What made Vishavjit Singh, a Sikh American, become a cartoonist? Fascinated with his work, I asked him this and other existential questions. His replies follow:
A single cartoon capturing my predicament as a turbaned and bearded American in post-9/11 America was the spark that led me down the path of cartooning. An animated cartoon by Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist Mark Fiore in response to the hate crime wave after 9/11 portrayed a Sikh man along with many others targeted by bigots. It was a poignant moment of Mark stepping into my shoes, or I should say, my turban, as an artist. I felt as if he had entered my head and captured adverse reaction of fellow Americans to my countenance following 9/11. Weeks later I lifted my right index finger to start creating cartoons using touchpad on my computer. A year later Sikhtoons.com was born to host my portrayal of bearded, turbanful cast of issues and characters from around the globe.
What do you feel distinguishes you from other satirists? It’s the characters and impulses sketched with my digital finger that distinguish me from other satirists. Sikhs, with their turbans and beard, stand out in the crowd, leave a visual imprint with a long life in our memories but are absent in news media, entertainment, art and our broader imagination. I use cartoons to capture the incredibly dynamic world of 25 million Sikhs around the globe along with my real-life experiences on the streets of America. It’s all about unwrapping people’s rigid assumptions covering their gray matter to wrap their heads around soft and tender turbanful visions.
How does being a Sikh influence how you see New York? I am a Sikh along with many other labels that can be used to define me. It’s not one of the labels that sculpts the filter through which I see New York. It’s a combination of my time and geography-spanning trajectory that most informs how I see New York. I first moved to New York from California a year before 9/11 with a stereotype of a fast-paced, rude city. But its architecture, urban jungles, streets, people, landscape with deep history seeping through its veins made me fall in love. This city feeds my soul, which in turn influences how I perceive the human drama around the globe.
We’re all identifiable, but some less than others. I’m Jewish, but I could pass for something else. You identify yourself through dress. How does this impact your life in NYC? We humans have a tremendous bias towards the visual sense. It might be evolutionary but it has its downside. For many New Yorkers and others, the sight of a turban and beard is packed with assumptions that feeds into prevalent stereotypes. It abruptly stops the narrative of our dynamic interactions. Rather than wonder about the mystery of me as a stranger, so many people think with a certain surety about my origins and beliefs. Young, old, black, white and Hispanic have all fallen victims to this malady and addressed me with calls of ‘Osama,’ ‘Taliban,’ ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Go back home.’ I take this all in, cook it in a curry stew of sarcasm-flavored cartoons with the hope of serving a perception-busting gustatory experience.
Do you feel part of or left out of the City and the U.S.? Despite the challenges of standing out in the crowd and occasional run-ins with collective ignorance, fears and anxieties, I very much feel part of the City and U.S. Strangers from all corners of our country with diverse backgrounds have embraced me with their support for my artistic pursuits. I am in deep gratitude for the freedoms afforded by our constitution that for the most part we take for granted. We cartoonists have a special affinity for freedom of speech. I totally relish being an American with our idiosyncrasies and will to innovate, no matter the brick walls in our way.
For more on Singh, go here.
Print’s International Design Issue Don’t miss the latest issue of Print, spotlighting Cuban poster design, calligraphic graffiti around the world, a profile of the United Nations’ in-house design team, a look at international airline safety cards, and much more. Get it on your favorite device—or, of course, in print.