Paving Her Own Road To Success: In Conversation with Sam Lo (SKL0)
It’s not uncommon for the average person to feel a sudden burst of existential dread from time to time – what is our purpose beyond surviving? What kind of legacy are we to leave behind, and is there even a point if in the long run, everything disappears anyway?
For artist Samantha Lo, these were some very real fears that haunted her in some of her darkest moments as she struggled to find her meaning in life and raison d’être in the last few years. “For a long time,” Sam says. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I did creative consultancy for a while, but it didn’t feel right. Things like the OCBC gig came up for me, which was great, and then Sentosa approached me after I was charged and that was pretty cool. Friends told me ‘you artist then you artist lah, just go out and do it.’ So I really put myself out there and told myself I’m just gonna try. 7 years on and it’s the longest job I’ve ever had.”
Popularly known by her moniker SKL0, one might remember Sam coming into the spotlight for her 2012 incident as the ‘Sticker Lady’, when she was charged for placing stickers on traffic lights and spray painted roads. But 7 years on from that, Sam has managed to move on from the incident, finding astounding success this year across some of the most major international brands from Nike to G-Shock.
Speaking to Sam in her flat, the artist is completely relaxed as we see her surround by her work, from sculptures in the making to prints and stickers. “When I first graduated, I wanted to start my own company,” she says. “But never did I imagine that I would be sitting in my own home surrounded by my own work. It’s quite incredible that we’re here in 2019 and here I am with all these big projects, from Nike at Jewel to G-Shock to Daniel Boey’s new book.”
Musing on her projects for this year, we take a closer look at the limited edition ‘We Are Singapore’ G-Shock watch Sam designed, and can’t help but appreciate how clean the design feels in spite of the multiple elements. There’s an undeniable sense of ‘cool’ that emanates from it as we put it on, something that Sam herself also radiates each time we see her. Explaining the design, Sam says: “I thought about how I wanted to design something that really told people all about how Singaporeans live, our constantly evolving culture, and something that still made sense to put on a watch strap.”
“I thought about what are the values that are most important to us in today’s context, and decided well, it’s not a question of more ‘woke values’, but just an awareness of what Singapore holds dear, whether we’re aware of it or not,” she continues. “So we have the surveillance cameras; the power of the economy; heritage that reminds us to look into and honour our past to know our identity today, and of course, power, as represented by the lightning bolts.”
Across her projects for this year, one thing connects them – an undeniable penchant for wallpaper, Peranakan tile-style patterns across each one, along with the recurring orange-blue colour scheme that has become her signature for the year. “I started doing patterns in 2011, and they were so that I could make my own wallpaper or design my own tattoos and use these as mediums to tell a story, with a particular interest in Peranakan tiles,” says Sam.
“I saw them as able to represent so many things, like where we come from. Sometime back I actually discovered that my family lineage involves the Straits Born Chinese, and there’s this whole history that’s passed down through patterns. I became really fascinated with where I might have come from, and figuring out how to tell my own version of the story.”
But to get to this level of success was never going to be an easy road, even with the sudden spike in interest in Sam thanks to media coverage over the Sticker Lady incident. It was an incident that left a mark on her profile, catapulting her to infamy for her rebellious yet playful spirit, but one that would be difficult to move beyond. Says Sam: “There were many damages to pay off after the incident. I did lots of jobs and sold off a few things to pay off the damages, and it was hard to survive because there wasn’t a lot of income coming in,”
Knowing that she couldn’t remain the Sticker Lady forever, Sam made a decision to improve herself to prove herself, taking a two-year sabbatical to hone her craft. Spending time on courses and classes, Sam equipped herself with the requisite skillset and foundations to be considered a true artist. “At first, I joined a street art crew,” says Sam. “Then I realised these guys could legit paint, and well, I needed to up my skills and put my money where my mouth is. Because I didn’t have the artistic background, I had to prove to myself I was worthy of even being called an artist.”
“During the sabbatical, I didn’t take any jobs and kind of fell off the radar, but I needed the break to improve myself and do all these things,” she continues. “My then-girlfriend, who’s a tattooist, taught me how to draw and do linework, so all my drawings end up having a certain look. I started doing my own lettering, did painting with friends, learnt watercolour and even picked up sculpting. Basically, I wanted to try a whole bunch of mediums, and it was the best thing I ever did. I learnt so much about how I make art, and felt it all come to life in my own hands, and it was a lot like when I was younger and just loved making things.”
But towards the end of the sabbatical, Sam began to question herself and fall into a difficult, existential crisis when she began to wonder about her own abilities and the point of even creating new work. “I felt so small, that everything was insignificant, and no artwork I ever made would be able to fulfil that expectation,” she says. “Nothing made sense, and I lost my excitement for creating. Over the years I’ve had plenty of ideas, from the Limpei case to the Jenga blocks, and at some point, I wanted to say goodbye to all of that and move on when I felt this pointlessness to even creating things.”
The sense of loss and confusion over her artistic identity only continued to grow as time went by, and Sam struggled to keep herself motivated. It’s not like she could just let the past two years go to waste, and to pick herself up, Sam pivoted from the art itself to move into more personal projects, taking on a curatorial role in the Indigoism project, which she explains as being “essentially a social enterprise project to use art for wellness”, and a platform “to make artists feel human again, to feel lost in the moment.”
“Take the barter market we set up as a reaction against art and flea markets exploiting artists for their own profit,” she says. “My idea then was to make the booths rent free, but where no monetary transactions could be made, and only items or services to be traded. So maybe an illustrator puts out a bunch of postcards, and they could request for a story or paintbrushes as a form of trade. That’s when you see people really get creative and reach deep inside them to find a way to barter for the item, whether it’s doing a flying kick for a photo or even flashing to make the exchange!”
Other projects under the Indigoism label included the DRONE Project for Archifest 2016, where sound artist Jean Reiki and virtual reality artist Race Krehel of Warrior9 collaborated to create binaural beats. “Combine that with visuals, and these beats could send you into a certain state of mind and reach a deeper level of consciousness. The idea was that the music would be kept online, and anyone could just sit at home, put on their headphones and a mask and slip into that state of mind. Basically, the whole thing was themed around an opportunity for escapism, and it was powerful, fun, and we were all so grateful we managed to make it work.”
Perhaps Indigoism, as a form of temporary escapism, coupled with her own form of self-care, was precisely what Sam needed to pick herself back up. “I kept telling myself to be kinder to myself, and take things one step at a time. I started doing my stickers again, but with Blu Tac this time, taking photos of them before removing them, and felt a little better,” she admits.
After the absence during her sabbatical, this phoenix-like revival would be her chance to reinvent herself, to come back into the spotlight a new person, better than ever before and more sure of herself and what she wanted to achieve with her art. It wasn’t long before her work started to get noticed again, and her spirit of play caught the eye of some interesting clients searching for an artist to do some commercial work. “4 Fingers approached me to do some decor for their Millenia Walk outlet,” she says. “And when I had finished it, they took a long, hard look at it and smiled. They really loved what I had done, and for the first time in a long time, I felt someone truly appreciate what I was doing, and how who I was was in line with their brand and what they wanted to push.”
The 4 Fingers gig was just the start of Sam’s miraculous rise to success, leading her to more work for the brand when they flew her out to Melbourne to work on their Bourke Street outlet. “I have a lot to be thankful to 4 Fingers for, and they were a big reason why I managed to get back out there,” Sam says. “I’ve spent too long wallowing in self pity, and started working with more brands, more events, and the momentum really struck and I just kept riding it.”
In November 2016, Sam came full circle when she was invited by non-profit organisation Hyphenarts to produce a 170m long piece of street art across Circular Road. The irony? It read ‘My Grandfather Road’, the very words that got her in trouble in the first place back in 2012 when she sprayed them illegally on Maxwell and Robinson Road. Says Sam: “This was my big F You to tell people yeah, that’s what I got arrested for in the first place, but here I am today, still here, still making art.”
Now given full-fledged proof and validation that she has earned her rightful place as a fiercely individual, undeniably talented in her own right, Sam’s star has continued to, and can only continue to rise in the years still to come. Pulling herself out of the doldrums and more sure of herself than ever, she concludes: “The choice to become an artist and stick with it has been my own, and I’m proud to call myself one today. I’ve figured out what I think that title means to me, and can finally see that people are choosing my work not because of my history as the ‘Sticker Lady’ or because of my following, but simply because they liked my portfolio of work, and believe and stand for the same ideals that I do.”
Sam Lo’s exclusive “We are Singapore” National Day Collaboration GX-56BB-DRSG54 is currently out of stock.
Sam Lo’s Nike collaborations are available to view and purchase exclusively at Nike Jewel, 78 Airport Boulevard, #02-232/233, Singapore 819666. For more information, visit their website here