We chat with Toby Tan about turning his passion into a career, his milestones, and the interests he's picked up along the way.
As someone who has followed Toby Tan’s art journey for a while now, you could say I’m a fan. On social media, the 28-year-old artist presents himself with an incredibly positive air. And he’s pretty much the same in person. He greets me with a cheery tone and maintains it as he explains the new mural he’s completed on Orchard Road. Decked out in his Novablast Asics sneakers and a red G-Shock watch that both feature his design work, his outfit speaks volumes of the pride he has for his projects – all without saying a word.
Introducing the ever-whimsical Tobyato
Having just recovered from Covid when I meet him, Toby keeps a safe distance from me. He opts to keep his mask on even though we’re outside (but he obliges when I ask him to take it off for a picture). He tells me he’s doing much better now, but he has to play catchup for work and get the rhythm back.
“As sad as it sounds, art is pretty much my whole life,” he says sheepishly when I ask what interests he pursues in his free time. But he tells me that streetwear and a curiosity for craft beer are two that come to mind (his favourite is sour beer, btw!).
“My art career got me way more into street culture than I could have on my own. There’s a big overlap there, which is nice. But then again it just gets absorbed into my work,” Toby jokes. He demonstrates with his hands that if there were a Venn diagram of his work and interests, they’d more than likely share the same bubble.
His first taste of art as a career
Contrary to what you might believe, art was never Toby’s initial career path. Instead, his education led him to the science stream through his years in junior college.
“But I always enjoyed drawing,” he tells me. “I drew on my worksheets and my foolscap pads. I didn’t write my name on the worksheet – just doodles. And the teacher would know that it’s mine.”
While waiting for National Service to start, he looked for something to fill up his free time. That led him to Studio Haroobee, which was looking for a part-time art teacher. In an almost thankful tone, he explains that the owner took a leap of faith as he had no prior art experience. She helped Toby put together a portfolio that got him into the School of Art, Design, and Media at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Almost 10 years later, in 2021, Toby had the opportunity to return and paint the front of Studio Haroobee’s newest shop in Marina Square as a full-time artist. Talk about a full-circle moment!
Since he spent some time at Imperial College on an exchange program, I ask if he ever considered starting his art career in London. “I didn’t even think about it,” he responds without missing a beat. “My mindset has always been the same – to come back to Singapore.” Considering how deeply his roots have been placed with the beginning of his art journey, I can see why Toby’s grown so fond of the local scene.
Being behind the curve gave him motivation
Toby credits his drive to the late start he had when pursuing art. Unlike most of his peers, he entered art school with no resources and no skills in any design software. “I did a lot outside of school. I taught myself how to use Illustrator, networked, and did freelance projects,” he lists. These baby steps in his career set a tone for him through his development.
If you ask Toby what style he has, he doesn’t have a straight answer. “Style is just a combination of preferences and it builds over time,” he explains. While you can take inspiration from an artist or dedicate yourself to a specific medium, that doesn’t resonate with Toby. “You can choose it, but it’s not something I want to decide for myself.”
That being said, there are a lot of recurring themes in Toby’s art. Trained as a designer, his process starts with briefs and mood boards that get broken down and combined with the message he intends to convey. But a lot of his art remains heavily Asian-inspired: “Because as a Chinese artist, if I don’t tack in my own culture, who will?”
Why drawing on walls is the crux of his “accessible art” philosophy
Toby’s intention is all about creating engaging and accessible art – no matter the location, medium, or even the subjects he paints. Long-time Tobyato fans will know what I’m talking about. We’ve seen Toby give away countless free stickers and keychains over the years. It’s all a matter of visibility and resonance. It’s the reason why most of his subjects are animals, too!
Take his Somerset mural, for example. Done in collaboration with Lendlease, Toby was asked to create something to present the collective vision of the public for the upcoming space. Drawing inspiration from the community, his mural features a phoenix that symbolises rebirth and renewal. This is in light of the car park being transformed into a new event space.
“Art in Singapore is always stigmatised to be in galleries and museums, but it doesn’t only have to be that way,” he explains. “Singaporeans have this mindset of looking at the artwork and then looking for the answer sheet. Because you have this preconceived notion that you can be wrong. Art is never wrong,” he says with a shrug of his shoulders. I wish everyone perceives art the same way he does.
So, how did he achieve so much in just three years?
There’s no denying that Toby’s portfolio is incredibly impressive. In just three years as a full-time artist, he’s already bagged clients like Netflix, Vayner Media and Esquire. Not to mention the slew of collaborations he’s done with brands like Asics, Uniqlo and Hugo Boss. You might think there was some “big break” that led to his quick rise to fame, but Toby disagrees.
“It’s more of a steady climb,” he claims, thinking back to the chain reaction of events that led up to key moments in his career. “For my final year project in university, I painted basketball courts around Singapore. That was quite well received,” he recalls. This led to collaborations with G-Shock and Adidas – all because they saw his first mural.
It has also resulted in some memorable experiences. Knowing his fondness for soccer, I ask about the Manchester trip with Chivas where he played soccer with other creatives. Toby lights up excitedly, ready to share. “People don’t understand how rare it is to step on the Old Trafford pitch. It’s impossible. I think I’m the only one in Singapore who can say I drew my way onto the pitch,” he reminisces. “That will forever go down as a Tobyato highlight.”
The realities of being a one-man show
Doing something you love seems like a dream, and Toby makes it work. However, a journey like this isn’t without its challenges. The reality? He isn’t actually doing as much art as he’d like to.
“Being an artist is very much like running your own business,” he equates. After all, you have to pitch and prep for a project before you can execute one. This means wearing many hats – besides being the artist, he’s also the project manager, marketer and boss. Striking a balance between all of this was arguably one of his biggest struggles during his first year as a full-time artist. “Admin and numbers are my weak spot, but they have to be done,” he laughs.
This also means drawing a line in the sand between what he used to love as a hobby and what has now become his career. “It’s about managing your own expectations; how you view something you used to love,” he explains. Toby admits there are aspects of art he enjoys a little less now. Because instead of art being something he wants to do, it’s now something he must do.
I find his perspective to be refreshing in a world where we glamourise the creative path. It’s a realistic take on what happens when you turn your passion into your career. With this cloud comes silver linings. He doesn’t draw much for himself anymore, but this isn’t something he harps on. There are no regrets about the path he’s chosen because he finds himself making a greater impact. “I lose some, I gain some,” he concludes merrily.
The challenges of a more accepting art scene
Toby agrees that a more accepting arts scene is a step in the right direction. But he also has a practical view of what the potential outcome looks like. “I’m fully aware it’ll bring its own challenges,” he says. As with most saturated career paths, it becomes a fight to be noticed. While recognition of art as a viable career is a fantastic shift, it means an increase in (perhaps cutthroat) competition.
So, how do we alleviate this? “The first thing is to not gatekeep,” he says, explaining how some artists have that tendency. “They think ‘I’ve worked so hard and I’ve struggled so much’ – so you enjoy it for yourself. But then it’s going to die with you.”
With Toby’s own philosophy so deeply rooted in sharing, you can see why this strikes a chord with him. “Take on projects and bring in other artists,” he advises. “I invite the artists that reach out to me to come and paint.” It’s about creating a platform and an opportunity for new artists to step into the space.
One piece of advice he has for budding artists out there: “Stop chasing a kick-off point; stop chasing a big break because it’s not the only way to make it. Everybody’s path will be different, and that’s okay. Focus on your strengths, work with people who can do better, and learn.”
Looking into the future with no regrets
“If Tobyato ends after three years, so be it. I’m okay with that,” Toby says candidly. I’m taken aback. After he’s worked so hard to build himself up as an artist, it’s hard for me to believe he can swallow losing the fruits of his labour.
“I’ve lived the full-time artist career without regrets,” he explains. “If, for whatever reason, I fade into irrelevance and have to find a full-time job, then I will. I’m practical enough to make that choice.” I’m pleasantly surprised by his outlook (but also hope this won’t be the case any time soon).
It’s heartwarming to see artists like Toby thrive in Singapore, and I’m determined to continue supporting local talents who bravely put themselves out there. Looking forward, he tells me about his plans to open a studio space for artists like himself to create. For now, I leave the conversation feeling refreshed and walk away with plenty of food for thought (and free Tobyato stickers, yay!).