Cover Story Interview – David Bowie’s “Reality”, with artwork by Rex Ray


Copyright ©2003 and 2008 by Rex Ray – All rights reserved.

Subject: Reality – released September 2003 on ISO/Columbia/Sony records, with cover artwork & design by Rex Ray

One of the most-interesting (and ironic) songs found on Mr. Bowie’s 2003 release titled Reality is a track called “Never Get Old”. As someone who’s been a long-time fan, it takes on a double-meaning as it may be taken that not only does David not want to admit to aging, but neither do we as fans. I personally take it to mean that, while I may be getting old, I don’t have to either live (and relive) the past but, instead, I can use the experiences learned over time to live smarter, do better work, and improve on things as time moves forward.

I remember at one point when Bowie announced that he’d never play any of his old tunes again in public. Ziggy S. had told us once before that he’d played the last concert he’d ever play, so while I wasn’t totally convinced that he’d keep to his word, he did have me worried a bit (“what, I’ll never hear ‘Heroes’ or ‘Space Oddity’ live ever again? How can this be?”). Instead, it became clear that he simply wanted to try out new things, gain some more experiences and influences, and then come back with something that fans would find new, exciting and yet, somewhat familiar.

After waiting out the “Tin Man/Electronica” years knowing that we’d ultimately be rewarded, 2002 delivered us the “Slow Burn” of a new Bowie record – Heathen – and having reunited with long-time producer Tony Visconti, the pair again worked their magic bringing fans a modernized version of their classic “Berlin sound” and song-writing skills to 2003’s Reality. The result was well-received by both fans and critics and served as the launching pad for what was to be a 10 month long, major world tour (visiting 24 countries!) beginning in late 2003 and continuing through 2004. Sadly, it may have been age (and, more probably, some of his somewhat over-indulgent personal habits) that contributed to a sudden need for an angioplasty after an episode on stage in June 2004, and so the tour ended officially in late July (after 113 shows) so he could take care of this inconvenience. Fans that had perhaps missed the show were awarded with a DVD featuring performances from early in the tour, and the set list was notably career-spanning.

Artist Rex Ray had impressed Mr. Bowie – himself an accomplished painter and patron of the arts – with his talents in the early 1990s while he worked producing posters for Bill Graham Presents. This soon led to the two to collaborate on a myriad of fine art projects, culminating in the somewhat controversial (“what, no photo!?!”) collage Rex created for the cover of Reality. I caught up with Rex in April, 2008 and asked him to help Cover Story readers get a better understanding of the pair’s working relationship over the years and the inspirations behind the fantastic anime-inspired collage he created – was it Bowie’s music, art, or some alien force that emanated from those famous eyes? Put on your aluminum foil cap, ground yourself, and read on…

In the words of the artist, Rex Ray (interviewed April, 2008)

In the nineties, I freelanced for Bill Graham Presents designing posters for gigs – back when it still meant something – before the Bill Graham archives were sold and opened to the public as a strip mall. While the pay was crap and the contracts crappier, I did these posters with the intention of building a strong portfolio to send around to record companies for music packaging jobs. It worked and, after a few years, I was designing projects for major labels as well as art directing and developing branding for local independent labels.


Copyright ©2003 and 2008 by Rex Ray – All rights reserved.

In 1995 I did a mildly controversial poster for the David Bowie/Nine Inch Nails show. I’d been a huge Bowie fan in the ‘70s and it was while gazing at the cover for Aladdin Sane in 1974 that I dreamt about doing such things myself. The DB/NIN poster was a computer-based collage of various body parts, meat and bondage gear, which upset some people at BGP but was printed after much discussion. Then, in 1997, Bowie returned to San Francisco for three nights on the Earthling tour and again, I did the poster for those shows. After they were printed, I asked the people at BGP if they could have Mr. Bowie autograph a poster for me but was told that “it wasn’t a possibility”. So, I put on my stalker cap and set about getting a poster signed on my own.

Through some friends (spys!), I heard that Bowie was in a certain bookstore one morning, so I hopped on my bicycle and raced across town. I approached him as he was leaving and asked if he’d mind signing the posters for me. He was very gracious and accommodating and complimented me on my work. We spoke for a while about books, design, and I can’t recall what else, and he went on his way. I was beyond satisfied and thought that was the end of the matter.

Unbeknownst to me, at a sound check later that afternoon, the people at BGP asked Bowie to sign a poster for me. Bowie replied, ‘I’ve already signed posters for Rex but could you arrange to have him come backstage after tonight’s show to sign posters for me.’ I arrived backstage after the show and was escorted into Bowie’s dressing room where we talked at length about art, books, what he should do while he was in town, etc., and I signed posters for him. Once again, I was satisfied and thought that was the last I’d hear from him.

About a year later I received a few curious emails asking if I’d like to collaborate on some projects, but they were signed only ‘db’. It never even occurred to me that it might be David Bowie, so I ignored them. A few days later another email arrived where he actually identified himself and I was completely stunned. The first project we collaborated on was a limited-edition print to commemorate the upcoming 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust. Bowie sent me a curious photo of some chattering wind-up teeth with eyeballs and I incorporated hair, background and other subtle touches as my contribution. The next project was a poster to advertise the 1998 launch of Bowienet, Bowie’s official website and Internet service (


Copyright ©2003 and 2008 by Rex Ray – All rights reserved.

Initially, I’d done several more minimalist compositions based on the two previous BGP posters and then came upon the idea for the post-modern collage of assorted Bowie personae through the years for the final version. Then, in 1999 I began working on designs for Bowie’s upcoming album, ‘hours…’. I’d received a cassette of three rough unmixed songs and a small sketch by Bowie as a guide for the album’s visual direction. Bowie also suggested that I have ten different people write out the lyrics to the ten songs. Tim Brett Day provided the photography and the process of sending samples and ideas back and forth while working out the cover proceeded very smoothly. Just as we were finishing the package design, it was decided that a limited-edition lenticular (a 3-D holographic process) cover would be done for the first printing, so I provided layered Photoshop files for the company in London that would produce the image.


Copyright ©2003 and 2008 by Rex Ray – All rights reserved.

I’d worked with many “divas” over the years and was braced for a difficult process. Part of being a designer is navigating the collaborative process through each individual’s personality while maintaining some measure of self in the process. Sometimes those personalities can be a handful. Some projects go quite smoothly some projects are a constant negotiation, if not a downright battle. The ‘hours…’ project, however, went very smoothly. Working with Bowie’s people and the art departments at Virgin Records, we put out the designs for the album package and the singles, as well as all of the promotional P.O.P. (point of purchase) materials.

I’m my own worst critic. Ten years on and I still think the ‘hours…’ package is a bit overwrought. The first and only songs I heard while working on the project were rockers, upbeat and the previous album, Earthling, was very upbeat, so that was the visual direction I took. The finished music on the album was more subdued and I would have used a lighter hand had I known the introspective and reflective nature of the whole album. This isn’t to say I’m not proud of the finished piece. I think it holds up quite well.

After the release of ‘hours…’ I worked on various posters and material to coincide with the small tour Bowie embarked on. Design elements from the ‘hours…’ package were elaborated on for the design of Bowienet. In 2000, I designed a bonus cd that was included in the collected BBC sessions release (Bowie at the Beeb), and the first ‘collage’ Bowienet poster was resurrected in 2002 for use on the Best of Bowie greatest hits CD and DVD packages.

In 2002, Bowie sent some images as directional material for his next album, Reality. Initially, Bowie asked if I knew any illustrators who worked in an anime style who could produce a Bowie character for use on the cover. I asked if I could take a shot at it and developed the character that eventually appeared on the final package. While keeping the anime style in mind, I also used the paintings of Margaret Keane ( as a reference and worked endlessly developing a face and hairstyle for the figure. I can’t begin to describe the enormous responsibility of coming up with a hairstyle for David Bowie. The Reality package was a collaborative project between Bowie, renowned British designer Jonathan Barnbook, and myself (Editor’s note – Barnbrook had designed the spooky-eyed cover for the Heathen record). I developed the illustrations and imagery and Barnbrook created the amazing typographical work that appeared on the final package.

When Reality was released, the fans hated the cover. While visiting assorted websites, I was able to clock people’s reaction to the cover and, generally, it wasn’t favorable. Bowie has a long history of using a photo of himself on his covers and this marked the first time that no photo appeared. From my standpoint, I love the cover and think it’s among my best. I was challenged to work in a specific style I hadn’t worked in before and I’m quite proud of the results. There’s no better surprise than surprising oneself.

As I said earlier, I remember staring at those amazing covers of Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs albums and thinking, ‘I’d like to design covers like this some day’ and, some thirty years later, that wish had come true. It was as though I’d reached my goal and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to do in the field of graphic design. I could also see the writing on the wall – the same writing the music industry can’t quite seem to understand. Album covers – at least the way I appreciate them – are becoming things of the past. The demands of marketing departments and the disappearance of the actual physical object of an album or CD led me to the conclusion that it was time to move on. I could have easily pursued other work in the entertainment industry, but the prospect of designing DVD boxes for reality show anthologies and spending endless hours staring at a computer no longer held any appeal for me.

I still do graphic design work for a few longtime clients and old friends, but I’d rather be painting. After that great run with Bowie, I began phasing out the graphic design work I’d been doing for so many years, not taking on any new clients or large projects and began focusing on the finer, more personal artwork that sustains me today.

However, if by some chance the phone rang tomorrow and it was Mr. Bowie asking for my design services, I’d happily hop on that old horse again…

About the artist, Rex Ray


Rex Ray is a San Francisco based fine artist whose collages, paintings and design work have been exhibited at galleries and museums, including the The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, University Art Museum in Berkeley, San Jose Museum of Modern Art, The Crocker Museum in Sacramento, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Michael Martin Galleries, Gallery 16, New Langton Arts, and Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions.

A 1988 graduate of the San Francisco Art Institue, Rex is also a celebrated graphic designer. He has created works for Apple, Dreamworks, Sony Music, Warner Brothers, City Lights Publishers, Matador Records, Serpent’s Tail, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, Rizzoli, Powerhouse, Mute Records and Crown Books. His package designs for David Bowie, as well as for Joe Satriani, Diamanda Galás, Matmos, and Deee-Lite, have earned him an international reputation for his innovation in type and with original photographs, drawings, and collage. He has designed over 100 historic Bill Graham Presents rock and roll tour posters, including ones for The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, REM, Bjork, U2, and Radiohead.

Solo Exhibitions
2006 Conduit Gallery, Dallas, Texas
2006 Michael Martin Galleries, San Francisco, CA
2005 Gallery 16, San Francisco, Ca
2005 Gensler & Associates, San Francisco, Ca
2004 Rule Gallery, Denver, CO
2003 Michael Martin Galleries, San Francisco, CA
2003 Gallery 16, San Francisco
2002 ModernBook/Gallery494, Palo Alto, Ca
2001 Michael Martin Galleries, San Francisco, CA
2000 Peterson Hall Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ
2000 Gallery 16, San Francisco
1999 Architects & Heroes, San Francisco
1998 Gallery 16, San Francisco
1996 Gallery 16, San Francisco
1994 Monster Truck Rally, Southern Exposure, San Francisco
1992 One Man Show, Hassel Haeseler Gallery Denver, Co

Selected Group Exhibitions
2005 Recent California Abstraction, Monterey Museum of Modern Art, Ca
2005 Neo Mod, Crocker Museum, Sacramento, Ca
2005 Blobjects, San Jose Museum of Modern Art 2005 Belles Letters, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
2004 Conduit Gallery, Dallas Texas
2004 AD2004, The Lab, San Francisco
2003 Gallery 16, San Francisco
2002 Fascination: The Bowie Show, Gallery 16, San Francisco, Ca
2002 Skulls, Academy of Arts & Sciences, San Francisco, Ca
2002 Home, Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco, Ca
2001 I-5 Resurfacing: Four Decades of Ca. Art, San Diego Museum of Art
2001 Velocity, Seattle, WA
2001 West Coasting, Gotham, London
2000 Pierogi Traveling Exhibit, Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, San Francisco
2000 Michael Martin Gallery, London
2000 Abstraction: Raucous to Refined, Bedford Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, CA
2000 Alone, New Langton Arts, San Francisco
1999 Bay Area Now 2, Yerba Buena Center For The Arts, San Francisco
1999 Snowflakes, Drawings at Four walls, San Francisco
1998 SAP, San Francisco
1998 Limn Gallery, San Francisco
1997 Time Zero, ESP, San Francisco
1995 Wild Side, LACE, Los Angeles
1995 In a Different Light, University Art Museum, Berkeley
1995 Piece, Nine Artists Consider Yoko Ono, Kiki, San Francisco
1995 Flagging the 21st Century, Capp Street Project, San Francisco
1994 Science Fair, Southern Exposure, San Francisco
1994 For Your Pleasure, Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco
1994 Bong Hits, Kiki, San Francisco

In April, 2008, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art launched a Rex Ray gift line of 30+ different products, including T-shirts, coffee mugs, scarves, puzzles, and many more items. These products are exclusive to the SFMOMA, but they can be ordered online at

Later this year, a new children’s book will be published titled 10,000 Dresses, featuring a story by Marcus Ewert and illustrations by Rex Ray. It’s available for pre-order on Also available now is the Chronicle Book Rex Ray Art + Design. Find it at fine booksellers everywhere or at

To find out more about Rex Ray and see examples of his latest artwork, please visit his website at

To see all of the David Bowie-related items in the RockPoP Gallery collection, please visit

About Cover Stories – Our series of interviews will give you, the music and art fan, a look at “the making of” the illustrations, photographs and designs of many of the most-recognized and influential images that have served to package and promote your all-time-favorite recordings.

In each Cover Story, we’ll meet the artists, designers and photographers who produced these works of art and learn what motivated them, what processes they used, how they collaborated (or fought) with the musical acts, their management, their labels, etc. – all of the things that influenced the final product you saw then and still see today.

We hope that you enjoy these looks behind the scenes of the music-related art business and that you’ll share your stories with us and fellow fans about what role these works of art – and the music they covered – played in your lives.

All images featured in this Cover Story are Copyright 2003 and 2008, Rex Ray – All rights reserved. Except as noted, all other text Copyright 2008 – Mike Goldstein & RockPoP Gallery ( – All rights reserved.