For Hakan Keles, imagination and reality have always overlapped.

Growing up in the suburbs of Istanbul, Hakan and his friends would take to the streets, where they would spend their free moments dreaming up new games to play. Day and night, they stayed outside, every street corner becoming a virtual playground limited only by their minds’ eye. While they played football and card games — typical pastimes for kids their age — they also tapped into their creative sides. On one instance, Hakan recalls he and a friend acting out a Mortal Kombat melee in front of an old, run-down building. He got to be Scorpion. With a limitless imagination, he could be anyone.

Eventually, Hakan’s creativity gravitated toward a more tactile form of expression — various doodles on scraps of notebook paper here and there. But when he got to middle school, he became introduced to the world of comic books, and from then on, he started to get more serious with his art. He worked on caricatures and comics and even began submitting some of his work to the magazines he was reading. When a few got accepted and he saw his own drawings in print, he was overwhelmed with pride. He finally felt that he was someone, that he had something to say.

Fast forward about two decades and Hakan is no longer living in Istanbul. When it was time for him to go off to school, he moved to Eskisehir, a smaller university town in northwestern Turkey, between Istanbul and Ankara. He moved home for a couple of years following graduation, but at the first opportunity, he made his way back to his city. Meaning “old city” in Turkish, Eskisehir is estimated to have been founded over four millennia ago, and that sense of the past is something that can be felt. As Hakan puts it, life moves just a tad slower there, and he likes it that way. He now works in the historical part of the city, which he loves exploring from the saddle of his bike, spending his free moments riding down to the banks of the Porsuk River and feeling grateful for the home he’s settled in.

Hakan is currently working toward his Ph.D. and is employed as a research assistant for Eskisehir Osmangazi University, a studious position that might, on the surface, appear to be at odds with his imagination-fueled upbringing. But to come to that conclusion would be a mistake. In fact, at this moment in his life, he is more creatively engaged than he ever has been before.

A few years ago, Hakan was waiting for his girlfriend on a street in Eskisehir when he took his tablet out and started sifting through old photos he’d taken of the city. Looking at the world through the dreamy filter he’d adopted as a kid in Istanbul, he took his stylus out and started drawing a giant cartoon character walking through the street in the image. When his girlfriend arrived, he showed it to her and she loved it. He decided to post it on Instagram, and his followers (all 300 of them at the time) liked it too.

From there, he began creating more and more of these drawings — giant bodies superimposed on photos of the city, their personal playground. They’d lie across the roofs of buildings, push bulldozers across construction sites, and bend down to tinker with shirts hanging on clotheslines. Hakan was creating an entirely new world through these simple cartoons, and he was starting to pick up a fan base. By the time he shared his fourth drawing, a friend commented that they were “liking this Lilliput series,” referencing the island of dwarves from “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, and Hakan realized that the connection was kind of perfect. With the giants towering above them, the real humans in the images began to resemble dwarves. The name stuck, and today, Hakan’s Lilliput series has grown his following to over 37,000.

In the year and a half since the first Lilliput image was posted, Hakan’s characters have evolved from genderless figures to truly fleshed-out individuals (on a recent trip to Dubrovnik, he even posted drawings of “Game of Thrones” characters leaning against the King’s Landing settings). Though the basic idea behind the series has remained the same, each image is unique in the story it tells. In one, an older woman runs a vacuum cleaner over a street on which a pile of rubbish has begun to collect. In another, a businessman leans casually against a skyscraper, holding a cup of coffee and checking his watch as he waits for the workday to begin.

In one of Hakan’s personal favorites, an elderly tailor hunches over to sew up a narrow alley between two buildings that are beginning to crumble. This, he says, illustrates one of his main intentions with the series. He wants to encourage people to look at the world around them in a different light, to give more attention to the streets and buildings they call home.

Hakan’s Ph.D. work is focused on the relationship between architectural design and graphic narrative, a pairing that seems perfectly in tune with the story he’s telling through his Lilliput series. More broadly, however, it feels like an ideal encapsulation of the creative path he’s been traveling since a young age, when he and his friends created a world of their choosing on the streets of Istanbul.

Every child views the world through an imaginative lens, but as most people enter adulthood, they start to fall into those mental patterns and routines that place their environment in a more material context. It takes the work of people like Hakan, people who maintain that sense of wonder and whimsy, to remind us of what realities our minds can create.

To view more of Hakan’s Lilliput series, visit his Instagram page @haakankeles. You can see his photos without the drawings @haaakankeles.

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.