Reinhard Kleist
“I spent a lot of time observing people”

Eine Apotheke in Hanoi © Reinhard Kleist
Eine Apotheke in Hanoi | © Reinhard Kleist

Comic artists from Germany are holding workshops and showing their work at the Goethe-Instituts worldwide. One of them is Reinhard Kleist. In 2015, he worked at the Goethe-Instituts in Krakow, Minsk and Hanoi. His sketches and notes show what he observed in those locations. You can find this and other articles in our Jahrbuch 2015/2016. For download see


Reinhard KleistIn May, I was invited to Hanoi and Saigon by the Goethe-Institut to give workshops, do live drawing events and to make drawings for the website. At the workshops, I had very different experiences. My approach is to have them draw everyday situations that tell about life in the country. This way, I learn a lot about real life in the country, about the life I don’t otherwise find out about, but also about the social pressures that a lot of young artists are exposed to.

My best experience was a comic drawing class at a school for street children in Saigon. Even though we didn’t get much farther than practicing drawing figures, it was a great pleasure for me to observe what a universal language drawing is.

Live drawing is something that I have now done with various bands in many places of the world. I draw an image to every song a band plays. The audience watches on a projector. In Vietnam, I was able to do it three times to the music of Johnny Cash. You would not believe how popular Cash is in Vietnam!

I spent a lot of time observing people going about their daily work in the noisy and stuffy streets. What is that pharmacist selling from his jars and drawers? What do the women in straw hats have in their bicycle baskets? What are the people doing there in the temples? How do the people in these sprawling cities live with their noisy, crowded and chaotic streets? And what about communism in a city that sometimes seems so murderously capitalist?

HanoiQuestions to which I found no answers, even after a month, but enough material to sit by the roadside and to try to capture the buzz with my drawing pencil. Sometimes a frustrating experience: Reality is often more intoxicating, overwhelming and volatile than you can capture it on paper. More often I should have done like the many elderly ladies and gentlemen who can be seen sitting on the barely existent pavements just calmly watching the wonderful chaos.


At first glance, the city seems grey and cold. When I was there to give workshops and to hold a live drawing event, it was February and while I was drawing my fingers got stiff with cold. But at some point, the city developed an eerie charm, even the socialist reliefs that the people in Minsk call the “Robocops.” My favourite café is Café Central near the GUM department store. You stand at the window drinking your coffee or a beer and watching the bustle of the boulevard. And when you walk eastwards, past the soldiers standing guard, you get close to the impressive market hall. The temperatures are perhaps normal for Minskers – they stand all day long with their goods on the street. Not for me.

MinskIn the workshops with Belarusian students and illustrators, my theme was “Tell me about your everyday lives.” All of the workshops that I’ve conducted in so many countries always focused on different approaches to storytelling. My straightforward, professional narration often conflicted with the students’ unbridled style of storytelling, and comprehension difficulties had to be overcome with gentle compromises. An example: In comics, you work a lot with symbols. However, the symbols do not have the same meaning in all countries. In Indonesia, for example, a student drew a person touching a skull with their tongue, an image that I found very disturbing. However, I learned that it meant something else entirely for him than for me: namely, that you find out about the past by tasting it.

MinskThe students were always impressed by the possibility of finding an audience in Germany for ambitious comic projects. This is not the case in countries like Belarus. But when I think back, only 15 years ago it wasn’t easy in Germany either. A lot has changed. And it is nice to see, again and again, that the problems are the same everywhere, no matter how different the political systems may be, and a story about the chaotic start of a day for one student quickly became a story about the inadequate transport system and the pressures on young people in a performance-oriented system.


BirkenauIn the spring of 2015, I was in Krakow on the invitation of the Goethe-Institut for a graphic novel week to hold a lecture on my work as a comic illustrator. I used the opportunity to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The boxer Hertzko Haft, whom I wrote a comic about (Der Boxer, Hamburg 2012), had been imprisoned there, too. As I stood at the camp station, I imagined how he must have arrived there. I made a few drawings. The weather was beautiful, the birds were chirping. Perhaps it was exactly the same that day when he reached this horrible place penned in the railway wagon, not knowing what awaited him.

For more information about Reinhard Kleist, visit

Reinhard Kleist works in Berlin as a graphic designer and comic illustrator. His latest book is the 2015 “Der Traum von Olympia”, which received the “Jahresluchs” award, the Catholic Juvenile Book Prize and the Gustav-Heinemann-Friedenspreis.

Photos Copyright: © Reinhardt Kleist


Faith Ann Gibson