He's one of Thailand's best known and most respected cartoonists. His artwork is edgy and challenging and always right on the money. And now he's released a hardback collection of his cartoons that every fan will want to treasure.
Stephff, welcome to the Ajarn hot seat. Like many others, I've long admired your cartoons on social media but know almost nothing about the man behind the artwork. Fill in a few blanks for us. Where do you come from and how long have you lived in Thailand? Are you married with children?
I am French, 55 years old, and have been living in Thailand since May 1989. I have a Thai wife who I met in 2005 and we got married in 2012. We don't have any children.
Your Twitter profile describes you as a full-time political cartoonist and a painter. Do you come from an 'arty' family? When did you first discover you had a talent for drawing?
My Dad is a painter and an architect so yes, I come from an arty family. I started to draw and paint before I could speak (which worried my parents actually). I have a vivid memory of my time as a 4 year-old child at the kindergarten when I refused to leave school because I hadn't finished my giant colorful parrot painting.
Having said that, I wasn't particularly gifted at drawing back then. There was always another kid in the class who could draw better than me and even my younger brother (who is a teacher) has always drawn better than me too.
As well as your artwork, you're also an avid collector of Thai khon masks apparently? These are elaborate masks worn in Thai dance dramas, right?
Yes in part, but they are mainly used for the Wai Kru ceremony - a Brahmanist ritual that pays respect to teachers with the characters of the Ramayana playing the part of the teachers themselves. And then there are the Ruesee masks which are more a sort of Shamanist mask used for sak yant (Thai tattoo) masters for certain rituals. These are very intense masks and often regarded as low-so folk art by well-educated Thais but by Western standards, they are much more interesting to collect.
I have probably the biggest collection of these Ruesee masks in Thailand.
You were the resident cartoonist at The Nation newspaper for a while. How long did you work for them and what was the working arrangement?
I worked for them for 16 years from 2003 to 2019. I was on a freelance contract and paid per cartoon published. I never received a salary, paid holiday or any end-of-year bonus, etc but they paid me quite well and basically published everything I came up with. Very rarely did they refuse one of my cartoons.
And being freelance meant I could work from home and even from France when I was on holiday there. So overall, I'd say that I was treated fairly and I was happy working there.
I seem to remember though that your working relationship with them didn't end that well?
Well, the management changed to something a bit more conservative shall we say, and while the newspaper continued to publish my cartoons, there were issues with pay and the documentation necessary to process my work permit. I guess at that point we had reached the end of the road.
Have you done regular work for any other newspapers or magazines?
I worked for the Bangkok Post for several months but it didn't really work out. They were choosier about what got published and much of my work was getting declined. I remember three cartoons in particular - one about the Kurds being abandoned by the U.S, one about protesters in Hong Kong and then another cartoon about the Uighur camps in China. This was a frustrating time because they were important issues that I felt very strongly about.
They were also not keen on my 'Farang Affairs' series (cartoons which form the basis for the content of my new book)
When your hard work goes unpublished, you suddenly feel useless, and of course as a freelance employee, you are not getting paid either!
Such is the life of an artist though. There is often an unimpressed third party standing in your way. A person who blocks your work and prevents your fans from getting to enjoy it.
But to end on a positive note, I now do some work for Prachatai English. It's a great online dissident media outlet. They are very human rights-oriented and they defend those without a voice. I'm delighted to work with them and be a part of their team.
Looking back on all the cartoons you've drawn and given Thailand's culture and its sensitivity to criticism, is there one particular drawing that has landed you in hot water?
Ha ha, yes but I can't talk about it. It was an honest mistake as I didn't even realize that I was drawing a cartoon that could get me into trouble. My opinion editor at that time was a great guy though and he spotted the cartoon just before the newspaper went to press. But he told me that he had a sleepless night that night!
Which Thailand character has been a 'cartoonist's dream' (you were quite fond of Thaksin as I recall)?
Thaksin and Prayut (the current Prime Minister) are both cartoonists' dreams as they are both very caricatural. However, you must be careful because it can become a kind of comfortable trap for cartoonists when a leader is too caricatural. Trump for example is becoming too easy to make fun of him and if we cartoonists overdo things, we can be accused by pro-Trump people of being 'lazy libtards'.
But is it our fault if sometimes the target is too easy? Should we stop criticizing Trump for that reason ?
I imagine this Bangkok lock down isn't affecting you too much. I guess when you are locked in your little home studio, surrounded with your art materials, that's your definition of happiness?
Yes, you are absolutely right. The lock down hasn't changed a thing for me. It's like I've been preparing for this moment my whole life. LOL
So would you say that financially it's tough to make a living as a political cartoonist in Thailand?
Well, I was a freelance photographer before I became a cartoonist and that was even worse. Drawing doesn't cost much in terms of equipment and travel expenses. Yes, for most it's not easy to make a good living - but doing what you love in life is a rare privilege is it not? So it's no problem for me.
There were hard times in my early life when I really was penniless. My first room rental in Thailand was 2,500 baht per month and my luxuries were a fan and a fridge! Now I live in total luxury compared to that period. If you want to know exactly, my income with The Nation at the end of last year was 45,000 baht per month. Not a great deal of money really.
Do you pick up much one-off, freelance work, let's say a set of caricatures for a website or a collection of Christmas cards, etc?
No, I don't. I only focus on the things that bring a certain meaningfulness to my life. All of those side-lines you mention, I did a lot when i was younger - just to survive. But if you keep taking on extra work, you realize one day that you simply didn't do what you really wanted to do.
I like your philosophy. Going back to the political cartoon stuff, if you see a media story that you can get your teeth into, I bet the script or the speech bubbles (or whatever you cartoonists call it) can take just as long to come up with as the actual drawing?
Between 30 minutes and three hours depending on the sophistication of the drawing.
We have to talk of course about the hardback collection of cartoons that you've just launched. Is it all of your artwork from a particular era or is it a 'best of' collection or a 'complete works'?
No, it's not a 'best of', it's a very specific theme in fact. It's about all the little misadventures and cultural misunderstandings that a farang meets during his expatriation from the early months to when he becomes "more Thai than the Thais".
I did publish some of this work in the 'Farang Affairs' column in the Nation every Saturday in the past but most of the drawings are new drawings I did specifically for the book, so there will be many cartoons that you haven't seen - even for those who know my work well!
How long have you been working on the book?
About five months.
I wish you all the very best with it Stephff and I'm sure all your fans out there (myself included) will want to know how they can purchase it.
Just drop me an email : firstname.lastname@example.org