Release Date: Jul 8, 2017

Last month, we caught up with Alvin Mark Tan, a traditional oil painter who has spent time capturing the Singapore coffee scene through his art. We had a great time together visiting a couple of cafes in Tokyo and it was a great pleasure watching him draw at Dun Aroma in Toritsu-Daigaku. We asked him some questions when he got back to Singapore about his time spent in Japan and his recent book capturing coffee culture in Singapore.

Vaughan: Alvin, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

Alvin: I’m an oil painter practicing Natural Realism. (Natural as to how the human eye sees as oppose to how a camera records an image.) I just returned to Singapore last Fall after learning this traditional method of painting in Florence, Italy, for 3 and a half years. I also sketch a lot (in ink and watercolour) as these are complementary skills to oil painting, but I allow myself to stay diverse when doing these. You will find me painting in oil and sketching in ink and watercolour wherever I go, even when I travel overseas.

Vaughan: So, you’ve just had a little stint in Japan – what was the purpose of the trip and tell us about one or two highlights.

Alvin: I came to Japan to sketch and paint. I also used the opportunity to check out the art scene since I have been away from Asia for awhile. I met up to sketch with artists here like the Urban Sketchers Tokyo and a good illustrator friend of mine Junel Fujinuki. I wish I had more time to meet other artists face to face, but I will connect with them on social media.

Vaughan: It was great to spend some time with you at Dun Aroma -one of my favourite cafes in Japan – what did you think?

Alvin: The layout and space of Dun Aroma for me as an artist is great for sketching too. That is the first thing I notice when I step into a coffeeshop, and Dun Aroma definitely has a cozy, unique looking space with all the old school antiques and furniture. I ordered a Kenya blend which was deliciously palatable on a warm day.

I love how Kaminaga-san is preserving this traditional way of making coffee. It is good to know there are still some of us in this day and age (where everything is moving forward so quickly) who not only understands the essence of a craft, but also dedicate their time in preserving and keeping that craft alive.

Vaughan: What do you usually like to draw?

Alvin: I love to oil paint scenes of daily life and old heritage buildings when I am outdoors, especially in in Asia where fewer places have been captured using oil painting (which is more a western medium). When I am not oil painting, I love making quick sketches in ink in cafes.
Here’s an example of an oil painting done on location:

Vaughan: You’ve recently released your book LA KOPI. CONGRATULATIONS!!! Tell us all about it.

Alvin: Thank you. : )
Coffee is one of the most popular beverages in Singapore. But how many of us know what it takes to brew a cuppa? I returned from Italy and rediscovered the coffee culture here through oils, inks, watercolours and videos. In my first sketchbook brew dedicated to my hometown Singapore, I really tried to plunge into the coffee scene to see how it has percolated throughout the island.

Vaughan: It’s beautiful! Where can we buy a copy?

Alvin: Here!

Vaughan: Can you tell us about a couple of interesting things you’ve seen in your time drawing at cafes in Singapore?

Alvin: When I interviewed the older generation about the coffee scene in Singapore, I heard so many stories about the past I never knew existed. Like how in the 1960s, coffee shop goers would bring fighting fish in jars to compete and gamble in the traditional local coffeeshops. Also how spittoons were found under each table during that time.

Also, I visited a traditional Singapore coffee powder distributor that has been roasting coffee for the last 70 years. The roasting machines and grinder belonging to the owner were passed down by his father. Note: Traditional coffee in Singapore has that one last step during the roasting stage that adds sugar and margarine to caramelize the roasted beans.

Vaughan: In your view, why do you think people love cafes and coffee so much?

Alvin: If the setting is comfortable and right, the coffee bar or shop provides an environment for people to put away their mobile devices and get together to share stories.

Vaughan: And finally, your favourite cafe in the world and why?

Alvin: At the moment, it’s Bolshe Coffee in St. Petersburg. This cafe is built inside a real grotto with history that goes back to the Tsarist era.


You can connect with Alvin here:
IG: @alvinmark (oil painting), @alfdoodles (inks, watercolours)


Interview by Vaughan (@vja)
Photography by Nik van der Giesen (@nvdg81)

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