You’ve probably seen his illustrations before – they’ve been on Shell tissue boxes, Air Force flyers, and even on SG50 National Day Parade tote bags.
Yet not much is known about Xin Li, the illustrator behind these works of art.
A quick Google search brings you to his site, Pok Pok & Away, where you’ll find other adorable illustrations that add another dimension to the places and culture that we are all so familiar with.
Beginnings Of Pok Pok & Away
Xin Li works at DP Architects, an architecture firm behind some of the iconic landmarks in Singapore like the Esplanade Theatres at the Bay and the Sports Hub.
“I do illustrations in and out of the workplace, visualizing concepts, contributing to presentations and recently I have done illustrations for the firm’s 50th Anniversary exhibition and musical.”
He adds that this would not have been possible without the support and foresight from his superiors like Tan Chee Kiang, his team leader and the CEO, Angelene Chan.
Surprisingly, Xin Li only developed his interest in drawing a few years ago. While he began drawing at a young age, he only started illustrating seriously in 2013 when he encountered a book by Guy Delisle.
Titled “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”, the illustrated journal was about Guy Delisle’s experience living in Jerusalem with his wife and child.
“It showed a different and intimate side of the city and the region. The aesthetic style also reminded me of Herge’s Adventures of Tin Tin, a childhood read of mine.
“I was motivated to draw again and started imagining – what if Tin Tin had visited Singapore?”
He adds that this led to the drawings of Seletar, Neo Tiew, Pulau Tekong and eventually to other things closer to home like Kueh.
When I ask about why he chose to name his site “Pok Pok & Away”, Xin Li says that it was a “random idea” coined by him and Mu Yao, a friend of his.
“I have a chicken “chou chou” (or soft toy) that I got by chance from a flea market in my secondary school days. The soft toy stuck and we randomly used “pok pok!” and “away” – the imagery is of a chicken flying away, which can signify being free, escape or going on a getaway.”
The pair find it amusing whenever the name is mentioned by serious-looking figures like military colonels – they say it adds a light-hearted moment to any conversation.
For Xin Li, his projects can span from a couple of days to a few months. He says that it depends on the nature of the illustration.
“For Peta Singapura I, a drawing of the places around Singapore, I found a rush of energy and momentum while drawing it. To my surprise, I completed it over 4 nights.”
He adds that in normal circumstances, a drawing could take between 3 days to a couple of months. This is because there are times when the process involves not only production of the work but also research and editing.
Having done so many illustrations, I wonder if Xin Li is able to narrow it down to one favourite. Rather than just one, Xin Li says that he enjoys the illustrations where there is a story and something new to learn.
He names one of his illustrations, the “Kueh” series – he says he got to know more about the ubiquitous snacks in Singapore.
Yet another, entitled “A Walk in the Garden”, enabled Xin Li to learn about the trees he sees around Singapore.
“The inspiration came from a landscape architecture friend who loves to point out trees and their scientific names when we go for outings.”
He adds that “Peta Singapura I” remains as one of his favourite illustrations because it was unexpected – a friend of his challenged that the little red dot had nothing much to draw compared to the cities of Europe with their history and culture.
“Yet, I found myself being a tourist (of some sorts) in my homeland, discovering a little bit of the rich history, culture and the flora and fauna in Singapore over the process of drawing it.
“In all these projects, there are stories out there if you are willing to find them.”
Overcoming Obstacles From Within
Illustrators such as Xin Li seem like a rare find to me, but he shares that it’s the opposite. He cites the Organization of Illustrators Council (OIC) Singapore and adds that there are even more beyond that.
I come to realize that given his years spent illustrating, Xin Li has made a few observations about the problems faced by many others like him.
“Sometimes, in our daily grind, I think we tend to lose touch of the larger world out there – taller mountains with more techniques, materials, styles, process, medium and so on.”
“I think perhaps illustrators and sometimes people might not be aware of the diversity of illustration. The medium of illustration isn’t plainly drawing with a pen or on a tablet.”
It’s clear that he feels strongly about this issue.
“There is always people out there pushing the boundaries, thus the illustration scene is constantly evolving and the medium is a reflection of the time we lived in.”
Despite his success, Xin Li reveals that he has his own set of struggles as well.
He shares that he still deals with the anxiety of not being good enough, and tries hard to fight the tendencies of mistaking monetary and social media yields as artistic progress.
Having dealt with a number of clients, he says that communicating with people beyond his own field can be challenging. He is also learning to cope with difficult situations instead of escaping in the name of artistic freedom.
In fact, some of his struggles extend beyond that of an illustrator – I realized that I identify with some of them too.
“I find it difficult to be discerning and objective to criticism, and battle temptations to find excuses for mistakes.”
He is still learning to make time spent meaningful – something that is only human.
He says that essentially, most of the challenges he faces boil down to being too comfortable and certain of one’s abilities and perceived success.
In the realities of illustration work, he admits that there are rough encounters with some clients but says that it is part and parcel of working with people and finding ways to communicate.
Even so, Xin Li has had valuable opportunities and unforgettable experiences. He divulges that along the way, there have also been some unexpected surprises.
“As a kid, I dreamt of joining the airforce before. Through illustration, it provided an alternative path to pursue a childhood dream of mine.”
These include imagining being inside an Apache helicopter and a Leopard tank, which Xin Li drew for two 360 degree illustrative pieces.
Overall, he says that the challenges he faces are insignificant in the larger scheme of things in life – there are always indefinite experiences out there to pursue and discover yet finite time and health.
When I ask about his future plans, he says that he doesn’t see an end to drawing. He adds, “I will continue drawing, be it 5 years or 20 years from now.”
“Cliché as it may sound, I wish to do some travelling and my own illustrations.”
He also hopes that some of his illustrations like “Come! Makan Makan!”, “Peta Singapura” and “Sayang Singapura” the book would be a visual record of our current times for generations beyond.
“Sayang Singapura” is an on-going series of illustrations of Singapore’s landscapes – some of it are compiled in a book under the same name and there was an exhibition at URA Centre last year.
Some of the more recent works in the same theme are the Chip Bee Gardens, Holland Village and Rochor pieces. Another recurring place is Neo Tiew Estate in Lim Chu Kang area where he spent a part of his childhood there.
“In that vein, I hope people could see how illustration as a medium can communicate history, architecture and other topics and appreciate, as well as be more aware of the medium and the community more.”
To see more of Xin Li’s works, click here.