It started with stickers. Satirical messages stuck to street poles and crosswalk buttons written in Singlish, the closest thing Singapore has to a native language. Sentences like “Press once can already” and “Press to stop time” appeared, poking fun at impatient pedestrians rapid-clicking the button for the little green man. Then other messages, such as “Press for Nirvana” and “Slow the Fuck Down,” popped up. One part guerilla cultural commentary and one part rebellious adrenaline rush, the stickers were one artist’s effort to reclaim the sanitized streets of the city William Gibson called “Disneyland with the death penalty.”
By day, Sam Lo (a.k.a. skl0) was a mild mannered Singaporean going to school, working a boring job, and running a website on the side to boost creatives and showcase street artists – sneaker designers, DJs, graffiti writers. By night, they* were getting in on the action, slapping satirical stickers to crosswalk buttons.
* Sam identifies as non-binary and prefers they/them pronouns.
Sam and I spoke on the phone for our interview, separated in our respective coronavirus quarantines. “I remember the first two bombing sessions I did,” they said. “This was before I was actually an artist. I just had this magazine I wanted to promote, so I had all these different stencils and stickers I wanted to put out. So we had these little impromptu bombing sessions, and the first time we went tagging, damn I was shocked man! I was like, fuck, that’s quite hardcore.”
This was the best time of their life. “I loved it, the thrill of going out…I knew that people were going to only take like 5 seconds to realize what they are seeing. I had to keep it short, no more than a couple sentences using Singlish, to make it the fastest way people would understand it. From there it was just like hit and run. Sometimes I would come back in a couple of hours and see if it was removed. If it was removed, I would put another one on.”
Singapore has evolved quickly over the years, so much so that young people like Sam didn’t recognize the city around them as the same one from their childhood. An ethnic melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Western expats, it’s a city in between: East vs. West, old vs. new. For Sam, the stickers were a way to carve out a culture they could relate to, one that properly reflected people’s lifestyles and would make them question what they’re doing and why. The stickers stayed, but skl0 began experimenting with stencils, then cans. “Later on, I got initiated into a crew, this is before my arrest.”
Singapore has evolved quickly over the years, so much so that young people like Sam didn’t recognize the city around them as the same one from their childhood
Behind its reliable public transportation and garden-covered skyscrapers, Singapore is a no-nonsense city state with authoritarian “quality of life” laws. In 1994, an eighteen-year-old American citizen was arrested for stealing signs and spray-painting cars. A dick move for sure, he plead guilty and was sentenced to six strokes of the cane. President Clinton intervened, claiming the punishment was excessive. He pleaded for a lighter sentence. The Singaporean government said okay, sure, and respectfully lowered the number of canings from six to four. All this to say, Singapore doesn’t fuck around with crime at any level.
When I mention Sticker Lady, Sam scoffs, and laughs. I can hear the eye rolling through the phone. This is the name the media gave Sam when the arrest went viral. It’s a label Sam hates, for many reasons. It’s still what most Singaporeans know them for, but it marks a traumatic time when their anonymity was stripped away. Sam has said it makes them sound like an aunty hawking cheap stickers at a market. Plus, they don’t identify as a lady. Sam identifies as non-binary and is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights in conservative Singapore, which has no discrimination protection for LGBTQ people. We don’t pick our nicknames, and that one in particular has been hard for Sam to shake. Insert dad joke here about it being a name that “stuck.”
“The first year when I was arrested people called me a vandal. Then the second year they called me an artist…so I was thinking what the fuck am I supposed to be now.” Shaken by a police raid on their home and unwanted media scrutiny, Sam consulted their crew, RSCLS, the infamous cohort of some of Singapore’s most talented street artists, including Antz, Zero and Clog2.
“The first year when I was arrested people called me a vandal. Then the second year they called me an artist…so I was thinking what the fuck am I supposed to be now.”
“They said ‘hey, people are saying you’re an artist, then why don’t you be one?’ I thought, if I have fun doing this then maybe I can make it a career. So I gave it a shot and it’s been this whole journey. Longest job I’ve ever had.”
Perhaps Sam’s greatest gripe with the moniker that shall not be named is that it tries to identify them with a single medium. One of the most impressive parts of skl0’s art is how their voice comes through no matter the medium, whether that’s a wall, t-shirt, sculpture or street sign.
Seven years after the arrest, skl0’s work has evolved. They collaborated with Nike to design products and permanent murals for the chain’s biggest SE Asia location, inside Singapore’s crowning Jewel Changi Airport. Working with other Western brands like G-Shock and Vans, skl0’s style has come to represent Singapore to the world.
Skl0’s commissioned projects, which is how they eat, can be found on some of Singapore’s most prominent walls, like the mural above Singapore’s always busy Shake Shack. “A lot of my clients want hyper-local work when they approach me – so they want something that’s very Singaporean, something that speaks about the neighborhood, that speaks about the country.” For these projects, skl0 has a formula, drawing color from the sidewalk tiles and colonial shophouses that line the country’s neighborhoods. On Sentosa, Singapore’s beach island for families and day drinkers, skl0 was commissioned to design street signs which, now, are a perfect example Sam’s style gone mainstream. Signs urge beachgoers to put their phones down and enjoy the space, paid for by the resort itself.
“A lot of my clients want hyper-local work when they approach me – so they want something that’s very Singaporean, something that speaks about the neighborhood, that speaks about the country.”
So in Singapore, where gum is illegal and surveillance prevails, how does it make Sam feel that their only murals are commercial commissions? Is it a sign that Singapore’s grandfather overlord attitude is evolving to accept street art?
“I mean, the thing is, everyone in Singapore has a very different understanding of what street art is. I can tell you from our point of view that sure, the murals exist in the streets, but it’s not street art as how we know it. Street art as we know it is something that just goes all out and we don’t give a fuck about what anyone says or authority or anything like that. We just go out there and spread our message.”
“The thing is, in Singapore we have been exposed to vandalism and all those different graffiti things and people are like, “Oh that’s not nice.” But it’s come to a point where they’re starting to form their own judgement on it, thinking like “Oh only some kinds of street art is good, only some kinds are not good. So in the end, we see commission murals, and now more people are thinking that these murals are what street art is supposed to be like. So sure some points of view are shifting to say ‘Yeah! We should allow more of that,’ but truth be told that’s not the authentic art that we know.”
“I’m afraid that when they see something that’s not commissioned, will they think it’s okay?”
After the shit that went down with the government, Sam acknowledges the PTSD it caused and how they fell out of love with everything. “When I first started, I was anonymous, that was the whole point of it. Sure, that case gave me some exposure, quite a lot of it, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. The whole thing was to stay anonymous so I could keep doing it. Other graffiti artists had been arrested before but this one blew up so much, my personal privacy was being intruded on. It took a long time to get over that. I couldn’t really trust people; my head space was not there.”
Other graffiti artists had been arrested before but this one blew up so much, my personal privacy was being intruded on. It took a long time to get over that. I couldn’t really trust people; my head space was not there.
In 2017, Sam started the Barter Market. They were at a low point, but ultimately, it turned out to be a saving grace. No money, no ulterior motive, just people. There, exchange a backflip for a postcard, a backrub for a haircut. “The human experience is really special and it’s good to remember that and not have it clouded by all these stupid things.” Face-to-face in an unbranded environment, Sam was able to re-experience the pleasure art creates in people, which is why artists get into the game in the first place. “The power of people themselves really helped me get out of that rut. That was how I regained my confidence and started doing things again.”
Sam thinks a lot about their fellow Singaporeans, country, and culture. Singapore is young, having only gained independence in 1959, and Sam’s artistic journey began as an investigation to identify the country’s culture. That journey, from alleyway anonymity to front page news to commissions on national landmarks, interwove Sam’s creative growth with the city they studied. There are two threads: the commercial commissions that reflect a motley, kaleidoscopic society, and the personal projects that explore individual identity in a nation which has no typical citizen. It’s street art as social outlier; is the Fine City ready to accept the murals as well as the complex humans who create them? Through grit, grind, and a certain infamy, the rise of skl0 and Singapore itself has been meteoric and well deserved.
Through grit, grind, and a certain infamy, the rise of skl0 and Singapore itself has been meteoric and well deserved.
Now, Sam’s at home like the rest of us, chilling with their cat and their fiancé. They’re playing with their Switch, learning ZBrush and focusing on their personal practice, which at the moment is mainly sculpting. They recently completed a skateboard-based resin and spray paint creation, which was donated to an auction for Learn and Skate, a charity that builds skate parks for kids in rural areas. The design is based on the story of how a rat turns into a bird and back into a rat again through the seasons. It reflects on Sam’s experience and the life stages we have as human beings. Our days, our ups and downs.
Griffin Suber is a Washington, DC native currently working out of Singapore. Maybe Thailand or Bali…it varies. A contributor to several publications, he’s into culture, buildings, and exploring diverse perspectives. When not interviewing artists or cuddling with his laptop, he enjoys diving, making beerpizza (one word), and anti-government rhapsodies.