Hiding in plain sight: 13 secret messages in classic album art

Have you shone a torch against your 'Blackstar' vinyl gatefold sleeve yet?

Lana Del Rey has confirmed that the artworks for her four albums are linked and tell a story. The fan theory has circulated around the nether regions of the internet and now the superstar had put paid to the whisperings. :”That’s all true,” she said in her NME cover interview. “That truck [on the cover of ‘Lust For Life’] is the same make and model as ‘Born To Die’. The Mercedes [on the cover of ‘Ultraviolence’] is my own. Being on the road or having a destination was a big part of the songs.”

There’s a long tradition of artists using their album art to convey hidden messages, Easter eggs for diehard fans to pick up on. Here are 13 of the most fiendishly clever.




David Bowie, ‘Blackstar’

Bowie’s forward-thinking final album, released very shortly before his death, uses fragmented stars to spell out his name at the bottom. Even more impressively, the star glows blue when you hold it under ultraviolet light and the inner gatefold sleeve shows up stars when you expose it to sunlight. But what does it all mean? That’s up to you, the album artwork designer Jonathan Barnbrook told us: “I think the creative process of putting those elements together and coming up with a reason what the secret message is, actually is something that [Bowie] absolutely would have approved of.”

Def Leppard, ‘Retro Active’

This isn’t simply a woman looking in a mirror – it’s also, cleverly, a skull, with the trinkets on her dressing table doubling up as teeth, a candle in the background becoming a nose and the woman’s head – and its reflection – forming the eyes. Preen yourself now, the artwork is saying, ‘cause death is coming for ya.

Beastie Boys, ‘Licensed To Ill’

The plane’s serial number reads 3MTA3. Reverse, that says, with beautiful simplicity, ‘EAT ME’. Makes you think, eh?


Fleetwood Mac, ‘Mirage;

Some fans claim you can see a face in Lindsay Buckingham’s left hand here. Is it really there or is it merely… a mirage?

Kate Bush, ‘Aerial’

That’s a nice picture of some rocks placed against a sunset, you’re thinking. Wrong! It’s actually a waveform of a birdsong placed against a sunset, a reference to the blackbird chirping through the final song on the album’s second disc. A fan recreated the noise and subsequently blogged about it, because that’s the kind of devotion that Kate Bush inspires. Respect.

Led Zeppelin, ‘Led Zep IV’

A question on everyone’s lips in the early ‘70s: were Led Zeppelin really Satanists, though? The band did themselves no favours with the gatefold sleeve to their fourth album, which depicts a rag-clad dude kicking it on a hillside. Hold the image up to a mirror, though, and you get – dun dun dun! – a horned beast thing. A devil thing! So maybe they were Satanists after all! (They probably weren’t, you know.)

Paul McCartney, ‘Ram’

Despite the rumours at the time, Paul McCartney had very much not died. In fact, he released this album, whose artwork bore the tiny letters ‘L.I.L.Y.’ The letters were directed at his wife Linda McCartney, standing for “Linda I Love You.” Cute!


Michael Jackson, ‘Dangerous’

There are probably more symbols in this one album cover than the rest of the album combined. The life of a pop star, this artwork by legendary album art designer Mark Ryden seems to be saying, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Outside it’s all razzle dazzle, glamour and glitz, but the interior of the image is starker, darker and more ominous. Meanwhile, 19th Century circus entrepreneur PT Barnum watches over the chaos with an icy gaze. You know who else is watching over it all? That’s right, Jackson himself, his face and body largely obscured, protecting himself from the glare of celebrity.

Radiohead, ‘In Rainbows’

Radiohead fans are a dedicated bunch, so it’s no surprise the band opted to stuff this album with Easter eggs for them to feast on. The ‘I’ and ‘O’ in Radiohead are here designed to look like a 10, the number of letters in the words ‘In Rainbows’. Coincidence? We think not! The album was released on the 10th of October, the 10ths month in the year, and its release was announced at 10 days’ notice. Perhaps, then, ‘In Rainbows’ is linked thematically to ‘OK Computer’, whose working title was Zeroes and Ones – or, 01 written down as numbers. Yes, that’s tenuous.

Rolling Stones, ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’

When photographer Michael Cooper shot the cover of The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, he included a doll that wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words, ‘Welcome The Rolling Stones’. Later, when he designed this cover, he included images of The Fab Four hidden in the folds of flowers. What a sneaky little devil!

Santana, ‘Santana’

Reckon this is simply a lovely picture of a tiger? You’re wrong! You’re dead wrong! Look closer and you’ll see it is, in fact, nine faces arranged to make a lion, while the big cat’s jawbone is a hula skirt worn by a woman whose head nestle between the lion’s eyes. Look out, lady!


Velvet Underground, ‘White Light/White Heat’

Like Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’, this initially looks like a much simpler record cover than it really is. It’s hard to see, but hold it up in the right light and you’ll see a skull design. That skull is a tattoo on the arm of Joe Spencer, who hung out Andy Warhol’s Factory and was part of the same scene as The Velvet Underground. We’ve got the late Lou Reed to thank, as he rummaged through photographer Billy Name’s old snaps and dug out this one. Name has said: had to blow it up from a 35 millimeter negative, so it came out pretty grain, so we decided to do a black on black.”

Iron Maiden, ‘Somewhere in Time’

If you zoom into the bottom left hand corner of this image, you can see a banner that reads: “This painting is boring.” How rude!