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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Singapore Street Art: The Legal Rebels (Part 1)

Artist Sam Lo gained notoriety in 2012 after getting arrested for stencilling the phrase ‘My Grandfather Road’ on a public road. The incident was highly publicised, leading to debates about the line between vandalism and creative expression, and the monicker of ‘Sticker Lady’ (a name derived from the circular stickers they had pasted on traffic lights). In the end, the charge of vandalism became reduced to that of “mischief” instead, with the accompanying punishment of 240 hours of community service.

Now, eight years later, Sam is featured in a micro-documentary, produced by online visual magazine Not Safe For TV, titled “An Arrested Street Artist’s Road to Redemption”, which has racked up almost 600,000 views online to date. Seen with their friends and loved ones, including street art collective RSCLS, and their aunt, theatre actress Karen Tan, Sam appears to have come out of the experience with a sense of perspective and clarity that can only come with distance and self-acceptance. Today, Sam is a well-respected visual artist with a diverse practice.

ArtsEquator asks them some questions about the incident and how things have been since then.

This interview has been edited for clarity. 

ArtsEquator: Hi Sam, can you introduce yourself, on your own terms?

Sam: Hello! I am Sam Lo/ SKL0, a non-binary visual artist.

ArtsEquator: Looking back on what happened – the arrest, the interactions with police, the media coverage, the way society reacted to you – which part of it was the hardest to make peace with and why? Do you try to distance yourself from it/embrace it?

Sam: The media coverage was the hardest part for me, most definitely. Although it led to plenty of awareness and support, there was a large cost to that too. From day one, the depiction of myself as a ‘vandal’ in the papers, and then as an ‘artist’ on day two was a key point of how they were able to change the optics on the case. And then we see in subsequent days, new articles that came out included more information on my personal life. How they got this information is something I find most appalling. From digging through my social media, to finding people I knew to give quotes, to interviewing my unknowing uncle, and worst, when they showed up at my doorstep. It was a time when I was afraid to head out and my dad told them to leave as I was traumatised enough. They turned what he said into a headline.

The media coverage started the domino effect for how society reacted to me – both good and bad, but half of the information they shared was completely unnecessary. I distanced myself from it for a good period of time and only spoke publicly later once my case was concluded because I wanted to take that power back, to reclaim my story. And while the trauma from it stayed, I used that to better inform how I deal with the media up till this day. That means being extra careful, reserving and preserving more of myself in the process so they cannot take anything else from me.

ArtsEquator: You shared a little bit in the video about how your parents reacted to the whole incident. Did it ever get to a point where they could understand your perspective of what happened?

Sam: To be honest, when the first article on my stickers came up in 2011, which was prior to my arrest and I was still anonymous, my mom brought the article to a family dinner and proudly told them I was behind it. That was pretty funny in a weird kinda way.

When I was arrested, they felt how serious it was with the policemen in the house – it was like feeling the impact and consequences of breaking the law right in your own house. It was a scary time, because as a family we didn’t know what to do from there. But when they saw messages of support from the community, they started feeling a lot lighter and that helped us carry on. I totally get it that as parents, they were worried and were looking out for me; even though they understood my motivations, it was still illegal, and they didn’t want that for me.

ArtsEquator: In the documentary, you mentioned that you said sorry to Antz about what happened (Antz Chong from RSCLS received a lighter sentence in relation to the same incident). Why did you feel this need to apologise? Can you give us a sense of your relationship back then and now?

Sam: Antz was the first name I would always call when it came to doing work in the streets, and he would always agree without hesitation. He was like a brother to me, always encouraging and he always had my back. He was out on the streets with me when we did ‘My Grandfather Road’, so when we were both identified and arrested I felt that guilt for involving him in this with me.

It was a lot worse then because a lot of people focused attention on me and overlooked support for him, which I felt was really unfair. From then on I’ve always felt that guilt and no matter how much he says it’s okay because he’s so chill, I always felt like things could’ve been done to avoid all this. But I’m glad we’ve unpacked and addressed what happened proper and our friendship is the same. I still see him as Antz and he sees me as Sam and in his own words, “Normal la!”.

ArtsEquator: In the past 8 years, you’ve gone through an intense period of self-training as an artist – was that a sort of penance, distraction, or something else?

Sam: At the time I decided to pursue art full-time, I had no prior art background, everything I did was self-taught with Illustrator and Photoshop as my main skillset from the time I was running RCGNTN (an online platform for local talent). And with the ‘Sticker Lady’ label that came from the arrest, I wanted to prove that I could do more than just that. People assumed as a ‘street artist’ I would already know how to paint murals but I had never painted anything prior to that.

I had things I wanted to say, and I wanted to diversify my skillsets to better express myself and do justice to the word/ title “artist”. More than anything I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, and if I’m going to be an artist and make meaningful things, I am going to push on and try to be better every day. In that time (and till today) I have gone into different mediums – from sculpts to resin casting, watercolour, wheatpasting, pen and digital illustrations and, of course, aerosol painting. I learnt so much about artmaking and about myself as a human being and I’m really glad that I did that, for it greatly informed my art practice and my understanding of the world. I tested and went beyond my limits through the years and more importantly I learnt to trust and be kind to myself, which greatly helped me forgive myself for how hard I was on my own progress.

ArtsEquator: What advice would you give to a younger Sam, the pre-Sticker Lady Sam?

Sam: To not approach the world with naivety, and to be kind on yourself.

ArtsEquator: How do you feel about this video and the idea of your “road to redemption”?

Sam: I had a lot of fun on it, and it was made easier with the wonderful team who handled the story with such sensitivity. To be honest I was a little worried about how intimate it was going to be and I wasn’t sure how much of my personal life I wanted to share, but the team made it easier and I had the support of those closest to me. There were times I had to revisit some painful moments and skeletons in the closet, and the video was just filled with these moments of vulnerability that I was pretty nervous about having people watch it. But I’m glad it was made and that I got to reclaim my story, and hopefully the people who watch it, who knew what happened then, are able to get a better understanding of the other side of the story.


You can watch the interview with Sam Lo, and other videos by Not Safe For TV here.

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