Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Illustrator Starts Drawing Off The Page, And On Bodies

Feb 24, 2020
Originally published on February 25, 2020 8:10 am

Even on one of the coldest days of winter, there's a lot of bare flesh on display at Oxbow Tattoo in Easthampton, Mass. It's where artist Eric Talbot, who's been drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the franchise since the late 1980s is about to ink his first full-color Ninja Turtle tattoo.

"I have two greens that I'm considering," Talbot says as he follows a stencil outline on his client's arm. "But I'm not going to just have a flat color. "I'm working colors together like I do with my traditional art."

Talbot says as a kid, he was more than happy to stay inside with a pile of paper and copy images he saw in comic books while other children played outside. He also watched a lot of monster movies and began to draw his own creatures.

While Talbot describes himself as shy, he recently finished a two-year tattoo apprenticeship which included studying up on bloodborne pathogens and CPR, because in this new line of work, he's going to be touching a lot of strangers.

"I just find [tattooing] so fascinating," Talbot says. "I love to put the needle in the skin and see that crisp, clean line come out. The canvas is moving! The canvas is pliable!"

Inking his first Ninja Turtle on a true fan

In his first few months of solo tattooing on that canvas, Talbot deliberately stayed away from doing any Ninja Turtles art, until he knew he was ready.

Randy MacArthur, the first of likely many whose skin Talbot will use to ink his signature art, drove a couple of hours from New Hampshire to get here.

He's lying down on a table, right arm under a light. He's been tattooed before, but never by an artist he so admires.

"This one is going to be Donatello on my forearm," MacArthur says.

"Yah, but Donatello is your favorite," Talbot points out. "So we're starting with Donatello. He's going to be the focal point of the tattoo."

The tattoo will grow from there, explains MacArthur, who is part of a dedicated fan base that can't seem to get enough of their Ninja Turtles. They follow Turtle artists on social media, and clamor to meet them at comic conventions.

Randy MacArthur, a longtime Ninja Turtles fan, is getting a Donatello tattoo.
Jill Kaufman / New England Public Radio

From his prone position, bearing up under the buzzing needle, MacArthur says getting a tattoo from Talbot is surreal.

"It's definitely a fanboy moment," MacArthur says. "You grow up seeing the art that he did and then you get to have a piece of history on your arm."

MacArthur says he shared online with other fans that he was getting a tattoo from Talbot. He got a little teasing, he says. But every day he's in some online chat about the vintage Ninja Turtles comics — and also about life.

"[The Turtles] have really brought a lot of people together," MacArthur says. It makes sort of a motley crew of a family, if you will."

Talbot's creative funk reversed

Fans have been cooing over Ninja Turtles art for more than 30 years, but after drawing them on paper for that long, Talbot began to lose interest in the work.

"I was kind of sitting in my basement with my dog, drawing turtles and not really seeing people," Talbot says. "I really got complacent with my style and what I was drawing. I wasn't really trying as hard."

Learning to tattoo, being with other artists, and getting outside his comfort zone has re-infused his creativity, Talbot says.

His first Donatello tattoo, not surprisingly, stands in a sort of defensive pose.

"He's saying, 'Come on! Let's get going! Let's fight!'" Talbot says. "'Let's have some pizza!'"

Pizza is the only thing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seem to eat.

As he brushes away some extra ink from MacArthur's arm, Talbot says a few years ago, he would never have been able to touch anyone like this. The two of them are going to be seeing each other a lot in the next few months. After Donatello, there's still Leonardo, Rafael and Michelangelo left to ink.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The elementary school crowd just loves Nickelodeon's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," right? But the four reptile brothers who always inevitably save the day actually have comic book beginnings. As New England Public Radio's Jill Kaufman reports, one of the first Ninja Turtle illustrators is now drawing his superheroes in an altogether different medium.

JILL KAUFMAN, BYLINE: It's one of those really cold winter days in the Northeast. Still, there's a lot of bare flesh on display at Oxbow Tattoo in Easthampton, Mass. And it's a big day for artist Eric Talbot, who has been drawing Ninja Turtles for the franchise since the late 1980s. He's beginning to ink his first full-color Ninja Turtle tattoo.

ERIC TALBOT: I have two greens that I'm considering in - working with. But I'm not going to go in and just hit a flat color. I'm going to be working colors together like I do with my traditional art.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Unintelligible) Looking good, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO MACHINE WHIRRING)

KAUFMAN: When he was little, Talbot says, he was more than happy to stay inside with a pile of paper and copy things he saw in comic books. While all the other kids were outside playing sports, he watched a lot of monster movies, he says, and began to draw his own creatures.

Talbot describes himself as shy. But he recently finished a two-year tattoo apprenticeship, which included classes on bloodborne pathogens. And in this new line of work, he's going to be touching a lot of strangers.

TALBOT: I just find it so fascinating. I love to put this - the needle in the skin and see that crisp, clean line come out, you know? All the different types of needles - the canvas is moving; the canvas is pliable.

KAUFMAN: And in his first few months of solo tattooing on that canvas, he stayed away from doing any Ninja Turtle art until he knew he was ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO MACHINE WHIRRING)

KAUFMAN: On this day, Randy MacArthur, an insurance agent, drove a couple of hours from New Hampshire to be tattooed by Talbot. He's lying down on a table, right arm under the light.

RANDY MACARTHUR: This one is going to be Donatello on my forearm.

TALBOT: Yeah. But Donatello is your favorite, so we're starting with Donatello. He's going to be the focal point of the tattoo.

MACARTHUR: And then we're going to go from there after that.

KAUFMAN: MacArthur is part of a dedicated fan base who follow Turtle artists on social media, clamor after them at comic conventions. This moment, he says, is sort of surreal.

MACARTHUR: It's definitely a fanboy moment. You grow up seeing the art that he did, and then you get to have a piece of history on your arm.

KAUFMAN: And MacArthur talks every day with other fans online about Ninja Turtles, about the vintage comics and also about life.

MACARTHUR: They've really brought a lot of people together. They make sort of like a motley crew of a family, if you will.

KAUFMAN: While fans have been coming together around the art for more than 30 years, after drawing the Turtles on paper for that long, artist Eric Talbot was losing interest in the work.

TALBOT: I was kind of sitting in my basement with my dog drawing Turtles and not really seeing people. I really got complacent, I think, with my style and what I was drawing. I wasn't really trying as hard. But now...

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO MACHINE WHIRRING)

KAUFMAN: Now, with a needle, he's drawing Donatello in a sort of defensive pose.

TALBOT: He's saying, come on. Let's get going. Let's fight. Let's have some pizza - no.

KAUFMAN: The only thing the TV Ninjas seem to eat is pizza.

TALBOT: So it's coming together.

KAUFMAN: A few years ago, Talbot says, he would never have been able to touch anyone like this - as he brushes away some extra ink from MacArthur's arm. And the two of them are going to be seeing a lot of each other in the next few months. After Donatello, there's still Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo left to ink.

(SOUNDBITE OF TATTOO MACHINE WHIRRING)

MACARTHUR: Are there any good pizza places around here?

KAUFMAN: For NPR News, I'm Jill Kaufman in western Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF "'TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES' THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) They're the world's most fearsome fighting team... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.