Making things out of sand sounds like child’s play.
It conjures images of younger days running around barefoot, with a bucket and shovel in hand, on family outings to the beach.
These images live mostly in our memory, since it’s not as common to see children building sandcastles anymore—too many have exchanged outdoor play for tablets.
That makes it even harder to imagine that someone in this shining concrete city is making a profession out of building sand sculptures.
But it’s exactly what 45-year-old Singaporean artist, JOOheng Tan, has become famous for internationally.
Showcasing his awe-inspiring art, he has been to over 70 cities and won more than 10 gold awards in competitions around the world.
I met him on the location of his latest exhibition, Sentosa Sandsation 2018, where he oversaw a team of 16 international sculptors to create a massive Marvel-themed spectacle that can be seen on Siloso Beach until 16 September.
Full of smiles despite his hectic schedule working on the event, JOOheng shared how his journey into the obscure world of sand sculpting began.
Learning Outside The Classroom
He wasn’t the best student academically, and didn’t make it to secondary school, but he always knew he loved drawing.
His heart set on a career in art, JOOheng enrolled himself in LASALLE College of the Arts after completing National Service.
While he was studying there in 1997, a lecturer invited his class to the beach to experiment with a new medium.
He was the only one keen enough to turn up.
Together with his lecturer, and the lecturer’s friend who had initiated the idea, JOOheng tried sculpting sand and fell in love with it.
In other interviews, he has often said that there are no other sand sculptors in Singapore, making me really curious how he learnt the art by himself.
“No, zero,” he says, when I ask if he went to the beach to practise. “I’ll tell you honestly, I have never done any training.”
[When it comes to jobs or competitions,] I just do it. So every time I make a sculpture, that’s training for me.
There’s No Right And Wrong
Following that experiment on the beach, the next time JOOheng sculpted was at the inaugural Sentosa Sandsation event in 1999—a whole two years later.
“Because Sentosa brought in WSSA (World Sand Sculpting Association) to do the event, that’s how I [learned] the proper way of doing a sand sculpture,” he says.
He was referring to techniques such as using foam and machines to compact the sand to prepare it for sculpting.
“But actually there is no ‘proper way’, you can do anything as long as the [sculpture] stands,” he says.
I won’t say there were mistakes. Even now I am still experimenting and trying ways to make [my sculptures] better. There’s no right and wrong.
Even without training, JOOheng went on to compete internationally, taking part in his first competition in China in 2000.
Later the same year, he won the first prize at the International Single Master Sand Sculpting Championship in The Netherlands.
He has since earned first place in numerous sand sculpting competitions, in countries like Germany, Denmark, US, Japan, and Singapore.
Now, he’s one of the judges for the Sentosa Sandsation International Sand Sculpting Competition 2018.
“Sand Sculpting Is Not A Career”
While JOOheng beams positivity, he jokingly said that choosing to be a sand sculptor was a “big mistake”.
He explains that his choice has come with its consequences, such as having to survive on little between jobs, and often being told that what he does is not legitimate.
Early into his endeavour, his income came mainly from winning prize money at competitions, which were few and far between.
He also took up commercial projects to tide himself by, but clients often didn’t see the value in his art form, and he needed to constantly market his worth.
After winning his first gold prize, he decided to set up a company, Sandworkz, to create a brand for his sand sculpting.
However, he also shares another slightly depressing reason for setting up the company—it was the only way his work could be recognised.
He explains that when he gets called up for reservist, he has a hard time seeking approval on deferment to complete his time-sensitive sand sculpting jobs.
On their list, there’s no such career as ‘sand sculptor’. So I have to set up a company and say that my company produces sand sculptures, then I [can get approval to] go and do my work.
JOOheng’s family had also been concerned about his chosen path.
“My mum has said before, ‘Why don’t you go and get a good job, get a stable pay?’,” he tells us.
Even now, after 21 years in the business, JOOheng doesn’t think the stability of his livelihood has changed for the better.
“But I don’t work because I want to make money. If I was thinking that way, I wouldn’t be doing this for the past 21 years.”
Advertising With Sand
Beyond sculpting for competitions and events, JOOheng introduced the art of sand for other purposes, like advertising.
In 2012, Singapore-based advertising agency, Lowe, sought out JOOheng to work with them on a creative campaign for the detergent brand, OMO.
JOOheng created 3 detailed scenes to depict children’s ambitions and dreams.
The successful campaign went on to win a Bronze prize at Cannes Lions 2012.
Bringing sand sculpting out of just exhibitions, to use it successfully in an advertising campaign, JOOheng counts it a milestone for the art form.
“I think my job is not just to make sand sculptures anymore. My job now is also to bring sand sculpting to another level, [and help people see it from] another perspective,” he says.
$500 To $20K For A Job
JOOheng has worked on jobs ranging from proposals on the beach, to large indoor and outdoor events.
He reveals that a proposal would take only one day of work, and can cost about $500 to $600.
On the other hand, larger projects, especially those involving the logistical task of moving sand in and out of a venue, can cost as much as $20,000.
Aside from location, he says it also depends on the size of the sculptures.
Sand sculptures he makes for proposals are usually just a metre tall, while sculptures that stand at 5 metres could take 2 weeks to build.
To bring the dynamic Marvel characters to life at Sentosa Sandsation 2018, JOOheng led his team of sculptors to create 15 towering sculptures over a span of 10 days.
He also completed the sculpture of Iron Man himself.
Fanning The Flames Of A New Spark
With no other sand sculptors and no market for sand sculpting in Singapore, JOOheng has had to do many things himself—even make his own tools.
Coming in a variety of shapes, they help him create details like patterns and windows more efficiently.
He believes he is the first to start this spark in Singapore, and has to work hard to “pour oil” and fan the flames.
“I haven’t met anybody yet eh,” he says. “Nobody has come to me and said ‘I want to learn sand sculpting from you’, not yet.”
“I cannot wait for people to look for me, I have to propose ideas and convince people,” JOOheng tells us, saying he has doubled up as a marketer throughout his journey with sand sculpting.
His efforts to promote sand sculpting as an art has landed him a long-term collaboration with Sentosa.
“I’m working closely with Sentosa [to make Sentosa Sandsation] an annual event that Singaporeans will know as an iconic event, so people will start to know and like [sand as a] medium.”
With JOOheng on board, Sentosa Sandsation has become an annual affair since 2017.
Beyond displaying his monumental sculptures, he has also introduced a live demonstration segment to let people watch the process behind creating his beautiful pieces of work.
Find out more about Singapore’s sand sculpting legend here, and support his work at Sentosa Sandsation 2018 too!
Featured Image Credit: Sentosa Development Corporation