Learning isn’t linear and no one knows this better than Singaporean artist Sam Lo, who catapulted to fame (and some would say infamy) back in 2012 for sticking sassy stickers onto traffic lights around the city-state and spray painting cheeky messages on roads.
The peculiar stickers caught Singaporeans by surprise, slowly appearing everywhere—in heartland neighborhoods and prominent locations like City Hall and Orchard Road. Hilarious tongue-in-cheek messages were seen on road signs, zebra crossings and on the side of buildings—it was hard not to notice. To curious Singaporeans watching and applauding this brazen act of mischief and rebellion, it signaled the presence of their very own Banksy that was emerging.
“I didn’t set out to be a street artist,” Lo, now 34, told VICE in an interview. “I just thought the stickers and messages were funny and clearly, so did other Singaporeans. That’s why I kept at it.”
Lo’s use of Singlish words and phrases brilliantly encapsulated local quirks and mannerisms—inside jokes that only Singaporeans would know. The “press once can already” sticker, for example, made light of the nation’s annoying habit of repeatedly jabbing buttons at pedestrian crossings in the hopes of making traffic lights change faster.
There was also the “My Grandfather Road” stencil, a term commonly used by Singaporeans to scold others for dawdling, or to criticize those who completely disregard authority. Lo spray painted those onto roads.
Lo was christened the “Sticker Lady,” a moniker that would stick for years to come.
In Singapore, where strict laws around street art and graffiti have resulted in arrests, fines, and even jail time and caning, Lo knew the risks of getting caught but still went ahead with the street art and interactive installations, eventually getting arrested in 2013 and charged with public mischief. A media circus ensued.
The case officially concluded later that year, with Lo serving 240 hours of community service over a span of months as a result. The stickers were eventually removed and the stencils painted over. “That period was certainly a huge learning curve for me,” Lo said. “Looking back, I have conflicting feelings but I can confidently say that I have no regrets doing what I did.”
The fiasco eventually died down but Lo sank into depression. As an aspiring artist back then, with no formal training, Lo feared “fading” into obscurity. “As a freelancer, if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind,” Lo said. The episode may have propelled Lo into the public consciousness but it also took years for Lo to come to terms with what had happened.
“People all around the world wanted to talk to me [after the sticker saga] but I had nothing else to show,” Lo said. “One day I was a vandal and the next, I was an artist trying to be taken seriously.”
“One day I was a vandal and the next, I was an artist trying to be taken seriously.”
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. It was a shitstorm.”
Adding to Lo’s artistic and mental health struggles was a personal gender identity debate.
The title “Sticker Lady” that was bestowed by the public is no longer relevant because Lo, who is queer and a long-time supporter of gay rights in Singapore, came out as transgender and non-binary in 2019.
“I always liked girls and grew up identifying as being lesbian, and I knew that dressing as a cis woman only affected my confidence,” said Lo, who now uses the pronouns they/them/their. “But I came to realize that being female didn’t fit with my identity.”
In 2019, Lo flew to the Malaysian island of Penang and underwent top surgery. They told VICE about complications and struggles that come with trans hormone therapy.
“Coming out as transgender has been a relief but I’m not gonna lie, it was a tough journey,” Lo said. “The hormones are tough and my moods have been swinging but I want to lead by example and hope that my coming out will inspire other Singaporeans to embrace their queer and trans identities bravely even in a conservative country like ours.”
Lo’s rebellious and playful spirit is evident from the tons of sculptures, paintings, and works in progress on display around their HDB flat in the Tampines neighborhood, which they share with fiance Euphoria Ng and an adorable dachshund named Nezuko.
Lo saw their decision to start off with provocative street art as more of an exercise in intellectual curiosity than doing something deliberately controversial. They cited artistic influences like legendary Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, that spurred their desire to create art that interacted with the environment as well as Singapore society.
“Everything is interconnected in Singapore, there is just so much potential in what our streets can offer,” Lo said.
“Being Singaporean, I always questioned our obsession with perfection, being the best at everything, and our reputation as first world—all that instilled a kind of healthy fear in me, and even back then, I wanted to come up with statements that Singaporeans could relate to and digest.”
Today, with solo shows and commissions from big name clients like Nike under their belt, Lo has come a long way from their days as a young, fledgling street artist and is clearly keeping busy. But how do they feel about critics who accuse them of selling out, especially after experiencing first-hand the harsh realities of the law?
“I understand how that might come about because the works that I am doing are now commissioned, as compared to what was considered illegal before,” Lo said, not denying that it was tough to survive as an artist in Singapore. “Singapore punishes vandalism and street art and artists have to be legal and sanctioned by the authorities, that’s just the way things work here and every country has its own unique situation.”
“When I got arrested, the first thing that crushed me was losing my anonymity, but I don’t believe that you have to steal paint and do things illegally in order to be committed to the craft.”
Lo has moved on from the sticker saga.
“It taught me to try and make the best out of every situation and I’m more confident now in expressing myself and executing new concepts and techniques,” they said. “I also try not to get too caught up in what people think I should be doing.”
They also talked about the issue of “self-policing” when it comes to their art.
“Things have to get legalled and approved by the authorities and it leaves me feeling jaded. I also try to be clear on what I don’t want to do and I’ve walked away from clients and difficult situations before. Clients now choose my work not knowing my history or what the stickers were.”
But despite the limitations, Lo’s pride in their art is evident and contagious. And if they had a chance to go back in time and caution their younger self, there isn’t anything Lo would say to change things.
“I wouldn’t tell myself to be safe, ever. All I’d say is that if you don’t do it, you’ll never learn,” they said. “I’m very stubborn but also true to myself and I wouldn’t change a thing.”
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