Tracing Travels on Instagram: An Interview with Choo Ruizhi (@Messy_Lines)

Going on a Student Exchange Programme (SEP) is often the highlight for many NUS students.

It’s often considered mandatory for students on SEP to post many a photo on Instagram or Facebook, complete with long monologues – on being awestruck by beautiful Barcelonian structures, braving the frigid Lithuanian weather, or travelling solo along America’s Bosh-Wash corridor.

Meet Choo Ruizhi, a Year 3 USP + History student. Instead of the usual Google image-worthy photos, Ruizhi opted for something different: sketching out his exchange trip.

Credit: Choo Ruizhi

Sketches, sightseeing and scenery

During his student exchange to University College Utrecht in the Netherlands, Ruizhi visited about 60 locations across around 15 countries in Europe, all the while sketching his travels.

Sharing them on his Instagram (@messy_lines), his drawings range from historical monuments to breathtaking scenery found in the various cities he visits.

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(From left) Ruizhi’s sketches of the Colosseum in Rome, Köln in Germany, and the rock bastions of the Acropolis of Athens. (Credit: Choo Ruizhi)

“I started sketching for fun while I was attending [an academic] programme in Istanbul,” Ruizhi said. “And sitting in all the seminars and conferences was very boring. So I started sketching. Then I thought, ‘Why not try that when I’m outside travelling?’”

Ruizhi did his first “proper” sketch when he was in Mannheim, Germany. Beyond just taking a picture like any regular mass tourist, he wanted to “reach out, touch it and remember the moment.” Over the course of his exchange, Ruizhi drew between 30 to 40 sketches. “In certain cities, it’s so beautiful – there’s so much beautiful architecture and there’s so much free time for me anyway when I’m travelling, so sometimes, the moment will just catch me,” he said.

Some places were so “picturesque” that they warranted multiple sketches. In Prague, Czech Republic, Ruizhi drew five to eight sketches, simply because there were so many elements of the city that warranted a quick sketch – like a majestic castle and bridge, for example.

While sitting and sketching in a place alone felt a little awkward at first, he soon shook it off. “I realise I don’t really care, and I sort of blended into the surroundings. Sketching allows one to go beyond taking pictures,” Ruizhi said.

“Sitting down and drawing forces you to take notice of the smaller things. … It’s really about soaking in the moment, and that was so much nicer, a slightly deeper experience.”

Each sketch takes Ruizhi around 20 minutes to half an hour to complete, while his longest sketch, a panoramic view of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, drawn from a hilltop, took him about an hour.

“Sitting down and drawing forces you to take notice of the smaller things. … It’s really about soaking in the moment, and that was so much nicer, a slightly deeper experience.”

Ruizhi sees his Instagram account as an “online repository” of sorts for his drawings. “If my drawings are lost tomorrow, if my notebook falls into the sea, it’s no matter to me because I feel like it was more of the process,” he said.

The secret to his sketches

Ruizhi’s self-proclaimed style as an artist is “haphazard and messy”, which is in part why he named his Instagram – @messy_lines – as such. “For me that’s the most liberating. I’m not a precise kind of person. I suffer when I have to be disciplined. I think that was the secret to me trying out [sketching], because I realised I can be messy and it actually looks good!” Now that Ruizhi is back in Singapore, his Instagram followers can look forward to a “different slant” as far as his sketches go.

“It would be nice to try to talk about places in Singapore that no one has really seen. The central philosophy of drawing all these was to slow myself down. Like I’ve done sketches of UTown, and I realise that there are so many things that I’ve never really noticed, so I hope that through my sketches, people see things in a different light.”

How did you choose to remember your student exchange experience? Share with us your travelogue on our Facebook page!

Elizabeth Kamaldin
A mass communications student turned human geographer, Elizabeth loves travelling and immersing herself in new places and spaces... and writing about them later! When not busy finding pet rocks, considering adding them to her ever growing collection (every geographer must surely have one!) she also dabbles in art and craft, and likes to think of herself as an amateur watercolour/ink artist (check out her ig @littlecorals)!