Artist Behind The Art: He Wows Us With His Meticulous Portrayals Of Home
We'll just put it out there - Lee Xin Li is a national treasure. Not only does he have a stupendous eye for detail, he also has a phenomenal sense of composition and colour, and is extremely observant and considerate in how he portrays individuals.
That may have come across like some glowing performance appraisal, but the truth is, Xin Li's art - whether it's a simple sketch of a bicycle or a massive life-sized mural - gives us nothing but good vibes. And anything or anyone that can do that amid these endemic COVID-19 days is a winner in our eyes.
As with many artists, Xin Li experiments with different styles (it's quite evident in his Pok Pok & Away Instagram @pokpokaway), but his most iconic and recognisable one is his comic-book style inked in black outlines and coloured in vivid hues.
We're launching "We Are Singaporeans Vol. 1" virtually on Sat, 7 Aug 2021, 2pm - 3pm! A couple of the interviewees...Posted by Melanie Lee - Writer on Saturday, 24 July 2021
This Saturday (7 Aug) marks the virtual launch of "We Are Singaporeans Vol. 1". The book, written by Melanie Lee, is a collection of 10 profiles of remarkable Singaporeans who have taken the path less trodden (including singer-producer Shabir, potter Kim Whye Kee and urban farmer Bjorn Low), and features Xin Li's illustrations of the spotlighted individuals.
Meanwhile, we talk to the 33-year-old full-time illustrator (who graduated from the National University of Singapore with a degree in architecture) about his most challenging projects, and how the Singapore Armed Forces and cycling around Singapore have inspired his work.
National Day is a few days away. Here is a throwback to the 360 illustration from last year imagining being in a Super Puma. #NDPeeps *Not the actual fly past.Posted by Pok Pok & Away on Tuesday, 3 August 2021
#NDP2021 has been postponed. The emotions and concerns towards the conducting of the annual National Day Parade is...Posted by Pok Pok & Away on Saturday, 24 July 2021
Some of your work includes extremely detailed artwork blown up as banners and murals, and 360° illustrations. Which one was the most challenging and how long did it take to complete?
Each illustration has its own set of challenges ranging from the technical aspects to the topics which could be sensitive at times.
“In Our Time” (shown above) – the piece used for the National Day Parade this year and first done for “Imaginarium: Into the Space of Time” show at Singapore Art Museum in 2018 – was challenging because of the amount of research that went into making it as well as the level of detail on a large scale.
It is the largest piece I had worked on then, with spatial installation to handle as well. On top of that, I also had to juggle full-time work at DP Architects and manage the planning of finances and logistics for the project. I am grateful that my bosses at DP Architects were very supportive during that period.
It has been more than 30 days since the circuit breaker began. More than a month ago, I was still working at a studio,...Posted by Pok Pok & Away on Friday, 15 May 2020
For the 360 Circuit Breaker illustration (shown above) done last year, the challenge was not only the technical aspect of making a 360 piece but also how the piece was put together to still make it relevant and realistic for the folks who went through Circuit Breaker: details such as what kind of furniture was suitable in an HDB flat, and also to be able to gather some stories from the ground, like the corridor artwork shared by some friends living in Bedok.
The 360 Circuit Breaker piece was also challenging because of its sensitive nature: it was a period when most people were stuck at home, and experiencing the Circuit Breaker in different ways, some worse than others.
The work had to be considerate and I tried to focus on the shared experiences, and use the platform to raise awareness of the avenues one could use to help the community, such as hawkers and other folks in the F&B industry, the migrant worker community, and peers in the creative industry.
Lastly, there was the piece “An Unnatural History” that I worked on with Darel Seow for the Singapore Art Museum. It was a pretty big piece and because of the pandemic, we had to work virtually, which made communication very challenging.
There were instances when the dimensions provided didn’t match what was on the ground, or file layers that were meant to be fixed got shifted late in the project, and contractors made errors when putting up the piece.
Being the person who wanted to get things done within deadlines and get things moving, I often found myself in the unpleasant position of being the “bad cop” in that project. I eventually managed to get the ball rolling by illustrating my portion first so that Darel could use it as a base to build on.
While there were certainly a lot of sparks flying in that project, I am glad it went up in the end and received positive feedback!
This weekend would have been the start of the annual #singaporeGP race weekend if not for the pandemic. This is an...Posted by Pok Pok & Away on Friday, 18 September 2020
You collaborate with so many parties, from the Public Utilities Board and Singapore Tourism Board to the Singapore Armed Forces. What are some of your most memorable partnerships – and what made them so awesome?
The 360 Circuit Breaker piece that was done together with Gov.sg last year was one of the most memorable and helpful, especially when jobs and projects were cancelled due to the pandemic.
The project also opened up other opportunities to work with groups like National Heritage Board for a Telok Ayer Street piece or the F1 Grand Prix (shown above), imagining the race drivers visiting Singapore.
A little illustration I did for a “沒問題”,limited release beer by Specific Gravity Beverage Company . The beer is a German style Maibock which is usually associated with springtime and the month of May. The illustration is set in a kopitiam with references to Joo Chiat and Katong where the brewery is located. I imagined a German uncle having kopi and kaya toast while our local uncle have a bierkrug of Maibock. Mei Wen Ti will be pouring at Smith Street Taps and The American Club, and bottles will be available to purchase at Beer Force and Temple Cellars UE Square and Binjai. #somethingisbrewing #sgbeer #specificgravity #sgbevco #craftbeersg #maibock #meiwenti #PokPokSingapore #illustration #PokPokMealsPosted by Pok Pok & Away on Monday, 10 May 2021
Some other partners that I have worked with where the chemistry was good include Specific Gravity Beverage Company for their “Mei Wen Ti” Maibock Beer Label (shown above) as well as local firms like Supermama and Independent Market.
Having good relationships with parties who understand their roles and being able to work together well in a positive collaborative way is something I appreciate a lot.
There are also some interesting ones like a piece that I am working on with an air force squadron which has given me a unique opportunity to observe how they work at the air base.
There is also a cycling brand where the client has been very friendly and understanding: we even cycled together once!
Neo Tiew | 梁宙 Another attempt at drawing a panoramic illustration, this time round, it is a sentimental place : Neo Tiew...Posted by Pok Pok & Away on Thursday, 25 May 2017
You do quite a fair bit of military-related artwork. How did your NS experience influence your art?
I think there was some influence from my childhood. I used to hang out at Neo Tiew Estate (shown above) quite a lot as a child, when my mum and relatives used to sell food and drinks at the coffeeshop there.
As a result, seeing people from Sungei Gedong, Keat Hong, Tengah Air Base and Lim Chu Kang camps was quite a common sight. Tengah Air Base is particularly memorable because it is situated along Lim Chu Kang Road opposite the chicken farm: as a child, the sight of the base and sometimes planes was quite impressive and impactful.
Fast-forward to my NSF days, I revisited Neo Tiew Estate doing FIBUA training there (and even visited my aunt’s flat), which was surreal. I was also struck by the absence of the physical built-heritage of the villages that used to be on Pulau Tekong except for a few colonial-era structures (there wasn’t much information about these). These memories inspired me to want to learn more about the places around me.
I was posted to Pulau Tekong as a section commander and spent at least a year-plus there. It felt like a different world there with the jungles, lalang fields, lagoons and old structures going back to the colonial period. It has changed quite a bit since, with the land reclamation and expansion of the training school.
We also notice you’re quite an avid cyclist. How does cycling around Singapore help your art?
I took up cycling as mode of transport for commuting between home and the studio I shared with Darel at the National Design Centre in 2019.
When the pandemic happened and Circuit Breaker came along, cycling became a way to take my mind of things and also shed some calories from all the snacking at home!
In the process, I found myself cycling around Singapore quite a bit, revisiting some places and exploring the different neighbourhoods.
As a result, some of my works in the street series are inspired by the places I encountered while cycling – such as Cluny Court (not too far from my place, and there’s a 24-hour Cold Storage there) or the old-school Eek Heng Hup Kee Provision Shop along Fernhill Road (which I stumbled on while cycling around Orange Grove Road.
It has become a routine now, cycling two to three times a week, just to take my mind off things – although the roads have been noticeably more crowded now even in the early mornings.
The activity has become an inspiration for two of my works - one about the different cyclists you can find in Singapore, and the other about kaya toast in Singapore, as I usually have it for breakfast during my rides out.
Ok, last question! What do you enjoy most about being an illustrator in Singapore?
I am happy that I get to draw and grateful that there are still interesting projects to work on. Being a full-time illustrator also gives me some flexibility in time management.
Nevertheless, there are still commitments and responsibilities to fulfil for every project I get, thus a freelancer's life is not as romantic as what one thinks it is – that we can go on breaks whenever we like.
However, it is more flexible than a full-time fixed-hours job, and more mobile if the medium, resources, and technology permit.