Hey, You’re Cool! Illustrator Arturo Torres

Arturo Torres is an endlessly driven and dedicated illustrator—so much so, that he answers emails at 4:09 a.m. “I lose sleep because I cannot shut my brain off,” he explains, adding that he’s “constantly trying to out do [his] last drawing.” His hunger, however, never eclipses his personality. In our conversation, Torres is as lighthearted, kooky, and meticulous as his illustration work with Shea Serrano suggests.

The Dallas-based artist has collaborated with Serrano on The Rap Year Book and
Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated, the latter of which dropped in October. Both books embody Torres’ endearing and wonky nature. Yet even after working with Serrano for four years, Torres still gets jitters when he sends over an illustration. “I know the type of mood or reaction that my drawings need to release,” he says. No ask on Serrano’s part is too abstract or off-kilter.

MASS APPEAL chopped it up with Arturo about his work with Serrano, how his art shows off his love for anthropomorphism, and which of his illustrations are all-time favorites.

How was working with Shea Serrano for the second time around, on Basketball (and Other Things)?

It was a lot smoother since we’ve been working together for four years. We understand each other better. We got weird with the drawings immediately. The last book, The Rap Year Book, we had just met, you know? When we started this book, I told him that I wanted to make this book for my mom, who had just passed away, and needed him to push me hard so that I can get to the artistic level I knew I could achieve. I feel like I did, thanks to him.

Anything ironed out during the first book that made this one easier or more fun?

Yes and no. Don’t tell the homie, because his head will get big and I’ll never hear the end of it, but I look up to him and he’s done so much for my career and life that the only way I can pay Shea back is by doing good drawings with him. But because of this, I still get nervous when I send over the finished drawings. I want to make him proud. That nervousness hasn’t change and I don’t think it ever will. I gotta keep getting better as an illustrator and he’ll tell me straight-up. What has changed is that we have been working together for four years now, so when he says “I need this drawing of blank being or doing blank,” I know the type of mood or reaction that my drawings need to release.

What’s your favorite illustration from Basketball (and Other Things)?

It’s actually not in the book—it didn’t make the cut. It’s a drawing of [Chris] Paul and [DeAndre] Jordan as the main characters from the film Thelma and Louise. I love the colors and use of negative space. From the actual book, I would have to say the cover. It sets the tone of the book even before you actually open it. It tells you that you’re in for a crazy ride. Plus, I always wanted to do a spread page in honor of my favorite comic book artist and one of the reasons why I draw. That person is Jack Kirby. He would always put a spread page in his comics and they are all beautiful to look at and study.

Do you two have anything else in the works, or just riding the joy of the latest?

Yes, but where I come from, we don’t snitch.

Let’s pivot and breakdown three of my favorite of your illustrations, starting with this one of Chance The Rapper giving the devil a swirly. Where did this idea come from? What was your process like?

I literally drew that the day [Coloring Book] came out. The answer to this question isn’t a smart one but the idea came from the lyrics were he talks about giving satan a swirly [on “All We Got”]. I never heard of a rapper or any other person living in this planet say they are going to give satan a swirly. That stuck out so I had to draw it before anyone else did.

For this one with James Harden and Totoro, how’d you land on putting Harden and my favorite Miyazaki character in one illustration?

I’m going to copy and paste the conversation about this and how our process and level of trust works. Here is how it happened:

Shea: Okay, dude. So, I’m finishing up the column. Can you draw me two or three things? I don’t care what they are, so long as they feature an NBA player, and they’re cool. You can have them doing whatever you want. They don’t have to be playing basketball or whatever, they can if that’s what you want. I don’t care. But make ’em dope as fuck!

Shea later writes this:

(If you do Harden, have him in some sort of very sad situation, like maybe he’s waiting for a bus in the rain or something.)

As a huge fan of Miyazaki films and wanting to always use one of his characters, this was my opportunity to finally do that. He later asked me what the movie My Neighbor Totoro was about. I bet he’s yet to see it, or any Miyazaki films.

Do you consider Miyazaki films a big influence for you? Is there any other piece that show off that influence?

Yes, in the sense of storytelling. With my drawings, and the fact that he’s one of the only few people that were still hand drawing their movies, I wanted to carry that tradition with my illustrations. I’ve written parts of a graphic novel loosely based on my life experiences, and the type of storytelling is heavily influenced by him.

This fly in slacks being zapped to death is another favorite. It’s actually the piece I show people when they ask me to describe your style, because I think this one really captures your personality. What inspired this piece?

I drew that in 2012-2013, I think. I don’t know what inspired it. Just wanted to make a silly drawing for fun, you know? I love drawing anthropomorphism and hope to do more of that in the future.

Do you think there could be a single, definitive Arturo Torres piece?

I don’t know. I hope not. I’m constantly trying to out do my last drawing. As soon as I finished The Rap Year Book, I wanted to be better than those drawings. If you set both books side by side, you can see growth and that makes happy. Shoot, I’m already trying to find new ways to draw better than what’s in the new book. I gotta keep growing as an illustrator.

How would you define your artistic personality?

I would say obsessive and critical. I live in my own head and I am my own enemy. I lose sleep because I cannot shut my brain off. For example, I’ll go to bed and toss and turn for an hour because I feel like I need to be drawing or researching ways to better my work.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a big project with a company in Singapore for Nike, but they told me I couldn’t say anything about the actual project. Again. where I come from we don’t snitch. Also something top secret that Shea, his wife, my fiancé and I came up with over lunch. And getting married to someone smarter and better than me in February.

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