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10th August 2022 EDT FEATURES

[Interview] How to Start Your Own Creative Studio in Singapore: Tell Your Children

We paid homegrown creative collective Tell Your Children a visit at their studio-shop space, and find out what they've been up to lately!


By Louis Teo
Photography by Anton Karve

Tell Your Children is a Singaporean creative collective founded by four friends in 2014. Noticing a lack of opportunities for illustrators, the OG Four, Deon, Russell, Lydia and Kevin, who were all graduates from Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design, came together to found an art collective with a focus on illustration.

The quartet started out by painting wall murals, and, not before long, their vibrant and somewhat quirky illustrations quickly caught the eye of many. In the eight years since, Tell Your Children has gone on to work with global brands like Nike, New Balance and Samsung. The now 7-man-strong studio has also diversified into other creative areas including a podcast and a retail store.

We spent a morning at the TYC studio, which also houses their retail space Neighbor, with Deon and Russell, to catch up on what the team has been up to and what TYC has in store following Singapore’s re-opening after Covid-19.

Tell Your Children Deon Russell

Q. Hi Deon and Russell! Can you tell us how Tell Your Children started?

Russell (R): We were in army and I remember it was just a random meet up at a coffeshop in Simei. Lydia was classmates with us, and Deon had an idea to work together. When we were at the coffeeshop, Kevin was there as well. That’s when Deon pitched to us this idea of starting an art collective.

Deon (D): I mean what brought us all together is we all had similar interests back then. We were all quite interested in streetwear, street art, and just culture in general. We share the same inspiration, same energy, and we were all also inspired by the same cartoons back then, because we were all 90s kids.

R: The idea of the studio just grew from there. When we graduated, most people from our course just go into corporate jobs, like they were in advertising and maybe in-house designers, which wasn’t really what we wanted because the four of us were majors in illustration.

There wasn’t a place that we wanted to work at, and that catered to our interests. So we just thought—why don’t we just come together to try put something out ourselves? That’s how the studio came along.

Tell Your Children Deon Russell

Q: Mural art has become something of a Tell Your Children signature. Was this something you guys set out to achieve?

D: We never thought murals would be a thing, actually. Because I think, for us, we were literally just meeting up to draw on paper and canvases. I think (our first wall mural) was at the Creatory. There was an event and they gave us a booth on the rooftop and said we can do whatever we wanted to the wall. So we just took our illustration, bought black paint and started to paint.

And maybe people like to see large-scale illustrations, versus a piece of paper. That’s how suddenly our art became a lot more visible and recognizable. Then, people began to commission us to do murals.

Q. So, during this time, you guys were working out of your homes.

D: The good thing was we didn’t have goals to hit, you know? Because when we started, we were still in the army, it was more like just meet up at Starbucks and draw.

I remember once we were commissioned for a job and I would just book out of camp at 5 or 6pm to go to the office to paint, and then I’ll just go back to camp at night. We were doing that for a whole week. I guess it was good that we (the guys) were all in the army, like it was kind of like a limbo, with not much pressure.

Q. When did you guys decide to take the studio to the next level?

R: We ORD-ed in 2014 and started TYC full time in 2015. In 2014, we were just doing jobs on site and having fun. And when we counted our money, we realised we actually made $11,000 the whole year. We were like, “eh! $11,000 sounds like a lot of money ah? Ok lah, let’s full time this!”

Tell Your Children Deon Russell

Q. Was it hard at the beginning?

R: To me, it was about keeping momentum, and having projects to sustain the business. I would say the real struggle was just when we made the company official, and then the second was Covid-19. Because now we have rent to pay, we have employees, but work was very slow and a lot of projects got cancelled. Yeah, so that was a really interesting year.

Q. How has TYC grown over the years?

R: We used to function more like an art collective, like jam together and make art. But now it’s more like a studio holding different arms. We have the commercial work, the merchandise arm, and we also do podcast and the shop as well.

D: I think the four of us have grown into very specific roles. For me, I don’t really draw as much, I handle more client and business relations. Kevin handles more of the back end, like finance and admin stuff. And then Russell and Lydia are just full speed on the creative things. I feel like we just slowly evolve into this in a very organic way.

Tell Your Children Bobby Hundreds Carrots

Q. TYC has worked on a number of brand collaborations, including with Nike and New Balance. Personally, which are the ones you are most proud of?

D: There’s this project we did for National Arts Council. We’ve always been engaged as mural artists but last year they asked us to organise an art trail. They gave us the whole budget to work with seven other artists and to curate the whole trail. We did the branding and literally put together the entire thing, so I think that was quite memorable. I think it’s kind of a step up from just being mural artists, in terms of progression of the studio—now we get to curate and hire other mural artists.

R: For me, the, the more impactful ones were our clothing collabs with XLARGE, The Hundreds and Carrots. It was quite interesting to work with XLARGE, then moving on to Hundreds, and then Carrots. It felt like a full circle in a way because we looked up to Bobby Hundreds (co-founder of Hundreds). We have been fans of Hundreds since poly, and the funny thing is, in 2015 when we did our US tour, we actually met Bobby and told him about our group. We kept in contact, and to see our connection last from 2015 last to 2021 to fulfill like this collaboration, it’s kind of surreal.

Q. Are there any other brands that you guys would like to work with?

R: I think the most interesting collaborations are the ones you don’t expect. We are open to whoever is interested or interesting to work with. It doesn’t have to be streetwear because the thing is, it can get quite insular in a sense, like many brands would like to work with your Carhartts, your Nikes… but as long as it’s interesting to put out the product, that is what we are most hyped about.

D: We try to do things outside of like our usual periphery. Like we did a chocolate bar, we did a chair, and we did ceramics. I think that’s something that we try to ensure in every collaboration —is there something new that we can bring to the table that hasn’t been done before?

Tell Your Children Deon Russell

Q: Are there any exciting new plans you can reveal?

D: Something that we’ve been working very hard on is our NFT project. The whole studio feels quite strongly on it, So I think right now our time is split between the shop, commercial work, podcast, the NFTs and the brand… which is quite a lot.

For us, we see it as the future of brand building, because we try to focus on community and I think, in the NFT world, community is quite a big thing. So we do see the potential and the power that this NFT technology can bring to the brand.

R: To add on, we see NFTs as any other medium, so it’s more about how we express ourselves creatively. And for this case, we thought lie why not try this new medium and see where it goes.

Additional photos by Tell Your Children. Special thanks to Deon and Russell.

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