GEORGE TOWN, March 16 — He became a full-time caricature artist back in 2013 out of desperation but today, he has two comic books under his belt with plans for more books.
Mohd Azmi Mohd Hussin has always loved to draw and despite being told that drawing caricatures and comics is not a reliable career choice, he persevered.
The author of Tanjong Life and The Little Mamak used to get punished for drawing caricatures of his teachers in school but that did not stop him from pursuing his passion many years later.
The 33-year-old will be attempting a 24-hour caricature drawing feat from March 18-19 in a bid to be listed in the Malaysia Book of Records for “the most number of live caricature drawing in 24 hours”.
He will be drawing caricatures free of charge on that day but donations are welcome. All donations collected on that day will be in aid of Persatuan Tongkat Putih Pulau Pinang, Cancer Society of Malaysia and Kidney Foundation of Malaysia.
Here, Mohd Azmi, who goes by the name ME in his books, talks about his beginnings as a caricature artist, the local art scene and his hopes for the future.
In his own words:
When I was in kindergarten, I won an art competition for the first time… so every time the school had an art competition, I would enter and most of the time I would win. After graduating high school, I became interested in extreme sports… I represented Penang for BMX Riding.
After marriage, I worked as a concrete technician at IJM for a few years, then I joined the polis bantuan, after that, I entered the art scene. I initially wanted to do it as a part time job but ended up I resigned from the polis bantuan and get into art full time because I needed money. When drawing, you can earn money on the spot. One day, I only have RM2.50 and my wife asked me to buy stuff for my kids, you know, milk and Pampers, all dah habis. That was at the end of 2013. Then I don’t know what to do. That time I was sitting in Padang Kota Lama and I saw some tourists walking into Fort Cornwallis. Then, suddenly I thought, if I draw them, maybe they will give me money. So I went back, I took my drawing board and I come here and I sat there, on one of the stones. I wrote on a piece of paper, Live Caricature for RM10, and I stuck it on a stone and I sat there. I still remember one old man from France. He’s my first customer. I draw him for about 30 minutes and the drawing was terrible, it was not good at all, really not like him at all. But he seems to know why I’m doing this, maybe he can feel my struggle, my suffering, he just smiled and say, this is something funny, even though it doesn’t look like him. He paid me the RM10. That time, I feel like the RM10 is like RM10,000, okay, I can buy something for my kids today. That day, I really finally realised I want to be an artist. On that day, I made RM200. I drew 20 people and all my drawings were very bad but still I go back with RM200, I’m very happy, I can buy things for my kids.
That time the Made in Penang Interactive Museum just opened at Weld Quay so I go and meet them and told them I want to draw caricature there and they said okay, they can give me space to try a few weeks. After that, my situation improved. I can earn like RM100, RM150 one day. It was a good income to me at that time. I just ended my agreement with them. I got a new small office in Chulia Street now so I shift all my things there. I want to focus more on doing events.
There is no licence for street artists here. There is no such thing. In KL, they have a special pass for street artists, if you see in Bukit Bintang or near Central Market… now the artists have special pass so they can sit anywhere and draw, as long as they are not disturbing people. Here, we don’t have. I hope the state government will do something about it. Once I’ve done my Malaysia Book of Records, I want to talk about this with YB or CM.
I am very influenced by Datuk Lat. I like his comics a lot. He is my idol. So, if you look at my art, it is very influenced by Datuk Lat’s style. So, I have a dream to become like him, not Datuk lah, but to be a good artist like him. So, I think as a caricature artist, to make people know more about me, I had to do a comic book so I started with Tanjong Life. It is a story about Penang food and life here. Once I had done a few pages of Tanjong Life, I start to search for a publisher. My work was rejected by 14 companies all over Malaysia, some in Penang. They said now is not the time to publish comic. They said comic is very hard to sell. I only get a reply from Rosalind, from Clarity Publishing, a Penang publisher. Once they accept to publish my book, I went to meet another cartoonist, his name is also Mie, Abang Mie. He’s a good friend of Datuk Lat and I told him I wanted to meet Datuk Lat so he told me that if Datuk Lat comes to KL, he will call me. So, there was a caricature exhibition in KL, I went there and Abang Mie introduced me to Datuk Lat. I showed him my work, he gave me some advice and invited me to his house in Ipoh. After one month, I went to meet him personally in Ipoh and I invite him to come to my book launching. He agreed and he came to launch my first book, it was like a dream come true. I launched my first book on February 14, 2015. My name is Azmi but my friends used to call me, Mie. At first, I wanted to put Mie but there’s already Abang Mie so I used ME instead. It’s very easy to remember and it’s simple.
I launched The Little Mamak last year in August. When I first met Datuk Lat in his house, he asked me why I did Tanjong Life, then I said I want to promote Penang in cartoon style. Then he asked me why I don’t do a story about myself and I said who would want to read a story about me. Nothing special about me, I’m just a normal person. He said, same like him, when he was drawing the Kampung Boy, he never thought it would be a bestseller like now. Kampung Boy now comes in nine different languages all over the world. So, I go back and I was thinking what’s special about me. Suddenly, came the idea that I should do a mamak culture book. Nobody has done it before. The Little Mamak, I made it simple… It’s my childhood story.
I’m the only mamak boy in school at that time so everyone call me mamak. I don’t know why everyone called me mamak so I went back to ask my grandmother. She said it’s nothing, mamak means uncle, in Tamil it’s mama, but the slang, it sounded like mamak. I said I’m not an uncle, I’m just a little boy, why they call me mamak. She can’t explain it to me so I can’t blame her.
As an artist, it’s not like during Lat’s era anymore. He’s just a cartoonist and he can survive, he doesn’t have to do murals, take on projects, he’s just a cartoonist and he can survive. Nowadays, as a cartoonist, it’s not easy to survive, you cannot just focus on do a comic book and earn a living. So, like me, I’m doing cartooning, I’m also doing caricature full time, also doing murals for schools, cafes and recently Eastin Hotel also asked me to draw murals in their rooms, so we have to be open to anything as an artist. It’s not easy. These are just to cover monthly expenses. At least once a month, I need one project, in order to survive.
Every day I will continue to do caricatures, it’s my daily routine. It’s fast money, you draw in 10 minutes, you get RM10. You get your pocket money every day. On weekends, every Sunday, I’m at Occupy Beach Street. Saturdays, sometimes I go to events or I go to Chulia Street at Rashid’s gallery there. Sometimes I go to Armenian Street but if it’s raining, I tak buka.
Tanjong Life will reprint second edition. The first edition, 1,500 copies, is now almost sold out. The Little Mamak, we already sold 600 to 700 copies already, we printed 1,500 copies. My books are available at major bookstores. I’ve sent my proposal to Think City for my third book. I want to do a Bagan story during the early 1990s when it was a happening place. This is from my childhood stories, I grew up there. For future, I plan to do a book on caricature. Because sometimes people thought caricature is cartoon or comic. Caricatures exaggerate your features… sometimes, people can’t accept the caricatures. They think I’m making fun of them or they think it’s not them. I always have this policy. If you are not happy, I won’t take your money. One time, one lady, she don’t want to pay me because she says it’s not like her, she just can pay me RM10. You know, she throw the money at me, like sampah. I took the money, I call her and give her back. If you don’t respect me never mind, but please respect my art. If you don’t want the drawing, I can keep it but you should know how to treat people, I make a living doing this. Then she apologised. I wasn’t angry, I just want her to know. That’s my experience.