Artist Chhoun Vichheka started doodling at a late age. It was two years ago. He was 21 years old.
Vichheka grew up poor in Kampong Chhnang province with five younger siblings. He seems born to be an artist: his uncle painted temples, and his father was also a self-taught painter.
“In primary school, I learned how to draw from my father and my uncle,” he says. “They inspired me to continue down this path.”
The third-year interior design student at SETEC Institute is now at the forefront of a new sort of hip, urban art: wall doodling.
Vichheka started Cambodia Doodle Club in 2014 with two other “doodle artists”, Chhoun Kakada and Ngin Yunan. Vichheka is the leader: he conceives of the designs, and they all put them on walls with pen and marker. The group have been commissioned for works around the city and even in the provinces.
At a restaurant in Tuol Kork this week, the doodlers were taking over a white wall. Vichheka’s designs look like advanced scribbles from a bored student’s notebook – for a while, they were. Mostly colourless, though intricately mapped out, he fills them with detail, inane objects and strange characters.
The artist’s inspiration is widespread, and he says he’d like to embrace more Khmer design. “Whenever I draw, I like to include Khmer style, cultural items, flowers and modern style,” Vichheka explains. “The concept is different depending on the shop platform.”
In the beginning, he spent a lot of time looking at designs on the internet. He says he takes inspiration from Filipino artist Kerby Rosanes, who runs a blog called Sketchy Stories. “He is so creative,” Vichheka says. (Rosanes’ black-and-white drawings are perhaps even more packed with interlocked figures and objects than Vichheka’s.)
Vichheka moved to Phnom Penh in 2011, seeking to sharpen his talent through an arts education. He started working as a waiter to support himself – he earned $38 a month, he says. He soon quit, and found his calling. “I didn’t have a job, but I was lucky: a milk-tea shop owner asked me to draw on the wall for his restaurant,” Vichheka recalls. He soon got a job at the Singaporean franchise, and continued his studies.
At the café, his manager suggested he draw on coffee cups for a display. Young people started to come in and ask him to draw on their coffee cups; they would give him up to $5. “I was so happy to get my first income from painting, but I would spend a whole day for one cup,” he laughs.
When Vichheka posted his doodles from the café on Facebook, they went viral. Soon, he was doodling everywhere. His drawings now grace the walls of a host of Phnom Penh businesses, from backpacker bar Top Banana to upscale street food joint De’ Bao.
And he’s no longer earning pocket change. “I can get $300 for one week of painting with creative design,” Vichheka says. And his work is gaining him respect as an artist: this year, he’s exhibited at K.E. Café and at Chaktomuk Conference Hall.
While it all started as a hobby, Vichheka has now proudly taken on the title of the pre-eminent doodle artist in the Kingdom. And he has similarly sized ambitions.
“My purpose of illustrating is to bring different creative concepts to Cambodia, to inspire young people and to make Cambodian artworks valuable to the world,” he says.