When you come out as a full-time artist in Singapore, there will always be those people who assume you’ll end up starving.
Our local arts scene has been growing, with more “tolerance” for street art, and increasing opportunities provided by the government and institutions, but perception may not have completely caught up yet.
Aspiring artists still have to fend off questions like, “How many jobs can you get in a month?” and “Who is going to pay that much for your art?”
But even as doubters remain, local artists push through the fog of uncertainty to put their passion out into the spotlight.
Four young artists, 26-year-olds Deon Phua, Russell Ong, Lydia Yang, and 28-year-old Kevin Too formed a team in 2014 to start their own illustration-based creative studio.
With an unusual name like Tell Your Children, their studio epitomises hipster culture.
They specialise in painting large-scale murals, but also create event artwork and provide graphic design services.
They don’t just get fringe projects either; their work has been recognised and commissioned by mainstream brands.
Four years and many walls later, Tell Your Children’s vibrant art has been splashed on the likes of Baybeats, Uniqlo, Razer, Melissa Shoes, New Balance and Northpoint City.
We took a peek into their journey, with the inspirations, hopes, and challenges they’ve faced along the way.
Meet The Quartet: Quirky, Talented, Driven and Evolving
Getting to know the four young artists was nothing short of an intriguing experience.
For starters, Kevin, whom I inferred as the comedian of the group, described himself this way:
“I’m a dwarf trapped in a giant’s body, on a journey to the land of milk and honey. I believe that vegetables are evil, and I secretly hope that the plot of Jurassic Park would come true some day.”
The others introduced themselves by sharing little tidbits about their lives, beliefs, and their individual styles.
I learned that Lydia is the street-kid who gravitates towards modern themes, and believes in reaping what you sow. She also loves being out on a sunny day.
Deon has explored DJ-ing, started running a vintage store called Death Threads, and often reflects on how he is evolving as a person and artist.
Russell grew up watching his brother draw characters from their childhood television shows.
Their colourful personalities reflect loudly in their art, and never fail to bring their work to life with character and meaning.
Collectively, they’ve referred to their style as “street meets tropical” in an earlier interview with The Straits Times.
They also explained that their group name came from the original working title of a 1936 American cult classic film, Reefer Madness.
Banding Together To Tackle Bigger Things
While each of them are incredibly talented on their own, Deon explained that they came together for a greater purpose.
“The intention was to take on bigger projects that would be hard for just one person to do solo,” he said.
This idea was first conceived when they were studying together at Temasek Polytechnic School of Design, and it didn’t take too long to materialise.
Besides Lydia who got her first job as graphic designer at a sporting events company, the boys, who had to serve NS, only got a couple weeks or months of work under their belt before they started up Tell Your Children.
“Apart from a brief school internship and a two week stint at a media company, [my work experience was] zilch,” said Kevin.
Although they were starting out so fresh in the industry, their friends and family were highly supportive of them opening their own studio.
Since some hopeful creatives are burdened by the doubts and expectations around them, I asked the team if they had advice for dealing with discouragement.
“My parents were slightly worried as I’m sure most parents would be,” Lydia shared, “but we set our minds to make this work and they gradually were at ease when we started raking in project after project.”
They also felt, honestly, that they were their own biggest doubters and critics—and all they could do to get past that is to put in the work.
We’ve always stuck to our guns and did what we feel is right, no matter what anyone else says.
Too Many Cooks, But They Don’t Spoil The Soup
Working so closely every day with 3 of your good friends could sound like a nightmare to some.
There’s bound to be disagreements and clashes, so I truly admire Tell Your Children for making it work.
Russell said, “Working in a team with different ideas and personalities can be difficult at times, but at the end of the day, we have a shared vision that keeps us grounded and on track.”
“[We overcame differences] by not letting individual egos get in the way and being open to different ways of doing things,” Deon added.
They repeatedly emphasised “communication is key”, a piece of advice that could not be said enough.
As they learned to meld their ideas and styles together, the team was also learning how to manage a business.
With no experience in that aspect, they said it was a steep learning curve for four creatives.
Balancing our positioning, the style and direction of our work; all that while trying to put together a company and growing as adults in our early 20s saw many fast changes.
They adapted day by day, and now still discuss ways to sustain and grow the studio as they go along.
Taking On Walls As Their Canvases
Tell Your Children has had many great projects creating stunning digital visuals for their clients, but their hand-painted wall murals are even more impressive.
I was curious when they let us in on their first experiences with painting at such a large scale.
Russell shared that their first mural for the alcohol brands, Hendrick’s Gin and Sailor Jerry, came about through the recommendation of a friend.
“It was nerve-wrecking at the beginning but after a while we kind of got the hang of it. It was a huge stepping stone for us,” he said.
“It definitely took some time (and many paint accidents) to be as efficient as we are today,” Deon chimed in.
However, they assure me that painting murals isn’t as daunting as it looks, and that some smaller projects have in fact proven to be more challenging and tedious too.
Getting Spotted By Big Clients Like Uniqlo, MTV
While it may look like they work magic, the artists share that there’s really no secret trick to getting their names out there.
They never planned who they hoped to associate with, but just focused on putting out their best work instead.
Eventually, their portfolio began to get noticed.
“I think our positioning and style attracted many clients especially in the apparel and footwear and music space, as we had the right creative tone and vibe to help emphasise and add to their brands,” Lydia explained.
“[We achieved it] by focusing on the craft as opposed to the profile of the client,” Kevin said.
For aspiring artists who are worried about how they can succeed in Singapore, Deon’s advice is to learn how to make realistic and practical plans.
“Figure out what it is you are passionate about and have a plan on how to make it sustainable. Keep at it, but also be practical and adapt if it’s not working out.”
Conquering New Frontiers Ahead
To the TYC crew, certain projects have represented special milestones in their journey.
For instance, when they launched their studio with an immersive exhibition, ‘Paradise Shores’ in mid 2015, inviting guests to marvel at the walls they fully covered in unmistakable TYC style.
Beyond the shores, they have also been recognised for their work abroad.
Later in the same year that they launched their studio, they took their work on tour with them to 6 cities in the US and Canada.
However, they struggle to name a favourite project in their portfolio, as they look forward to more to come instead.
Tell Your Children, as an entity, is my favourite project. The idea that something has great potential and is still in its creative infancy stage, is a rather exciting prospect.
In agreement with Kevin’s sentiment, Lydia and Russell said that they forsee greater things and are more interested in what lies ahead.
Their future will include expanding the team, venturing overseas again, and always exploring new types of projects to take on.
“Or we might finally start that daycare centre that everyone always mistakes us for,” Kevin jested.
Featured Image Credit: Tell Your Children