Illustration Arts Fest posters featured the works of André Wee and Caleb "bucketcaleb" Tan.

Credit: Illustration Arts Fest

What started ten years ago as drawing sessions for a group of illustrators in Singapore has grown into the inaugural Illustration Arts Fest (IAF), marking a milestone for Singapore’s illustration scene.

The event is overseen by festival director Michael Ng (better known as Mindflyer), and takes place over two weekends that bring together local illustrators and comics creators for workshops, talks, and a marketplace. According to Ng, it’s the “ultimate climax” for a loose network of illustrators that he co-founded with Lee Wai Leng (Fleecircus), and Andrew Tan (Drewscape), the Organisation of Illustrators Council (OIC).

“Who are the illustrators? Nobody knew a few years back,” says Ng. “Clients and friends are finally realizing we have interesting illustrators at home, and that you don’t have to go to Japan or America or England to see something different.”

OIC has contributed to this shift by steadily building up a community of illustrators over the last decade, organising get togethers, portfolio sharing sessions and live portrait drawings. 

Singapore’s illustration scene has grown significantly in recent years. In the mid-90s Ng recalls barely scraping together 15 names for a directory of Singapore-based illustrators, but today, OIC numbers some 100 illustrators, and it is just one of several local illustration groups such as Band of Doodlers and kult. Illustration now regularly appears on advertising campaigns, products, interiors, and even on buildings across the city. 

Singaporean Risograph printers and publishers Knuckles & Notch was among the stands at IAF, and having attended similar fairs in New York and Tokyo, amongst others, the group was happy to finally have a local platform. “As Singapore is a potent mix of different races, religions and customs, the Illustration Arts Fest allows us to showcase our unique rojak [a local term for ‘mixed’] cultural identity to the world,” says the printer.

Work at the marketplace ranged from the whimsical line drawings of Ng Xin Nie to the cutesy aesthetics of Charmumu, and the jam-packed satire of Dan Wong (A Good Citizen). East London Comic Arts Festival partnered with IAF, and its artistic director Ligaya Salazar was struck by the “attention grabbing” nature of the works. “There’s a lot of quiet, more minimal or line drawing work in the UK and the US; whereas here is just more colourful, a lot going on,” she says.

This view is shared by local comics historian Lim Cheng Tju, who describes the contemporary Singapore illustration style as very much influenced by global pop culture. The growth of illustration here is part of a worldwide demand for faster visual communication through social media, he says, and also the Singapore government’s recent drive to use art and design to become a global city. This has meant more university design programs, and so a growing pool of young illustrators. “In the past, if you were artistic, you’d study architecture. There was nothing else,” he says.

Ten years ago, Tan Zi Xi (MessyMsxi) faced this dilemma and ended up majoring in illustration at London’s Central Saint Martins. She says illustrators in Singapore not only have more options to pursue their education now, they have more platforms to showcase their works and develop a following.“In my opinion, there is a strong graphic novel scene is Singapore,” she says.“The graphic novel illustration styles here are also a lot more unique, with stories that resonate with people locally.”

According to illustrator Koh Hong Teng, the scene has also been aided by financial support offered by the Singapore government. Several of his illustrated books have been part-funded by the state, and he notes how Singapore’s illustration scene has grown more “vocal” since the mid-90s, when he was hired simply to execute realistic illustrations. Now, clients seek out illustrators like him for their distinctive styles and narratives, and at the same time, illustrators also readily create their own products to express themselves.

The two-year old illustration collective, Tell Your Children, is one example of this new generation. The quartet have not only plastered their psychedelic, street culture-inspired works on their own prints, accessories and apparel, but also on commissions from global brands such as MTV, Levi’s and Uniqlo. “We don’t think there’s a growing demand for illustration per se, but instead a growing demand more than ever to stand out from the crowd,” says the group. “Illustration just happens to be one of the many ways brands and companies can help differentiate themselves from their competitors.”

For many illustrators, this has meant incorporating elements of Singapore into their works. OIC member Ben Qwek’s latest and biggest commission was from Guinness Stout, to plaster various buildings with his graphical interpretation of Singapore’s heritage. Another illustrator, Sonny Liew, released The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, a 316-page fictional retelling of Singapore’s history that unexpectedly became a hit last year. His publisher Epigram Books had printed only 1,000 copies for sale, but a controversial withdrawal of state funding because its content was deemed to have challenged the official national history, helped the graphic novel sell out in days. Since then, the book has undergone several reprints and even made it to the international bestseller lists compiled by Amazon and the New York Times.

This episode highlights some issues for the future of Singapore’s illustration scene. A reliance on state funding limits what illustrators can draw, but at the same time, the “persistent problem we have here is our market is too small for anything,” says Koh. As Liew has shared in a popular Facebook post, his earnings from Charlie Chan so far, a production that took two years, is a far cry from what he typically earns from drawing comics for international publishers like Marvel and DC. It is no wonder at almost every IAF talk—featuring the likes of British graphic novelist Isabel Greenberg, New Yorker Richard McGuire and Japanese Hideyuki Katsumata, amongst others—festival director Ng probed speakers about how they made a living, letting audiences hear the challenges of illustrating, wherever they’re based in the world. The reality is, the festival was paid for entirely by Ng.

Passion not profit is what drives Singapore’s illustration scene at the moment, and it’s the only thing he can afford to pass on to the next generation for now. “I felt we really need this festival for our efforts to educate the masses about illustration in Singapore,” he says. “One of the key aims of this thing was to handover the torch.”