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For a retro school-themed cafe, Old School Delights fittingly has wall-to-wall chalkboards on which the doodles jostle for space with the daily specials.

Yet, no mere untidy pupil scrawls on those chalkboards; instead, the eatery in Upper Thomson Road pays a professional illustrator to design what is on them - chalking up a bill of $2,000 in the process.

Chalkboard writer Admira Pustika, 30, took two months in late 2011 to design some of Old School Delights' 4m-tall chalkboards, writing dish names such as "banana cake" and "chendol" in neat, blocky capital letters and decorating blank spaces with unpretentious cartoons of cakes.

Says the cafe's co-owner, Ms Olivia Teo, 41: "We want our cafe to feel nostalgic, so we decided to hire someone to create this mood.

"Customers often tell us that the chalkboards remind them of when they were in school, sitting in front of the chalkboard."

As cafes mushroom in Singapore's vibrant food scene, many are turning to impressively decorated chalkboard menus - imbuing them with witty slogans - to grab diners' attention. And those who create elegant fonts and beautiful pictures on such menu boards are sometimes not amateurs, by a long chalk.

Illustrator Ly Yeow, 27, was paid $400 two months ago to write a chalkboard menu for permanent display at Tiong Bahru Bakery's outlet in Tangs Orchard department store.

The bakery's spokesman says some of its staff were impressed by Ms Yeow's work.

Says the spokesman: "We wanted our newest outlet to have a cosy feel. Having a chalkboard menu definitely fits in with this overall design."

Ms Yeow also draws chalkboard art at the Jewel Cafe and Bar in Rangoon Road.

At most other cafes, however, the chalkboard writer is likely to be an arty employee.

SundayLife! found at least 10 cafes where one or two staff members with good penmanship write the chalkboard menus.

For instance, at PS Cafe in Harding Road, guest relations executive Roderick Gruta, 32, and server Ericson Beig, 26, take turns to update the daily specials twice a day - once after lunch and once after closing.

Says Mr Gruta, who is Filipino: "I did a drafting course in high school, so I can write in various fonts. Naturally, it fell on me to do the job."

Praise the writers while you can. They all say the art of good handwriting is dying out.

Says Mr Eric Chai, 30, who is in charge of the chalkboard at The Provision Shop in Everton Park: "The reality is that with technology nowadays, good handwriting is not necessary.

"These days, people communicate mostly by typing."

Still, Ms Pustika, creator of the delightful old-school chalkboards for Old School Delights, is rooting for a blackboard jungle out there. "Perhaps, someday, more cafes will see that a beautiful menu can also be a calling card to draw in more customers," she says.

Free food for her drawings
Ms Ly Yeow, 27, artist and illustrator

Last October, the Jewel Cafe and Bar's owner Adrian Khong saw Ms Yeow drawing in a corner of his cafe.

"I noticed she drew very well and invited her to draw on our chalkboard," recalls Mr Khong, 45.

In return, the cafe gives her free food while she works on a piece.

Ms Yeow's chalkboard art now regularly adorns one of the walls of the 2,800 sq ft cafe in Rangoon Road. She takes about four hours to complete each design, which she first sketches on paper.

For her latest Valentine's Day-themed design, she presents a child-like take on the romantic day.

Says Mr Khong: "I've always wanted the chalkboard outside the shop to be a talking point among my customers. I also want customers to take photos of it and share them on social media."

Says Ms Yeow, whose other work includes murals painted at three other cafes and the Singapore Polytechnic skatepark: "I'm doing chalkboard art more out of interest than to make money. In any case, it's a good way to gain exposure and express myself artistically."

Chalking up experience
Ms Admira Pustika, 30, designer for a consumer goods manufacturer

Indonesian designer Pustika has painted murals for clubs, office lobbies and hotel rooms before. Then, in 2007, she was commissioned to create a chalk mural for a T-shirt store in Indonesia.

She says: "Chalk is something which everybody grew up with in school, but not many people see it as an artistic medium. That's why I was keen to use it artistically.

"Chalk also has an interesting look to it - it's clean, neat and spontaneous."

The Old School Delights commission came about because she volunteered to design an A-stand for the cafe for free.

"I frequent the cafe because I love its mee siam," she recalls. "One day, I saw they had a chalkboard and just wanted to do something with it. Draw on it, write on it, something..."

She wrote to the cafe owners, and it turned out that they were keen for her to design their chalkboards.

To do so, she first sketched the designs on paper. After the cafe owners approved them, she began working on the boards with chalk markers. These work like paint pens, but the finished product looks like chalk. There is also no dust or smearing of the writing once it is dry.

Says Ms Pustika, who was trained at the Art Institute of Boston: "If you want to impress the viewer, you must not be afraid of erasing and rewriting the words so they look beautiful."

Man with a girl's handwriting
Mr Eric Chai , 30, cafe supervisor at The Provision Shop

Schoolmates used to tease him for his neat handwriting.

Now, customers praise his immaculate chalkboard letters and adorable drawings before placing their orders.

Says Mr Chai, who updates the cafe's 2m-long chalkboard daily: "They typically assume a girl wrote the menu. I love telling them it's me and watching their surprised looks.

"When they ask how I got this handwriting, I say it's natural," he adds. "We all have different gifts and I'm grateful for mine."

Not content with just printing letters, Mr Chai has even created his own fonts, such as the one used on the board. The consonants are in capital letters and vowels are lower case.

He says the idea came to him about a year ago.

"I like experimenting with fonts. To attract customers' attention, you have to create something new."

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