Ben Tallon is a British illustrator and art-director who in April of this year became a published author. His book Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industry has a 5 star rating on Amazon and has gained cult status as a must-read for anyone seeking success in a creative industry, whether that be as an artist, writer, comedian, actor, photographer or anything else really. The core of the story is transferable to anyone who wished to do something they care about for a living.
What relevance does this have to WWE or Wrestling News World you ask? Well as his humorous, insightful and inspiring book details, Ben's often chaotic life as a freelance illustrator was turned upside down in 2011 when the lifelong wrestling fan landed his dream client, World Wrestling Entertainment. Fast forward 4 years and Ben's sketches can be found on the walls of WWE HQ, fans of his work include Randy Orton and AJ Lee, he has interviewed Mick Foley and has found himself summoned to a meeting with Chief Brand Officer (and daughter of Vince) Stephanie McMahon.
Ben was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to talk to WNW about his book, why he is so passionate about WWE and his experiences working for the company with the superstars he idolises.
Can you tell me about your first memories of WWE? Because of time differences and TV rights it wasn’t always easy to watch everything in the UK so what got you started?
Luckily for my six-year-old self, a friend of my parents from down the road came round one day in 1989 and he asked them if I had watched WWE. He promised I'd like Hulk Hogan and wasn't wrong. For some time he would record WWE programming on VHS tapes and I'd knock on his front door every few weeks and collect a backlog. My first concrete memories are from Wrestlemania 5, being horribly caught up in the 'love triangle' between Hogan, Randy Savage and Miss Elizabeth. With my next two weeks' worth of pocket money I bought a Hogan action figure, but had to make do with the Terminator as his heel opponent until I could save up for Jake 'the Snake' Roberts.
Who were your heroes when you first got into wrestling and why?
When you're little, it's all about the big hero, so it was Hogan, Randy Savage and Ultimate Warrior. The Undertaker, Earthquake and Ric Flair all reduced me to tears with assaults on the Hulkster. That's how emotionally invested I was, something we see today with John Cena and a vital component of any wrestling promotion's success. The red and yellow, the iconic promos, Warrior's face paint and Savage's multitude of colours all played important roles in hooking me with the mystique and over the top nature that makes pro-wrestling so unique. Over time, Hogan became Hart who became Michaels, Rock, Austin and so on. The content got very adult in sync with my becoming a teenager, which I cite as the reason I never grew out of watching wrestling. Right about the time when the heels were in vogue, I suddenly understood that Hogan, Austin and Hart's brilliance was met halfway by perfect heel characters like Ric Flair, Triple H, Jake Roberts, Curt Henning and Yokozuna.
How did you find it being a kid in England who liked American wrestling (or just wrestling generally)? It was never an interest that would win you any cool awards when I was in school….
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, wrestling was cool. Even the hardest kid in our school year was a fan, so it was ok to publicly admit it. I had wrestling buddies (cushioned dolls designed to be brawled with), action figures, t-shirts and my mum would bring home carrier bags, cut off the bottom and let me put the straps over my shoulders and rip them like Hogan did with his vest (under supervision). I never got one of the ice cream bars in the UK though... Then during the mid-nineties, you had to be a bit quieter about it. The cooler kids discovered girls and alcohol whilst I discovered WCW and Sunny on my TV. It stayed private until the Attitude era fully blew up and it was back to being fashionable to like wrestling.
I stopped watching wrestling at the age of 18 when I went to university and I didn’t come back to WWE for a few years (couldn't afford Sky TV but thank you WWE Network for finally plugging the gaps). Was there ever a time for whatever reason that you stopped watching WWE?
My family couldn't afford Sky for a couple of years, from 1994-96 if memory serves. It was tough and for a while, I drifted to safer confines of the footballing and rugby worlds. Then the local lads who I played football with started catching on to Stone Cold Steve's Austin's meteoric rise and invited me round to watch at their mum's houses. I'll never stop watching by choice. The WWE Network has sent me over the edge into deep obsession worse than ever before. Sky is expensive, so I have to go watch the weeklies at friends' houses still...
Do you think we will ever see another major PPV in the UK? It has been a while since SummerSlam '92....
I do. WWE recognise the size of the UK fan base. The States-UK time difference will likely mean Wrestlemania never happens here, but I like to think one of the smaller events could be done successfully.
How does modern day WWE compare with the WWE you remember growing up?
I watch through different eyes now. As a child, it's all too real, hence the tears. That little girl in the Rawlive audience who was broken when The Miz pinned Randy Orton for the WWE championship epitomised how I felt every time one of my heroes was robbed. Now, as an adult who works in the creative industries and with WWE, I have a deep love of good story telling, the build of anticipation, the way well rounded characters are able to make you care despite the fact we know the outcomes are pre-determined. All of those things are at play in my work as an artist and designer and I learned a lot of that from watching pro-wrestling over the years. The level of athleticism is frighteningly fast paced and impressive in the modern era, even if the writing often feels rushed to cater for modern audiences who need everything yesterday.
Who impresses you in WWE right now?
I won't have a bad word said about John Cena. He's by no means my favourite, but to think that people knock his character and in-ring ability and yet laud Hogan is so crazy. It's become fashionable to bash him. Cena's U.S. Championship run has taken him, the championship's prestige and his opponents to new levels and at this stage of his career, how can you not give that a slow clap? He produces regular five star matches and puts over so many superstars these days and he's got a lot of gas left in the tank.
NXT's obscene talent pool is strengthening the roster right now. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor and Adrian Neville have so much potential to carry the company in years to come. The divas on NXT are outlandishly talented too. The division now has the injection of fresh talent it so badly needs.
Seth Rollins and Brock Lesnar have perfect chemistry as loathed heel and loved babyface, something which is harder and harder to achieve. But right now, it's all about J&J security. They're the highlight of the whole show. Utterly hilarious.
Without giving away too much from the book how did you end up with WWE as a client?
Ever since the age of six, I've created wrestling related portraits, illustrations of alternate ring gear, fantasy scenarios and feuds on paper or with action figures. I would take the video tapes my dad's mate gave me and cut/paste these nasty, home made sleeves for the ppv event. I didn't see it as graphic design, but that's what I was doing, albeit very badly. I still have those! That never went away and really flourished throughout college when my tutor cleverly pointed me in the direction of Peter Blake's Mexican wrestling posters. As he probably intended, I discovered the pop art movement through Blake's work. I've been an illustrator and art-director for seven years now and as my style developed, so did my WWE illustrations. I found a contact for the VP creative director at WWE and he liked my work. We eventually found an opening to have me create artwork for company, starting of with a portrait of The Rock!
Can you tell us about the work you have done for WWE up to now?
I've created illustrated portraits of The Rock, Paul Heyman, Paige, Mick Foley and many more. I've designed posters of CM Punk, John Cena, Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt. I've built a really strong friendship and working relationship with the VP Creative Director and we have worked on set designs for photo shoots with Brock Lesnar, Daniel Bryan, AJ Lee, Kane and my distinct hand lettering, using ink has become a signature style across all this work. I don't think any of this has sunk in, you know what I mean? Being so close and directly involved with your objects of affection is an ethereal experience.
Have you managed to speak to any of the subjects of your artwork and if so have they seen it, and what did they think?
Randy Orton asked for a copy of a very early work I did and AJ Lee was a big fan of my set design, as were William Regal and Wade Barrett, who was as much a gent as his character. All of this via Twitter! My brother and I interviewed Mick Foley in person for a charity campaign I initiated about the emotional benefits of artistic expression. He loved the artwork I created to support the piece. I also met Stephanie McMahon at Raw in London and I fell apart at the seams. She was great and we talked about her fantastic heel character for a little while.
You've visited the WWE headquarters, how was that?
Mind blowing. I visited to meet the creative staff who had been commissioning my work regularly and was fortunate enough to get a quick tour of the building. It's childhood dream stuff. I saw prints of my sketches on the walls and had a cup of tea there. Unfortunately, the McMahons and Triple H had left for Wrestlemania in New Orleans, so I missed them.
You also attended WrestleMania last year as a guest of the company, did you manage to get backstage at all?
We were looked after in the pre-party, taken to WWE Axxess and the Hall of Fame ceremony and went out on Bourbon Street with the WWE staff, but backstage is something I still have to strive for. Although I worry that if I had, I'd be in a catatonic state right now. Maybe I don't want that? Would the fantasy be killed? I don't know. Wrestlemania itself left my brother, friend and I shellshocked from the experience, so that was more than I could have dreamed of.
Who is the most famous person in WWE you have met and how did that meeting go?
Mick Foley comes close, but Stephanie McMahon edges it. She was great, very friendly and humble. I stuttered something about 'artwork' and named the staff I'd worked with but you have to keep in mind I've watched this lady on TV for the past sixteen years, so being there, talking to her was a very surreal experience. In the end, I calmed down and held it together long enough to talk about the WWE product. Just this week on Raw, you had this raft of divas vying for supremacy, all of them stunning and athletic, yet Steph just bossed the lot of them, she's so good as a character and it's clear she's a McMahon.
I don't want to get you into any trouble Ben, but have you got any interesting or funny, or just plain stupid anecdotes you can share with our readers that wont be common knowledge?
I met Bret Hart at the London Wrestling Conference just recently and he refused a 'selfie' with a fan, which made me very happy. He was accepting photos, but my respect for the Hitman was only heightened by his avoidance of those horrible cries for attention. My WWE gossip is limited, though I have a few embarrassing tales of fandom gone too far. At the same event in London, I attended a Q&A with Shawn Michaels, Jim Ross and Bret Hart. I asked Bret and Shawn what involvement they had with the look of their characters, from the ring gear to the logos and colours. Shawn told me that he had this vision of a brash character who was somewhere between Freddie Mercury and Rob Halford from Judas Priest. This reminded me of one shopping trip to Leeds at the age of thirteen. I had no concept of Freddie Mercury's sexuality, let alone the links between leather, chains and other clothing/accessories associated with gay people in showbiz at the time. So upon seeing the leather peaked cap, with chain across the front in a comic shop, I knew it only from my favourite wrestler in 1996, Shawn Michaels. The sniggers of my friend and the shopkeeper didn't prove enough to raise alarm bells and I proudly swaggered through the Merrion Centre in Leeds wearing it. By the time I'd left the shopping centre, the hat had been stuffed in my bag and I was fully aware of the connotations and how ridiculous I must have looked wearing that thing with my Leeds United Football Club tracksuit and hi-top trainers.
Has your life changed since you became a published author?
My life hasn't changed, but the book has already opened a lot of doors into the media side of the creative industry, which is really exciting. I care deeply about the arts and stand for everything that is great about them. Getting to do wrestling related interviews and see my work noticed by fellow fans has been a huge buzz. I'm starting a podcast soon with my agency, all about illustration, art and design. Maybe Mick won't be the only talent I get to grill.
Did WWE know you were doing the book and if so did they ask to see what you were going to be writing about the company?
They didn't know and the book is all personal experience, so they would have had no interest. Only the creative staff who I work with knew about it. The foreword is written by the VP Creative Director, David Hilton, who is a top guy and so talented. He's been an accidental mentor in my career and we are always coming up with new ideas together, for visual content. Everything I have to say about WWE and wrestling is wholly positive, since my love of the product led me to working for them.
Is there enough in the book to keep WWE fans, not necessarily interested in the creative industry, interested in your story?
The spine of the book revolves around the journey from drawing wrestlers as a kid, to attaining my dream client, though any person could take the core of the story and replace it with whatever it is they are passionate about. So the wrestling content is not huge, but used to tell the story of what is possible when you use your passion to for inspiration in the wider world. It doesn't matter what you do, whether you strive to be a designer, a wrestler, a photographer, comedian or writer, it's about using the things you do simply for the love, in your free time, to stay motivated and channel your personality through to achieve goals. Not many people would talk professional wrestling and illustration in the same breath, but I would, and still do compare myself at various stages, to a wrestler of a similar level. So when I first won an award and felt I was on the map in the creative industries, I equated that to Chris Jericho's first Intercontinental Championship win in 1999. It's about being unashamedly and fiercely proud of what you love, then following it wholeheartedly without compromise. I think people admire and respect that in a person. Life's too short to waste forty hours a week doing something that makes you miserable. Right now, I reckon I'm starting to pop up in occasional main events, so we'll go Jeff Hardy circa 2007.
After all you have seen and done who then is your all time favourite WWE superstar and why and also what would your ultimate fantasy match be?
A question which the answer to rotates as much as the 'favourite album' question. I'm going to go with Bret Hart today. I recently watched his Wrestlemania 13 match with Steve Austin, my favourite match of all time and during his subsequent heel run, he was untouchable, a full masterclass. It's a real shame that Bret left when he did. Battles with HHH around 1999/2000, Chris Jericho, Kurt Angle and further feuds with Steve Austin and Shawn Michaels would have been mind blowing. But for my dream match, today I'm going to say Steve Austin circa 1999 v Brock Lesnar 2002.
As Bret and Austin are already there and the others still wrestling, who would you like to see inducted into the Hall Of Fame next year?
Owen Hart, Wahoo McDaniel, Sting and The Undertaker.
You clearly love what you do so what do you plan to do in the future with WWE?
I'm constantly pitching new ideas and I've started to write my story of being a lifelong obsessive fan. When it's ready, I'll pitch that too. I'd love to get my teeth into the creative direction for the NXT talent, Kevin Owens and Finn Balor in particular.
And finally does it still completely blow your mind that you, a lad from the north of England, are able to do things such as attend this years SummerSlam as a guest of the company?
Yes. I don't know if it will ever register fully that a genuine dream has been realised, but I'm loving all of it. I was blessed with parents and a family who never once questioned anything I chose to do. They only ever supported the things I showed a natural interest in, which was drawing, wrestling, football and a few other geeky pursuits and this is where I stumbled.
You can find out more about Ben's work here http://bentallon.com/
Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industry by Ben Tallon Is available from Amazon on Lid Publishing http://www.amazon.co.uk/Champagne-Wax-Crayons-CreativeIndustry/dp/190779493X
Ben is on Twitter, @bentallon
Images courtesy of WWE/Ben Tallon
As always I'm on twitter @LeeHWWENews