Artist Sam Lo on birds, pride and making art for the people

SKL0, the artist aka Sam Lo and formerly the ‘Sticker Lady’ of Singapore, visits Hong Kong for a live art show. He speaks to David Ho about his transformation from arrested artist to finding birds of a feather  

SKL0, aka Sam Lo. Photo: Instagram @skl0_

Singaporean artist SKL0, aka Sam Lo, is in the 852 for his first art making event in Hong Kong – a live art show at Yoox and On The List’s Secret Room event.

We first encounter Lo as he quickly yet meticulously spray-paints a bird flying against a multi-coloured scenery with elements of surrealism. With hands wet from the paint, he greets us with a very broey fist bump instead of a handshake. When we have our chat later, Lo’s warmth and openness has us settled into an easy camaraderie almost immediately.

Work in progress as Lo makes his first artwork in Hong Kong.

Lo first crept into the consciousness of Singaporeans when he started pasting stickers with Singlish phrases, such as ‘Press Until Shiok’ (translation: press until you feel satisfied) and ‘Anyhow Paste Kena Fine’ (translation: paste as you wish and get fined), at traffic-light junctions and public spaces. This earned Lo, a trans-man who had yet to undergo his gender transition then, the moniker of ‘Sticker Lady’.

But he really came into prominence in 2012 when Lo was arrested for spray painting the words ‘My Grandfather Road’ on Maxwell Road and Robinson Road, a Singlish phrase typically used to lay claim on a space and warn others off it. To this day, Lo still declares it “the most patriotic thing” he has done.

Lo’s arrest and sentence for the act sparked a huge public discourse in Singapore on what constituted art versus vandalism. Fortunately, he moved on to prove the naysayers wrong by growing from strength to strength in his art and career. Besides a myriad of exhibitions and collaborations over the years, Lo has served as art director for Chingay, an annual street parade in Singapore as part of the Chinese New Year festivities.

We reflect on the evolution of his art in space of over a decade since he came into prominence. “I feel like my artwork has matured a lot. When I started in the ‘sticker lady’ phase of things, I felt mine was very restricted to typography limited to two or three colours. I didn’t know much beyond the digital side of things, but it’s still similar to what I did back then with the street elements and sensibilities, it’s still site specific. Back then, I would focus on spaces like the traffic lights or roads. But now I’m applying the same logic and creating art for the people, but just in larger formats in murals and stuff like that,” says Lo.

“So, it’s evolved in how it looks, how I treat the public space, but basically what is constant and consistent is the promise I made, which is that whatever I make will always be for the people and the community it serves.”

Photo: Instagram @skl0_

It can be challenging as an urban visual artist operating in Singapore, where space is limited and the government known to be heavy handed with those that colour outside the lines, as Lo himself knows. “The space is limited and controlled. A lot of what I do these days are mostly commissioned pieces, which is my bread and butter. It very much celebrates the area and heritage where it is from. There is a lot of Singapore culture in my work and when people view it, I want them to feel a sense of belonging,” says Lo.

Given how most of Lo’s works are best enjoyed in a Singaporean context, we wonder how he would make art that translates in an overseas settings and audiences. Once again, Lo digs within for something that is simultaneously accessible to a more global audience, but still speaks to a specific community.  

Artist at work. Photo: Instagram @skl0_

So, next on Lo’s agenda is to foster a sense of inclusion for the queer community in Singapore and beyond. “Most of what I can focus on is the community, diversity and inclusion. Every year, I try to do a pride mural. There aren’t many in Singapore. A lot of the pieces I put up are to serve the general public, but these ones are more for me and my community,” he says.

Birds have come to be a motif of sorts for Lo, who admires their freedom and features them often in his work. He shows us a pride mural he is particularly proud of called Longing, which depicts a pair of rainbow-coloured lovebirds huddling together as they are pierced by arrows in a way that brings to mind images of St. Sebastian.

Longing by SKL0. Photo: Instagram @skl0_

The mural, which can also be enjoyed as augmented reality (AR), was inspired by Lo’s relationship with his wife and feelings of navigating the world as a queer couple. He hopes the work serves as to pull more “birds of a feather” together for a sense of pride.   

For his work in Hong Kong, Lo also painted a bird. But this time, the focus is equally on the backdrop as it is on the avian subject. “I just want to let people see what I can do and how I play with colours,” he explains.  

Lo spray-paints a shirt with his almost completed artwork in the background.

As his art evolves, Lo wants to develop a distinctive and uniquely Singaporean style of art. “The Singapore style is still something we are looking for,” he admits. But that takes time and along the way, he is keen to simply tell the tales of the Lion City and let its quirks and traditions seep into his art. “A lot of my work reflects that. We are still a young city with a lot of cultures in it, a melting pot as we like to say. What I want to show is the process and what Singapore is like through the eyes of a Singaporean,” Lo says.

But while he is on his second visit to Hong Kong, Lo is keen to check out what the Fragrant Harbour has to offer in terms of art and snacks. “I’d love to make more connections and see what I can do here,” he says. “Also, I’ll need to find some Hong Kong snacks to bring back for the wife.”

Also see: Sho Shibuya on turning The New York Times into art    

In this Story: #culture / #art & design