How Columbus native Gregory Hawkins created the album cover for Outkast’s ‘Aquemini’

Early recognition of the artist's talent, a move to Atlanta and some serendipity led to the creation of a double platinum album's iconic, 1970s-inspired cover illustration

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Alive
Milo-Grogan native Gregory Hawkins with the illustration that would become the album cover for Outkast's 1998 record, "Aquemini."

Growing up in Columbus’ Milo-Grogan neighborhood in the 1960s, Gregory Hawkins knew he was a gifted artist from a young age, mainly because his mother told him so.  

“She was raising three hardheaded boys, and my father would be at work all day. So she would give us crayons and sit us on the floor and say, ‘You guys draw me a picture, and whoever has the best picture gets extra dessert,’” Hawkins said. “I'd lay down there on the floor and start drawing, and my brothers, they would just quit drawing and sit there and start watching me.” 

Eventually, Hawkins’ mom had to come up with other competitions because he always won the drawing contests. But the affirmation of his artistic talents came from the community, as well. Hawkins remembers a drawing that ran in the Columbus Citizen-Journal newspaper, and another hand-picked by the Columbus Museum of Art in the ’60s. “Out of all the kids in the city, they picked one of my pieces to be exhibited at the museum,” said Hawkins, who also attended Saturday art classes at CCAD and Ohio State. “I got all the help in the world from my parents and people in the neighborhood who found out that I was good at art. I was always drawing posters and stuff for parties.”

At Columbus North High School, which offered a two-period “art major” at the time, Hawkins got more interested in basketball and tried to put art on the shelf, but his mother wasn’t having it. “She walked me into the principal’s office and said, ‘Sign this boy up for art,’” Hawkins said. 

After a stint at CCAD, Hawkins got his first real job as an artist through his friend Maurice Alfred, who connected Hawkins with Pablo & Associates founder William “Pablo” Davis, a Columbus music promoter, producer and manager of bands such as Midnight Star and The Deele, a 1980s Ohio R&B group featuring Antonio "L.A." Reid and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, both of whom would later become legendary songwriters, producers and record executives. “You wouldn't believe the groups and artists that I came in contact with,” Hawkins said. “I did logos for Midnight Star. I did T-shirt designs for Babyface and L.A. Reid.” 

For a time, Hawkins shared an apartment with Columbus North friend Robert Hodo, who moved to Atlanta in 1979 and married a woman named Sharon Benjamin. Benjamin’s son, Andre, would visit Hawkins’ apartment as a toddler. “I had a studio set up with my drawing board and easel, and Andre was fascinated with my artwork,” Hawkins said.

By 1983, Hodo convinced Hawkins to join him in Atlanta. “Everything was happening out of Atlanta then,” said Hawkins, who now lives just outside of the city in Stone Mountain, Georgia. “There was no problem getting work here in Atlanta. People saw my craft and saw my work ethic, and I just fell right in. ... I was doing a lot of T-shirt designs for the bootleggers. I would do a lot of the unlicensed stuff for the vendors to sell at the Atlanta Braves games, Atlanta Hawks games and Falcons games.” 

Thanks to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, 1983 was a great year for T-shirt sales. “All you had to do was draw a sparkly glove and put that on the front of a T-shirt, or some white socks and some penny loafers,” Hawkins said. “We came up with all kinds of stuff when the Michael Jackson craze hit.”

The cover of Outkast's 1998 album, "Aquemini," with illustration by Greg Hawkins and art direction by D.L. Warfield

Hawkins also painted murals and worked on designs for Black hair care companies, all the while connecting with people in the music industry through Pablo & Associates and Maurice Alfred. By the mid-’90s, little Andre Benjamin had grown up to form Outkast, his Atlanta rap group with Big Boi, which signed to LaFace Records, a label founded by L.A. Reid and Babyface.  

In 1998, before the release of Outkast’s third album, Hawkins got a call from Sharon Benjamin-Hodo. “She called me and said, ‘Andre wants you to do his album cover for this album. They really feel this is going to be a big one, Greg,’” said Hawkins, who was honored to accept the gig, though he had no idea just how big Outkast’s 1998 record, Aquemini, would get. The album, which featured the single “Rosa Parks,” went double platinum, meaning Hawkins’ vibrant, now-iconic cover illustration would reach millions of people.

“Andre came over and played some tunes for me, and I kind of got the feel of it. They were trying to have a ’70s vibe on it. They even had George Clinton on it … and I'm a big Parliament-Funkadelic fan,” Hawkins said. “So, when I did the album cover, I tried to give it a ’70s feel with them guys in the bellbottoms and the pimp gear.” 

Hawkins faced a couple of challenges from the get-go. For one, Hawkins was an R&B guy; he wasn’t a big fan of hip-hop at the time (though he later came around). And even after living in Atlanta for a while, he still felt the cultural differences between the South and the Midwest.

“I'm an African American. I'm from the hood. I grew up in Milo. But when I came down here, it was like they were talking a different language to me. I didn't understand a lot of the things they were saying. … I had to get familiar with Southern crunk,” said Hawkins, who listened to the songs on Aquemini over and over, trying to get the gist of the lyrics. “That's a big thing if you're doing an album cover. I mean, any artist who’s going to do an album cover, the first thing you do is listen to the music.”

Over time, working entirely in colored pencil, the illustration started to come together. Playing off the hip-hop duo’s reputation as “the player” (Big Boi) and “the poet” (Andre 3000), Hawkins depicted Big Boi seated on a fancy, pimp-like throne with Andre standing nearby, arms crossed, throwing side-eye. And since the album’s title is a portmanteau of the two rappers’ Zodiac signs, Aquarius and Gemini, Hawkins drew two women side-by-side to represent the Gemini twins and illustrated another woman holding a water-spilling vase to represent Aquarius.

All three women looked as if they could have stepped off the set of a vintage blaxploitation film, though Hawkins didn’t base the characters on anyone specific — “Just any fine Black woman back in the ’70s,” he said. “Watch an episode of ‘Soul Train’ on YouTube from the ’70s and you'll see some sexy women, man.” 

In the background, Hawkins drew a large, gold medallion with Egyptian pyramids and hieroglyphics — a tribute to Andre’s interest in Sun Ra, as well as an homage to the hieroglyphics relief carvings of Benjamin Crumpler, a Columbus artist whom Hawkins still admires. A spaceship, which Hawkins remembers Andre describing as “the descension of the mothership,” hovers near the medallion, a callback to Outkast’s 1996 album, ATLiens, and the group’s penchant for Afrofuturist themes.

Artist Greg Hawkins outside his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia, with Outkast's Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) in the late 1990s.

The whole thing came together in two or three days. “I'm a very anxious artist. I want to see the finished product quick, fast and in a hurry. I like to finish a piece of work in a day if I can,” said Hawkins, who envisioned his initial sketch as a rough draft until Andre walked in, saw it and said, “That’s it!” Hawkins colored it in and called it done. 

Nearly a quarter century later, Hawkins, now 65, still gets messages about the Aquemini art. “I got people from all over the world telling me what the album cover meant to them. And some of this stuff gets really deep, how that album cover hit them,” he said.

A lot has changed since 1998. Hawkins spent much of last summer in and out of hospitals, including Ohio State’s James Cancer Hospital, treating cancer in his neck. But the thing that drew him to art in the first place, as a kid with a crayon in Milo-Grogan, remains the same: beauty. “I like working with color. Bland artwork serves a purpose, but it’s depressing to me, and I'm not a very depressing person,” he said. “I love vibrancy. I like things to be beautiful.”

Hawkins in his art studio at his home in Stone Mountain, Georgia.