Behind Penang’s Instagrammable street art, a tale of desperation and hope

By Opalyn Mok
Mohd Azmi Mohd Hussin said the state needs to set up a space for street artists to do live drawing and sell their art. — Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, March 3 — Mohd Azmi Mohd Hussin has been making a living from drawing caricatures on the streets of Penang’s heritage enclave for the past four years.

Since then, the talented artist has authored two comic books, The Tanjong Life, about Penang and The Little Mamak, about the “mamak” culture based on his own life.

Despite his achievements to date, the 33-year-old full-time artist remains fearful for his future and those in his chosen profession.

“We don’t have a proper space for us so we will have to set up at roadsides with high pedestrian traffic. But sometimes, if the weather is bad, this means that day’s income is gone,” he told Malay Mail Online in an interview this week.

“In Europe, street artists are everywhere to draw portraits and caricatures but here, we don’t see such things and yet, I know there are so many talented young artists in Penang. It’s just that they don’t have a proper space for them,” he said.

To Mohd Azmi, the state government could allay the fears of local artists like him by providing a space for them to do live drawings or to sell their art. It would encourage local talents while at the same time showcase Penang’s talents.

Passion born from desperation

The self-taught artist started drawing on the streets in 2013 out of sheer desperation. All he had on him then was RM2 and he had to buy diapers and groceries for his family.

He impulsively took his marker pens and drawing board to Fort Cornwallis at Padang Kota and started drawing pictures of tourists, charging them RM10 for each caricature.

“I was so broke and I couldn’t get a job when I noticed a lot of tourists at the Padang Kota area and an idea came to my mind. I thought, maybe I could draw caricatures and sell it to them so I can immediately get some money,” he said.

“I remember my very first customer, a French old man, who was really nice. It took me 30 minutes to draw the caricature then and it was really ugly but he didn’t mind, he smiled and liked it and paid me RM10 and at that moment, the RM10 was like RM10,000 to me.”

He made RM200 on his first day there. But more than that, Mohd Azmi also realised then that he wanted to draw full-time. So he continued going back there until the city council enforcement officers came.

“They told me I wasn’t allowed to set up a stall there so I had to stop going there. In Penang, there are no licences for street artists. I can’t even apply for a licence and there didn’t seem to be any laws on where we can or cannot set up to do live drawing,” he said.

So he went hunting for a place to work without worrying about enforcement officers and finally found a space to rent at the Interactive 3D Museum. Today, he is no longer based there because his schedule is now packed with other projects.

“I will still continue to do live caricatures at different spots in town. Sometimes at the corner of Armenian Street, because this is my livelihood, it is immediate cash that I can use,” he said.

Survival

Mohd Azmi stressed that his artistic lifestyle is far from glamorous and is instead filled with a lot of hard work. He juggles many different projects, from drawing and painting murals for businesses to holding live drawings at festivals and setting up stalls to draw live caricatures.

“Authoring two comic books does bring me some income but it is not enough. I need to continue drawing caricatures, to go to events, to take on commissioned projects to survive,” he said.

He plans to enlist the help of Penang Deputy Chief Minister I Datuk Rashid Hasnon for his proposal to set up a space for live drawings and caricatures that he hopes can lift one of the worries of artists with no place to go.

Right now, he has his eye on the council stalls along Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling “right in front of the mosque” as it is popular with tourists. Mohd Azmi believes a proper fixed art space or art street will not only bring in spending tourists but also help promote the local talents and educate the public, particularly Malaysians, on art and appreciation for the arts.

“Now, I notice a lot of people, mostly Malaysians, do not know how to appreciate art. They only know how to go to the murals to take photos because it is what everyone does. Most of them don’t even know the artist, they don’t know who drew the murals, they don’t even appreciate it, they only want to pose and take photos with it,” he said.

He hopes to also correct the misconception that caricatures are portraits and should depict an exact likeness of the person.

“Many people do not understand that a caricature is not a portrait. It is supposed to be an exaggeration of a person’s unique feature. They don’t understand this and some even refused to pay me because they say the caricature is not like them,” he said.

But he added that he has told those unhappy clients that they need not pay him. He also said he has a collection of those rejected pieces and will one day use them in a book to educate people on caricatures.

As part of his education drive and to raise funds for charity, the artist will be attempting a 24-hour caricature drawing feat outside Masjid Kapitan Keling from March 18 at 9am and ending at 9.40am March 19.

It will also be his bid to be listed in the Malaysia Book of Records for “the most number of live caricature drawing in 24 hours attempt”. To beat the record, he will need to draw at least 250 caricatures within that period.

Mohd Azmi said he will be drawing for free that day. Those who want their caricatures drawn can instead drop the money into a donation box at his stall.

All donations collected that day will be in aid of Persatuan Tongkat Putih Pulau Pinang, Cancer Society of Malaysia and Kidney Foundation of Malaysia.