I already was.
“So why do you do this? For awareness or something?” His colleague is curious too, staring beside us. They’ve flown in from Shanghai for a visit. Now they’re in my living room, casting shadows over my furniture, staring at my work. Because it’s fun, I smile. They’re puzzled.
I’ve learned—after being asked the question dozens of times—that ‘because it’s fun’ is a decent answer. It’s true. It’s fast to explain. It’s easy to understand. It’s true, so I use it here with my two guests. But this Hungarian man flown in from China is still puzzled.
“OK, sure, it’s fun for the other person,” the man says. He’s working things out in his brain. “…You meet someone new and they get a picture, but…” It’s fun, I cut in, to make old women on trains smile. I get on the train, see a frowning white-haired German woman, and when she sees her drawing, she beams. It’s fun to get on a train, make seventeen people smile, and get off. How can you not have a huge grin after that? No matter how the day went, whether it’s raining or cold outside, it just makes your day.
He doesn’t get it. But he sees that I mean it. From my intonation, my facial expressions, the way I gesture, he can see this isn’t just small talk to me.
You asked if I have some plan for this? When I started drawing, it was comics and illustrations. Then six years ago I found people like it when I draw their pictures. Just in September I was invited by the city of Munich’s department of culture to a festival. They wanted me to just sit there, and draw people. That’s it. Over ten hours, I drew seventy-six. My hands were hurting, my back was hurting, I was worn out—but I made so many people smile. Just looking at the crowd watching me, listening to me, how do you beat that?
I don’t monologue often. But tonight I do, those questions echoing in my head:
“Is this just a hobby, or are you building something with this?”
“Are you doing this for awareness or something?”
I don’t know.
“You should have your website on here,” the man says, after taking a closer look at the symbols scribbled on the side of the portrait. The lamp isn’t too bright. The Hungarian man furrows his brows, then lifts them. “Oh! You already do! Nice!”
I remember two years ago, being offended when someone told me to invest in my own domain name. I had been using a free webhosting platform. My web address was buried behind the platform’s. “It looks way better if you have your own domain,” the man on the rocking night train said. He was condescending. “…Otherwise, it doesn’t look very professional.” I’m drawing people for free, I answered back. And I write my website on there for their benefit. Why should someone expect me to pay money to remove a few letters from the domain?
It seemed offensive to be expected to dig into my own pocket for something I already invest in: with my time, with my paper, with my ink. But a year later I took the man’s advice. Now I pay the fee for a cleaner website, so people I give portraits to for free, can better enjoy what I’ve already given them. Is that crazy?
“Are you building something with this?”
I don’t know. I’ve typed around forty-thousand words on Instagram describing my experiences drawing. That’s around the length of the book The Great Gatsby. For me? No. So people I give portraits to for free, can better enjoy what I’ve already given them. Is that crazy?
But it’s fun.
It’s a cold January night. After dinner, walking up the steps to my building, I don’t expect to hear voices in my apartment. I don’t expect to find two strangers inside. They’re taking a look at the rooms, checking if they’d like to rent it. Because in a moment, I’ll be moving to the other side of the world.
I wait around as my landlord shows one of them the kitchen a second time. Hey, I tell the other, who now sits in my living room. He’s bored after a long day of meetings, scrolling through his phone. Would you like to see a parlor trick?
Three minutes later my landlord and the other guest are done with the tour. “Did you know he can do drawings?” this guest holds up the portrait I just drew of him. He’s totally shocked. My landlord responds: “Yeah,” with a smug smile. “I have one too. I think he draws everyone.” The Hungarian guest, finished with the tour, is confused. “Where did you get that? Who drew that?” he asks. Me. Do you have two minutes for a picture?
“You have a hidden skill there,” the man in my living room says. He stares at me; at his portrait. He’s working things out in his brain. My landlord is busy downstairs. “Do you feel like you’re wasting your time where you are? Is this just a hobby, or are you building something with this?” I don’t know. I think it through. I reply slowly. If I were building something with this, the ends and the means are the same. Six years ago I found people like when I draw their pictures. Since then, more and more of my life has been consumed with it. If drawing people is building towards something…it’s to draw more people.