Detail from M.I.A.'s Arular

This is the second in our series Under The Covers, in which we shine a spotlight on a significant album with a seminal design approach to match. We kicked off the series with Kraftwerk, and the krautrock band’s iconic, mysterious Autobahn motorway graphics

When West London rapper/singer/visual artist M.I.A. exploded onto the music scene in 2003, she appeared fully formed—a sui generis who took seven years to become an overnight success. Maya Arulpragasam had been signed by XL Recordings soon after she began recording under the alias M.I.A., but to reach that point she had to go through a creative evolution that sometimes beggared belief. What some may not realize, too, is that it was the music that grew out of the art rather than the art growing out of the music.

The cover of Arular, her 2005 debut album, is very much a product of its time, and yet Arulpragasam’s artwork is also like nothing else. A montage made with rickety old software by the artist and her collaborator Steve Loveridge, it features stenciled airplanes, guns, tanks and bombs, cut and pasted into rows like they were assembled from a library of militia Clip Art. What’s fascinating about the artwork, and the whole M.I.A. aesthetic, is that it was born out of technological limitations.  

Arulpragasam and Loveridge met in the late ’90s at Central Saint Martins, where they were studying film, and by the admission of both, were drifting towards 2:2s without much direction. “Being on a film course in 1999, we kind of fell into the crack between two technology waves and missed them both,” wrote Loveridge in the forward of Arulpragasam’s Rizzoli-published artbook, M.I.A, from 2012. “Film and analog video were dying, but digital hadn’t quite come through yet.” In 1999, the Internet with a capital ‘I’ was an incipient resource that people only really had at work or got to visit at the library; social media as we know it was years away, and most people were signing up for their first Yahoo! or Hotmail accounts. 

On the day Arulpragasam and Loveridge graduated, the former received a phone call from her sister, telling her that her cousin had gone missing in Sri Lanka. “M.I.A. came to be because of my missing cousin,” writes Maya in the book. “I’d removed myself from Sri Lanka or having any connection to it so it shocked me into confronting something very real. Students at the art school were exploring apathy, dressing up in some pigeon outfit, or running around conceptualizing… missing the whole point of art representing society.” M.I.A. sought to represent a society five and a half thousand miles from London that was overwhelmed by a civil war that went underreported across the globe. Firstly through film, then fashion, and ultimately through her music.  

She went back to Sri Lanka and found a county that “had only gotten more hopeless in the years [since] I had left.“ At first she wanted to make a film about her cousin, an undertaking that would have been extremely dangerous and ultimately faltered, though inspiration came in the form of VHS cassettes that were disseminated as newsletters to the Tamil community. Again, pre-internet, this was a way for rebels in the north of the country to relay information via films that could be bought in supermarkets across Sri Lanka. The tapes concluded with Tigers who’d been killed or had disappeared, and families would buy them to try to ascertain information about loved ones missing in action.

The videos became a bank of images that Maya photographed, then “photocopied, black-and-white, neon, lo-fi, printed, scanned, re-printed, re-scanned, re-filmed, re-photographed, with some tape, staples, a spray can and some glue.” This ethos went into a lo-fi stencil-based fashion line that she sold at markets, and it would become the basis for her subsequent album artwork. Arulpragasam had hit it off with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann after meeting her at an Air afterparty in London in 2001, and she’d moved into a room of her own at Justine’s place which enabled her to get on her feet. Being surrounded by musicians, she became hyperaware of a medium that could disseminate her message better than any she’d tried so far. She cobbled together a six-track demo before she owned her own computer with the help of Frischmann, and seasoned indie pros Steve Mackey and Ross Orton. A lack of a PC of her own was also conducive to creating unusual, autodidactic graphics. 

“Maya loved Photoshop,” writes Loveridge. “She never did learn how to use it properly, and that rubbed off on me. She taught me not to learn the workings of any software more than I absolutely had to.” Loveridge rented a studio where he had a large printer and a Mac for his own animation work, and many boxes of acetate sheets for 2D hand-drawn cel animation. There Arulpragasam could blow up glitchy, pixelated images that became a feature of her work. “Maya had never got into traditional painting,” he says, “but this was more about scaling up and reformatting photo images onto canvas”. 

The album Arular was named after Maya’s politician father, or more pertinently his code name when he was involved in the Tamil resistance movement. Her debut album, with its DayGlo allusion to cartoon violence with stenciled tanks superimposed over scrawled Arabic script, caused a sensation, just as the music had. “What started as a documentary film, became stills from an actual film, which became photographs, that became stencils then became prints, which then became songs which gave birth to Arular, the first LP,” wrote Arulpragasam.

“It was too close to being crass and exploitative and it made people uncomfortable. It inspired the debate and criticism, divided opinion, and got under people’s skin. Bingo.”

“From hanging on the wall in an art show, to now being presented as a record sleeve and a music video background—the change of context had suddenly made the imagery dangerous,” added Loveridge. “It was too close to being crass and exploitative and it made people uncomfortable. It inspired the debate and criticism, divided opinion, and got under people’s skin. Bingo. After seven years of waiting for her moment, Maya was ready for the fight.”