Christmas: it’s all pure white snow, mistletoe and neatly-wrapped gifts, right? Not when Ben Tallon is involved. The Manchester-based illustrator (you may have seen his work in The Guardian, NME and on Skins trailers), author and podcast host has taken over Coggles for the festive season with his distinctive style; his unique personality and approach to art coming through in every stroke of the pen and present-pinching critter. We sat down with Ben in his Manchester studio to talk about his creative career so far, his highs, lows and his thoughts on the creative industry.
With an upbringing in Keighley, a small West Yorkshire town where, as Ben describes in his book Champagne and Wax Crayons – a brutally honest account about being a freelance illustrator and all the blows that come with it – “some people still shout abuse at you for wearing any hat other than a baseball cap”, Ben’s childhood was punctuated with football (he’s a lifelong Leeds United fan), WWE (of which he still obsessed) and drawing.
Fast forward to those final years of adolescence and Ben found himself at the University of Central Lancashire studying Illustration, before the reality of starting out as a freelance creative with no prior experience left him taking on the role of Recycling Officer at Preston City Council. Two years in and Ben’s creative side pulled a lot more than the need for a steady pay cheque, so he saved up three months’ worth of living costs and took the plunge to go freelance full time.
“At that point, I hadn’t really found a style and I was looking in The Guardian and wherever else was cool, thinking that’s what I should be to be an artist, but actually by doing that you just end up being in their shadow. I hadn’t quite got that yet. I was sharing with a guy called Danny Allison and he’d been working for two years. He’s always been frank but helpful at the same time. He offers constructive criticism and rubs people up the wrong way a little bit who aren’t ready to hear it but I was like ‘bring it on, I need to hear this.’
“I found this monitor outside someone’s house in Preston and I was like ‘I’m having that’. I took it to the studio and I did a collage directly on the monitor, it was well weird. Danny walked in one day and he was like ‘what the fuck are you doing on that? It looks like a serial killer’s notebook.’ He was like ‘I’m going to be really honest with you now, it’s pretty rubbish – as far as collage work goes there’s a lot better people. But what I’ve been wanting to ask you for ages is when did you stop drawing because your drawing’s second to none?’
“I didn’t know when I did stop drawing but I think I just got caught up in how I thought I should be. Anyway, off the back of that advice I just scrapped everything in my portfolio, went straight back to the pen and ink and fell in love with it quite quickly. I started drawing again and very quickly it felt so much more natural. I think when you’re starting out you don’t know what to listen to in terms of your feelings. Since then I’ve never really looked back. It’s not often you have an actual turning point but that was a turning point in terms of style.”
As for that style it’s a very organic, natural approach to illustration, all hand-drawn. It’s full of energy and gives you the feeling that Ben’s passion and enjoyment in what he does hasn’t waned since he was a kid, and spent his time drawing pictures of his teachers as animals at school to make his mates laugh.
Meeting Ben you get the sense that his illustrative style is a visual representation of what’s going on inside his head (which he confesses he’s not entirely sure of) but says his “lack of logic and common sense” is an attribute to what he does. “The amount of time I get asked in a week – ‘where did that come from?’ Or ‘what’s wrong with you?’ I take it as a compliment, I know I’m on to something if that gets asked…within reason.
“What I’ve learnt over the years is that if I try and polish something it falls apart. It’s your natural style and it took my college tutors two or three years to drum into me that being expressive in your own way is fine. But when you’re starting out you’re shown stuff in the National Gallery which is amazing and mind-blowing but if you’re trying to go from someone who’s drawing Leeds United footballers in pencil to that, it won’t work. I like it when it’s unfinished and a bit messy and that’s the fun.”
Looking at his site and his work, you’ll see exactly what this raw work is all about. “I do an ongoing series called ‘Know What I Mean?’ and it’s just everyday stuff in the street that most people overlook but I find interesting. People will be there photographing Canary Wharf and I’ll be there photographing a kebab tray on the floor, then I go and draw it. I prefer drawing that down and dirty stuff. I walked past an old-school phone box every day in Bermondsey when I was living in London and there’d always be new rubbish on top, different cans every day. There used to be loads of shit in the stretch to my studio. There was an old drug baggy with a staffy print on it so I drew that.”
That’s the kind of work he does for himself, for enjoyment more than anything else. “I always make sure I have at least one – usually loads – of personal stuff on. I think it’s important to keep doing it for you, you know.”
It’s worked in his favour. His career so far has seen him work with a whole host of clients including Channel 4, the Premier League, Dr. Martens, Lufthansa and – his childhood (and adult) dream come true – World Wrestling Entertainment, which he got through sheer perseverance and genuine passion. “This is something I try and pass on to people, someone’s got to do it. And if you’re an authority on it, doesn’t matter what it is, you’re in a better position to do it than most if you know about it. I was always sending samples to them and then one day Dave (Creative Director) told me to give him a call. He said, ‘you’ve made my life easier because I don’t need to educate you on this, you know it already.’ That’s why I say to people, don’t be afraid to send your stuff out there, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Ben also ran a large campaign for CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), which he cites as his most challenging yet rewarding piece of work. “I met someone at CALM and he had this statistic of suicide being the biggest killer of young men in this country and I found that heart-breaking, I wanted to work with them in some way. I bit off way more than I could chew, I pulled together three friends – a photographer, art director/designer and a musician – to curate an album to go alongside the awareness campaign. I had to learn all about licensing to sell it in shops and things like that. At times, I was on the edge, thinking I can’t do this. I interviewed people like Danny Dyer and Stephen Merchant, Mick Foley from the wrestling. Doing that campaign and having to interview people having never interviewed anyone in my life was kind of daunting, especially characters like Danny Dyer. It was massively rewarding seeing it all come together but at the time I was on the edge.”
You also get the sense that this success hasn’t changed Ben in any way. He’s just got back from Hong Kong where he was commissioned to do some illustrations for an event and tells us the story of wanting to stay on to see a bit of the region. “I said [to the client]: ‘where are you putting me up? I’ll see if I can just book another night rather than moving around.’ They put me in the Landmark Mandarin Oriental – £450 a night – so I was like ‘oh I just remembered I’ve got a mate who lives on the other side of town, I’ll sort myself out for that one’. Then they went ‘well we’re sending a limousine to pick you up from the airport’ and I was like, ‘fuck sake. I can’t go in a hostel, now can I?’ What an eccentric rocking up in a limousine to a backpackers’ hostel. I’d look mad as a hatter. I kind of wish they weren’t sending a limousine because I’ll look like a right knob.”
When he’s not drawing, Ben’s still putting pen to paper, but in a different way. Following his debut book, he’s now working on his second, which while similar in writing style to the first, “goes deep into [a person’s] character and behaviour and why that’s kind of everything when it comes to going in the right direction. It’s looking at like…I got banned from Woolworths for nicking an Ian Wright Corinthian figure. In the book, I tell that story but it’s all written in the moment. There are two timelines and there’s that fear factor but I’m twinning it with a story from now that says those traits are actually really valuable to going in the right direction. It’s more energetic and in the moment so I think it’ll be better but we’ll see.
“I’ve started doing some fiction writing as well. I entered a short story competition at Manchester Metropolitan. It’s written from the perspective of someone who’s about to become homeless so it’s quite dark but coming back to Manchester and seeing how bad the homeless problem is, I found it quite shocking. I don’t know if it’s worse than London but it’s a smaller city so you see it a lot more.
“The character’s down to his last tenner and he’s in a state of shock. It takes place all in about 20 minutes. I based it on Oldham Street, looking at the café culture and then seeing these guys on spice being sick and stuff, it looks at that juxtaposition.
“Going back to the campaign I did with CALM, I’m really into political activism and I think the creative industry has a responsibility to work in society as well. The wrestling was my dream job. I didn’t think I’d ever get there. But I guess deep down my goal is the social responsibility and activism stuff. I think in the world we live in there are a lot of questionable morals. I do think the creative industries have a big role to play in spreading the right message with accountable shit. The writing and things like that, that’s where I feel like I want to push.”
Ben also hosts a podcast – Arrest All Mimics – which you can find here. He interviews people from all walks of life that he finds interesting: “I had these conversations in pubs and cafes so I thought why not put a mic down and put it out to people?” These can be reputable illustrators, like Miss Led, HBO designer Kyla Paolucci, and design mastermind behind iconic artwork for Blur and Trainspotting, Rob O’Connor. Or they can be people doing something a little differently in the community, like Manchester’s Real Junk Food, the café that sources food that would otherwise go to waste, and serves dishes on a pay-as-you-feel basis.
They can also be people who are completely out of the public eye, such as his friend’s ten-year-old son who appeared on an episode because he “was knocking off Disney cartoons at school for like 20p, 50p. Chasing mothers in the playground when they paid up late. He brought his portfolio down and he was like ‘yeah I sold this to a little girl and she’s got it on her bedroom wall.’ He had better business acumen than most people I know.
“Every single person has a unique journey and story, it’s just finding a way to put that into your work. Once you do that you’re invincible because no one else can do what you’re doing if you do it properly and honestly. I think pulling back the curtain on them and these people’s stories, knowing that they worked a shit job for so many years, that gives people confidence. Everyone’s got those stories and that’s what you need to understand. There are very few where it just fell into their lap.”
Words by Angharad Jones. Images by Phill Splaine