In his work, illustrator 2nd Sergeant (2SG) (NS) Lee Xin Li of Pok Pok & Away draws from personal memories and stories of his own National Service (NS) experience to juxtapose nostalgia and imagination.
Room-clearing drills are part of any soldier's training, but 2SG (NS) Lee never expected to be taking down "enemies" in his aunt's former living room.
Neo Tiew estate — where his aunt used to live and where his mum ran a food stall in the 90s — had become the Singapore Armed Force's (SAF's) military training ground for urban operations.
Revisiting the place as part of his National Service (NS) training in 2008 was "surreal", said the now 30-year-old.
It also led him to reimagine the abandoned estate as if it were still occupied. The result was a panoramic drawing that appeared in 2SG (NS) Lee's first solo exhibition, Sayang Singapura, in 2016, and later compiled into a book of the same name.
While other artists draw landscape and people, 2SG (NS) Lee focuses on capturing stories and forgotten details.
Story behind each drawing
If you visited his most recent exhibition In Our Time, at the Singapore Art Museum from May to August, you would have seen a large mural of Singapore crammed full of iconic images from the past and present.
You might have also caught the artist himself, standing out from the crowd in his flight suit. Just like his artwork, 2SG (NS) Lee is cheerful, a little quirky and full of stories to share.
He could tell you about the architect behind the now-defunct Queenstown cinema who was happy to see his work recorded in the mural; or how his mum was "almost killed" at the old Outram Park estate when someone threw a glass bottle that landed right in front of her.
It is apparent that both memories and research are paramount to 2SG (NS) Lee's work. For In Our Time, he consulted maps and old photos from the National Archives of Singapore, and even photos from PIONEER (of military camps, platforms and people) to ensure a certain level of accuracy in his depictions.
A serious hobby
He started doodling since young, due to the influence from books on architectural drawing and Chinese comics such as Lian Huan Hua in his uncle's personal library. But while an undergraduate in the National University of Singapore's School of Architecture, he stopped drawing for a year due to a lack of motivation and fear of not being good enough.
It was only when he picked up Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle's Chronicles from the Holy City did his drawing take off again.
"He depicted his travel to places like Jerusalem and Pyongyang. It reminded me of The Adventures of Tintin and I was inspired to draw again...So I imagined Tintin visiting local places like Seletar or Tekong, and I haven't stopped drawing since."
By the time he graduated in 2015, 2SG (NS) Lee was already known for his comic impressions of local landscapes. His prints are currently sold at home-grown stores Naiise and Independent Market. He has also amassed a significant online following.
The military & I
Many of 2SG (NS) Lee's illustrations contain unmistakable glimpses of the SAF — an NSman mid-commute in the peak hour crowd; or fighter jets flying above the Singapore skyline. One of his favourite pieces is a 360-illustration of the inside of a Leopard tank, which he took about a week to finish.
"I have a colourful memory of my NS, part of which significantly influenced the subject matter I illustrate," admitted 2SG (NS) Lee, who served as a platoon sergeant at the Basic Military Training Centre (located on Pulau Tekong) and is now a Cyberwarrior at SAF Wargame Centre.
It is with this sentimental approach that he decided to adapt his illustration of Pulau Tekong for PIONEER.
His time in the army gave him a humorous style which he injects into his work. They contain unexpected characters, for instance a Star Wars Stormtrooper interacting with other SAF soldiers.
Such humour was built over various encounters in his NS: from helping a Hong Kong-born recruit deliver Malay commands by teaching him how to pronounce the words, to laughing at how a soldier had a durian fall on his head (he was wearing a helmet) only to have everyone checking on the durian instead of him.
"These things made NS memorable...Leaving NS and going into university and work, I find having humour helps in tackling everyday stresses and making the tough days go by more easily," said the full-time Architectural Associate at DP Architects.
"NS is part of Singapore's landscape and architecture. And the lives that grew around it are just as integral to the Singapore landscape and identity."