Ahmed’s talent with a brush led him to work in the studio of the legendary Bollywood film director and special effects master Babubhai Mistry. During this time, he met Mistry’s daughter, who introduced him to the Sir J.J.School of Art. With the encouragement of another student at J.J., Ahmed decided to enroll in art school, though he would need to earn the money for tuition first.
In 2004, fed up with his struggling existence in Mumbai, Ahmed moved to Delhi. When he got there, he found that all the sign painters there had been replaced by digital vinyl printing done by machines. Forced to start over again, he set up a street stand selling omelettes. “I managed to meet ends somehow by doing odd jobs, cutting corners on my food, my clothing, and somehow managing to get by,” he recalls.
Still keen to study art, he applied to the prestigious Jamia Millia Islamia university in Delhi, but was rejected due to his poor English. He studied hard to improve, and reapplied the following year. Finally, in 2008, he was accepted and enrolled. Though tuition was still a challenge.
Ahmed was earning barely enough money to get by with his omelettes, so when a juice seller asked him to paint a sign, he jumped at the offer. The sign was a hit among the local street sellers, and soon others were requesting signs of their own.
Each night after closing his own stand at 10 p.m., Ahmed would paint until the early hours of the following morning, before returning to school at 8 a.m. for class. For a 6-by-3-foot sign, he earned around $50. Ahmed says he’s lost count, though estimates he’s made over a thousand of these signs, earning enough to cover his schooling at Jamia Millia Islamia.
After finishing school, Ahmed’s street signs would help him again. An advertising executive from a Delhi-based firm, Hanif Kureshi, had spotted one of Ahmed’s signs, and contacted the artist (who includes his phone number alongside his signature on all of his works). Kureshi became a mentor and patron to Ahmed and helped him get his first public commissions and inclusions in festivals. In 2014, Ahmed made his international debut at London’s Southbank Centre with a mural for the annual Alchemy festival.