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Here's What Happens When You Draw Highly Explicit Pictures of Ninja Turtles Fucking Each Other

We spoke to Liverpudlian artist James Unsworth about getting in trouble with the law.

af Amelia Abraham
19 november 2014, 12:10pm

From James Unsworth's 2014 offering, Dead Boys. 

If you really sat down and tried, you could turn a lot of pages in the space of 30 days. While we've spent over a decade providing you with about 120 of those pages every month, it turns out there are many more magazines in the world other than VICE. This new series, Ink Spots, is a helpful guide on which of those zines, pamphlets and publications you should be reading when you're not staring at ours.

Liverpudlian artist James Unsworth spends his spare time drawing things that most people wouldn't even admit goes through their mind. His illustrations are a Freudian fever dream; a heady mixture of sex, death and desire – only with a dollop of 90s pop culture kitsch thrown in. 

One of James' perviest achievements to date was his book Ninja Turtle Sex Museum, a fantasy homage to the titular cartoon characters that imagines cartoon figures resemble Michelangelo, Donatello, Leonardo and Raphael ejaculating into the mouths of severed heads. For James it was all in good fun, but Viacom Inc. – the media company that hold the rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – didn't see the funny side and tried to sue him.

We called up James to ask him about his work.

VICE: How did you get into illustration?
James Unsworth: I don't know. I've always drawn. I guess when friends were out playing sports of whatever I was at home drawing. I used to draw desert islands, zoos and water parks – those kinds of things. I've always seen drawing as escapism and entertainment. It's that classic cliché: I would get into trouble at school because I was drawing on my schoolbooks and not really paying much attention, so I ended up going to art school. I graduated from the Royal College in 2006 and I've been having shows since then.

The cover of Ninja Turtle Sex Museum

So when did Ninja Turtle Sex Museum come about and what was the thinking behind it?
Ninja Turtle Sex Museum was an exhibition that I had at a gallery in 2010. I do a lot of research into the history of popular print and it's something that I'm really interested in. A really popular theme in popular print was the grotesque, or inversion. The grotesque usually combines horror and humour that don't necessarily go together, and so you don't really know how to process it.

I'm interested in those kinds of psychological spaces that are outside of the ordinary, where you don't really know how to react. Combining the Ninja Turtles with really graphic, adult stuff was a kind of unique way of encapsulating those ideas. 

What's one of your favourite images from the exhibition/book and can you describe what's going on?
Popular print was popular because it was unsophisticated and because the majority of the population couldn't read or whatever and they just wanted to see images that were dead funny or dead horrible and sometimes both.

Another popular print theme is transposing body parts, and one of my favourite images from the book is a two-panel sequential image where I turned someone's arsehole into their eye. It's kind of horrible and funny at the same time. Sequential images are as close to a comic book that I've got, really.

So what's the deal with Viacom Inc? I hear that as the rights holders they weren't happy that you debased their Ninja Turtles and used a name that's similar to their show. What happened?
I'm not sure. They asked me to remove everything from the internet and surrender any drawings or merchandise to them. I basically told them I don't have anything like that in my possession and took it down. My YouTube channel got shut down anyway. I had like a million views on it and they just shut it down. 

Was it just because of that incident?
Well, my YouTube channel got shut down two weeks before I got my first cease and desist from Viacom Inc. so it might be connected, I don't know. But YouTube erased the videos  one by one. I can't get them back. I had thousands of subscribers.

What were they? Animated videos?
No, I made some movies. I got some performers and some green packing tape and made ninja turtle costumes. Some of the content from the drawings featured, but you have the option to say if something is mature content – if you're under 18 you can't see my movies. It wasn't about exposing young people to stuff they shouldn't see.


So did you remove everything from the internet and stop selling sexy turtle merchandise?
Yeah, I stopped selling it straight away. I can understand why I had to do that as it is bootleg merch. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Sex Museum" is blatantly using their trademark. I also had to go through my social media and delete every tweet or post with the term "Ninja Turtle Sex Museum".

I tried to drag it away from that by changing the name. After the first cease and desist, I waited a couple of weeks and reposted it as the "Martial Arts Turtle Sex Museum". But I guess that didn't cut it because then they sent me the second cease and desist and I had to remove everything again.

It's iconography from a lot of 90s kids' childhoods. Aren't you just drawing upon something that is a cultural relic? Other artists do that when they take found footage and mash it up, for example. Don't you think you should be allowed to do that?
I can cite thousands of examples of pop culture being subverted or changed in a certain way like this. The problem is that it's the content they don't like, the sexuality of it. I can understand from their perspective that they don't want to be associated with it but I don't think that really gives them the reason to erase all of the work I have done for my project.

The drawings are based on my own personal memories of being eight years old and I'm not sure someone can tell me they can't exist any more and tell me to destroy every individual file and hard copy of each drawing. I see the potential problem with my work but I don't think that it gives them the right to wipe it from history as if it never existed.

Some of your other work features quite sexually explicit content, like Dead Boys, your newest publication...
Dead Boys is kind of based around my memories from the same period – around 1988. There's loads of references to Garbage Pail Kids. There is a sticker series called Stupid Smiles. There is a little bit of Beavis and Butthead

The story behind Dead Boys is about when my brother and I used to go to the video shop and look at all the horror movie covers. It's a theme that's present in my first book so the theme is knowledge brutalising innocence and that kind of paradox where, the more you know about the world, the more your innocence gets destroyed.

There's quite a lot of gay-related imagery. For example, one guy fucking another guy up the ass with his nose. Are you inspired by any gay scenes or cartoons?
It's not really part of my research but those particular drawings are based on compositions from gay pornography. I overlay my own scenarios onto those kinds of compositions, which is something I did as a teenager. I used to take straight pornography and draw it in a way that I would find more interesting, so it's perhaps a continuation of that. It's not like I have a box of gay erotica that I'm inspired by, though.

Do you think the fact that your work is controversial helps you get it seen? Or does it create problems?
It's hard to say. I guess drawing in galleries isn't very fashionable in general at the moment. What I would say is that I want people to make their own decision about my work. If people like what I do and they want to engage with it immediately, great; if people don't like what I do, that's fine. But with something so polarising they usually make their mind up pretty quickly.

Check out James Unsworth's work on his website here. 

@MillyAbraham

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