, nothing to modify, well I finalize with the inking. I complete, I pass to the ink but I also bring corrections to the white-out in order to have a final logo that I submit to the customers.
You mentioned the work of the young generation of logo designers. Didn't you imagine going digital to gain in speed or simply in the possibility of correction?
In fact, I have tried to go digital many times. I have tried sometimes to do very simple things on a computer, to follow tutorials on Youtube. But unfortunately when it comes to working on the computer, even with computer classes, drawing simple things is a real struggle for me. So don't even get me started on drawing something like a simple logo on the computer.
This is much easier and faster for me than trying to clean up on the computer in vector.
It took me 85 hours to vectorize a simple logo. So I'll never get away with it, because I have so much to do and I'm still booked up. Yes, I manage to have all my weeks booked. By the way, I usually take a 50% deposit before sending my first sketches. This deposit is strictly non-refundable and I am very strict. Sometimes I may cut the price a little if the client has a low budget, but that's something we work out at the beginning. I am on the whole very flexible, but you should not play with me.
So you deliver a scan in jpeg format for each logo?
When the logo is finished and approved by the client, I create an email conversation with the client and the graphic designer I am working with, for small adjustments and vectorization.
I am lucky to have a graphic designer who is very reliable, talented and fast: the Mauritian Denis Larhubarbe. In terms of correction on Photoshop, he can do in two minutes what I never managed to do. Denis called on my services for a lot of logos, for his projects or for his friends' projects. And then, one thing leading to another, around 2010, we started talking more and more about vectorization. Before that, I was working with other designers who, unfortunately, weren't very good. But now, Denis' vectorizations are of a wonderful quality and it's manual vectorization.
So I kind of feel like anything that would distract me from my goals is bad for me. That's why I've delegated everything that's vector.
You were talking to me privately about a dynamic logo. In graphic design, it corresponds to a logo whose design evolves according to the formats. In Metal, it's different...
What we call a dynamic logo is for example the logo of Electric Wizard or Absu, which have about twenty different logos. For Nunslaughter, I alone designed about ten different logos, but in total, the band uses more than a hundred different logos designed by about fifty artists. It's an evolving logo, in accordance with the musical evolution of the band and the maturation of the project.
In some interviews, you talk about the logo designed for Rihanna as a key moment in your career. How did you get contacted?
"Opportunities don't happen, you create them. In fact, I was on the tube in London, coming back from an exhibition of Dayal Patterson, the launch of the book "Cult never dies", with Billie and Luca di Vinu, artist and graphic designer.
The next day, I took the subway and I saw this lady sitting right in front of me. So discreetly, I pass her a card, because I am very attracted by her tattoos, her jewelry and especially something very Art Nouveau, Gothic and Metal.
A week later, a woman named Clare Gillen contacted me via Facebook. She tells me that she is back in Philadelphia and contacts me for a logo with the name "Rihanna".
I didn't really understand that it was for Rihanna, the singer, until Clare said to me, "Well, this is my colleague, Cindy Lin, who is going to take over the communication, and the deadline is July 30”. It was towards the end of July that Cindy Lin took over, and again, she said, "I have to pass this on to my boss who is coming. There was a cascade of four to five intermediaries. That's when I started to realize. Meanwhile, I didn't have a manager. So when it comes to a quick price quote, I give an answer without thinking because of lack of time.
Then the team had an internal meeting with the managers, then again a cascade of 5 e-mails, then again 5 discussions. And above all, the deadline started to become very short. There was a deadline. So Rihanna was indeed a very important logo proposal. It was also a challenge. "A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there”. I felt a strong need to completely get out of my comfort zone, to get out of the metal box a little bit.
You produced 3 logos for Rihanna, were they all used?
Oh yes, indeed the logos were all used on stage. There was a main logo that appeared frequently, then two other logos that were more discreet, but still very visible. But in total, I made 12 proposals of which 3 were finalized.
How did the Metal scene react to this collaboration with a mainstream star?
Indeed, the Metal scene is very closed. Well, I lost a handful of fans and gained many more. "One half of knowing what you want is knowing what you must give up before you get it." So, sacrifices had to be made to get out of your comfort zone. "Pain growth, and changes are very painful, are very hard in the beginning, messy in the middle, but I promise you, they will be gorgeous in the end.".
The changes, especially the growth, are really about getting out of your box. It's very painful, but there's nothing more painful than to stay stuck, to stay within the Metal scene and to have only clients who don't pay much. So actually, it allowed me to double my prices thanks to the recognition that Rihanna brought me. It's something that has opened a lot of doors for me to get into bigger exhibitions (in Poland, the big Christmas Charity orchestra), events where the public appreciates aesthetic lines like that, very ripped lines, but also Art Nouveau features.
Listening to you, is it the aesthetic aspect that you would like to see recognized, far from the clichés of Metal?
We leave out the fans of the Black Metal logos. But we completely forget about the drama and the gimmicks, like burning churches, murders, and all that. We leave all that out. We leave that in the housewife basket and focus on the right value, the right beauty of the writing. So really, I'm asking everyone who looks at a logo, "Look at the right value, the sheer beauty, the right charm of the logo, the calligraphy, the design."
You also came out of the Metal box with a logo for a movie. Can you tell us more about it ?
One of the logos that gave me a huge opportunity was the logo for Mandy, the Panos Cosmatos horror film with Nicolas Cage (Cage's son, Weston Coppola Cage, is also a Black Metal musician, playing with his band Eyes Of Noctum). It gave me a lot of positive feedback, because it's an example of a smart horror movie, like The Blair Witch Project. There's a kind of psychological torture: it's really that kind of movie that keeps you riveted to your seat from the beginning to the end, and doesn't let go of you at all.
Now I've been inspired a lot by calligraffiti style logos for some clothing companies, like Wicked Natures, Wasted Vanity, small clothing companies. I'll send you some exclusive logos that have never been used, like a brand that is just called "Vetement" and it's a very mysterious brand. The clothes are very expensive. It's kind of like Banksy, you know... He makes mysterious appearances. It's really what I call the ghost artist, and I, myself, am starting to have that approach more and more. This year, the number of my clients has significantly decreased, probably because of Fiverr, which has grown really well, offering logos for just 1 dollar. On Fiverr, you can have more than 10 sketches... and this is what I mentioned in my first questions, is that the client doesn't even need to contact artists anymore, the client just goes on his social networks : "So who wants to draw me a nice logo ?" and there are already a lot of artists who come forward.
You also mention the clothing company. It's probably the commercial sector where graphic identity, logos, have a very special place. Metal tends to come out of the underground to become more acceptable, even mainstream (Iron Maiden, Metallica, Slayer, Rammstein or Cradle of filth). Fashion reflects this and I see in fashion reports logos inspired by extreme Metal logos... How did you start working for fashion and how do you see this evolution ?
In fact, the clothing companies came by themselves. The first clothing companies contacted me in 2005-2006 through MySpace and wanted all exchanges to be done through that platform, so I gave them the e-mail. Unfortunately, when I sent them sketches, they usually stopped responding altogether. You can see that they were not prepared at all so there were a lot of failures. I remember the first clothing company that contacted me called Westmont and they're based in California, well the same thing, it's called a journey that ended before it even started. And so, there are a lot of failures in clothing companies. And the difficulty with clothing companies is often, there's no music to inspire me or to give me ideas. And they are looking for very different styles, so they send me examples so that I draw sketches in this style, and then thank you very much for these examples, we are looking for something completely different, and then they send me new examples, we finally concluded that we are looking for something in a completely different direction, so the clothing companies, it's a lot more tricky, but it's that now is budding a lot more than the bands so more and more and more bands now, they don't sell albums on their tour but they sell practically only merchandising, because all their music is now directly available on the streaming platforms. Also when it comes to the launch of their album they use crowdfunding platforms.
Yes, indeed a little anecdote from this year, I was contacted by an agency that wanted to send me for a logo for the company Yeezy Gap, which is actually the clothing company of Kanye West. I asked my manager, Piotr Mahon, to negotiate the price and especially to manage all the administrative tasks. On my side, I could focus only on the creation, the ideas, the logo sketches.
But Piotr took a long time to answer the email. So the project literally destroyed itself: Kanye West decided to drop the project. So I didn't get paid and about 6 weeks of work were wasted.
Usually the big fashion brands don't wait. They like to have an answer instantly, at any time, 24 hours a day. Big projects, like this, are hastily handled. But I was saved by the bell. Do you know why? Because of Kanye West's racist, anti-Semitic and hateful comments in his interviews.
Since I had signed a non-disclosure agreement, I'm not even allowed to share the sketches. It's a shame, because it's a project that could have been beautiful, but it was nipped in the bud.
How do you perceive this democratization of the Metal aesthetic ?
It's a double-edged sword. On the one hand for me it's a bit of an opportunity to explore new areas, even if every project is a new opportunity. But for the radicals and conservatives of the genre, all these imitations of logos are a kind of attack on the dignity of extreme metal.
Look at the Foo Fighters example in 2014. They made ugly Christmas jumper by literally butchering my beautiful Emperor logo. They may have paid a graphic designer a few bucks, when they could have contacted me to make a beautiful logo. I grabbed my pencils, and drew my Christmas jumper proposal. It sent shockwaves through the entire music scene, a real earthquake.
Your first book published by Gestalten has been out of print for a while and some copies are at a very high price. Are there any other publishing projects planned?
My first book Lord of the logos (Gestalten) is out of print. There will be absolutely no reissue of this book because of disagreements between the publishing house and my managers. Archaic modernism, my second book, is still available, but the demand is very high and it may well become a collector's item. I still have a few copies left...
Other editorial projects are indeed planned, but I can't say anything until Archaic Modernism is completely sold out.
I saw yesterday the video presentation of your logo at the Walker art center... How did this link with contemporary art come about? I think in parallel to the link between Metal, extreme music and contemporary art, like Stephen O'Malley from Sunn(((o who works with contemporary dance companies...
That started with the release of my book Lord of the logos, in January 2011. And as Gestalten is a publishing house specialized in design, especially in typography, they were interested in me as I am a reference in the world of logos. Many graphic designers were inspired by my work. So they decided to contact me through what is called a headhunter, who was called Armin Vitt. He contacted me and I put him in touch with an eater I was working with. And just like that, he selected me. There were more than 200 graphic designers. But finally after a very hard task, I was finally selected with other graphic designers like Marian Bantjes or Alex Trochut, for example, to mention graphic designers that I like very much. And one thing leading to another, I was selected. Indeed, I liked this show so much that I made this logo as a thank you. On top of that, when I did this Walker Art Center logo, which really gave me a big kick in the stern, well one thing led to another, and I asked Andrew Blauvelt if I could do logos for each of the members of the graphic team, and that's how I got paid a little bit. Because it was a time when I was very flexible and I still managed to do a project with all the names of the graphic design team for a very modest sum. So I'll keep the exact price secret, it was in 2011 and 2012 that I did that and so that's what allowed me to create a new opportunity to get known in the graphic world outside of metal. So we leave the metal out; we leave the whole mentality, but we focus on the aesthetic vision.
Are there any bands you would like to work for after more than 10,000 logos?
There are quite a few. Well, there is Mental Dimise, which has a rather average, unreadable logo, which I could have revisited. Semargl (Ukraine), Occidens, Krallicce, etc. Steven O'Maley (Khanate, SunnO))))) had contacted me, twenty years ago, for a project called Probot. But then, it was more of a fan art thing. We exchanged some contacts, but what I love is Burning Witch. I had even imagined a band, Calvaire, covering all the Burning Witch songs but in French version. The logo is in the book "Logos from Hell".