Singaporean artist Samantha Lo talks about her past street art adventures and her current practice.
Art Radar drops by Singapore Art Week and converses with street artist Samantha Lo on the occasion of her latest solo exhibition “Greetings from Singapore” at One East Asia.
“Sticker Lady” and “Singaporean Banksy” are just some of the nicknames that the public has given her. A visual artist whose work began in the streets, Samantha Lo, a.k.a SKL0, made headlines in 2012 when she was arrested for disrupting her country’s infamously clean surroundings with jocular stickers and painted messages. After a heated debate among Singaporeans, which included an online petition that pushed for leniency, and a sentence of 240 hours of community service, Lo’s art practice turned over a new leaf. She entered the gallery scene and engaged in various art forms and media, such as installation, sculpture, watercolour, wheatpaste and spray paint, causing people to think that she is completely done with street art.
Lo, who herself considered her first solo exhibit, the “LIMPEH Show: Between Being Loved and Being Feared”, as a farewell to her past practice, decided to revisit and go very personal about her controversial moment with the law in her second solo. On view at One East Asia during Singapore Art Week, an event that is designed to promote Singapore as an arts destination, “Greetings from Singapore” consists mainly of photographs that document Lo’s past and present creative interruptions.
However, more than showing off the artist’s conquests in the streets, “Greetings from Singapore” reveals Lo’s continued questioning of her surroundings, which includes the system that governs it. As UK Senior Consultant to One East Asia, Viv Lawes writes in the essay entitled Greetings from Singapore and Other Stories,
This show is about the realities of Singaporean life. Or rather it is about one artist’s questioning of why those realities exist. SKL0/ Sam Lo is an artist obsessed with the way the city’s inhabitants interact with the urban landscape, and how their lives are directed by social expectations and norms, government directive and collective habit. She questions what it means to be a citizen, to live in an ostensibly free state in which behaviours are observed by security cameras and in which crossing the road at the ‘correct’ time is a matter of obligation. She observes these everyday happenings and then, to paraphrase Paul Klee, she takes them for a walk.
Born in 1986, Lo had a late start in her career as a professional artist. Formerly a laboratory technician, she established an online art magazine called RCGNTN in 2009, which caused her to learn about design and eventually enter the street art scene in 2011. While known to many as “Sticker Lady”, Lo has expanded her art practice to installation, sculpture, collage paintings and most recently, photography. Her work has been featured in a number of group shows and art events within her country and other parts of Asia, namely Urbanscapes 2012 (Malaysia), The Solidarity Movement urban exchange – Singapore x Manila showcase in 2013, Affordable Art Fair 2013 (Singapore), Georgetown Festival (GTF) Singapore House showcase (Malaysia) in 2014, and Seoul Art Toy Culture Convention (Korea) in 2014.
In this conversation, Lo talks about her venture to photography, confronting the past with a more objective standpoint, and finding her voice and a way to work around the strict system.
Congratulations on your second solo exhibition, Samantha! We are curious to know how your collaboration with One East Asia and participation in the Singapore Art Week came about.
Thank you! I guess One East Asia sees me as a rebel “with” a cause and feels strongly that my art bridges the generation gap in Singapore. The good thing is they believe that even in a country like Singapore that strictly controls street art, graffiti has a lifeline. Our Grandfather Road is a good example.
Let’s talk about your art form of choice for “Greetings from Singapore”: photography. Could you describe your relationship with your own camera? Are you the type who clicks away, capturing daily personal experiences? Or is your camera strictly for documenting your transient art pieces and creating new art?
The habit of bringing my camera around with me never really stuck for the first couple of years I had it. Initially, I bought it strictly to document my work in the gallery or commissions and maybe some visual references; but as time went by, I realised [that] I never had proper photos of my work in the streets, and those last a lot shorter than commissioned pieces!
Since then, I started documenting my work on the streets; and in the process learning more about developing a better eye for composition. I’m still not that good at it, I’m not a photographer by training; but with every photo, I felt it more meaningful for the work I do.
Revisiting the past is a brave and painful act for many artists. What was going through your head as you were preparing for this show? Art Radar seeks to know what you think of your previous works, which is dominated by street art.
Many things. After the last solo show “The LIMPEH Show”, which was supposed to be closure for me, I felt like something was missing and a lot of things were not ‘accounted for’. It was then that I realised that I never really approached that story with much grace, and tried to quickly move on from there like a bad memory.
And as I was preparing for this exhibition, I remembered a moment I had shortly after I left the lock-up and saw the media reports come in, where I had an idea for a show based on documenting this whole experience from start to finish through different perspectives. Come to think of it, I did seem pretty angry back then, and I’m really glad I’m approaching this story now with new additions and a calmer head. My indicator that I succeeded in dealing with the past, came through in the new work I came up with on the streets last year, and the joy I experienced getting back into it. I felt like I’m alive again, it’s been too long.
Speaking of street art, do you miss interrupting Singapore’s notoriously clean surroundings without permit? Is it true that part of street art’s charm is “mounting your work” without permission?
Yes I do, very much so. But I believe there’s a magic grey area that I can be happy in. And yes, the charm of street art is in its illegality. For it to feel like magic, it has to be a surprise. Hopefully it’s always pleasant.
How has your work evolved since your first solo exhibition? Would you be able to say that you have already found your voice as an artist? Or do you still consider it as an ongoing process?
It’s gone through a bunch of different phases mostly utilising the skill sets and ideas I’ve learnt ever since my jump into professional art-making in 2012. I think, in the past, I was putting a lot of pressure on myself trying to live up to everyone’s expectations that I forgot to have fun with it, and since the last solo exhibit I started being kinder on myself and learnt to be more aware of the conditions we are in.
You can say I learnt to make peace with myself that way, and every day is a constant reminder that I’ve come a good way from being lost. One of the biggest lessons I learnt was that as long as I trust myself and am genuine in everything I do, my heart can be seen in every piece I produce; and I guess you can say that’s guiding my artist journey. And, it’ll always be an ongoing process.
In Facebook, you mentioned that “I bare all in this show.” Could you expound on what you would like viewers to take away from “Greetings from Singapore”, considering that many still associate you with your controversial arrest for ‘vandalism’ in 2012?
If viewers remember the story from back then, it’ll be a lot easier to digest in this show; so I hope to reconnect with them through “Greetings from Singapore”, which I’ve made a little more personal as compared to the previous solo. I hope I’m able to show different viewpoints through news reports, personal documents and old photos of the actual work I installed on the streets back then, stuff that hit close to home accompanied by personal commentaries and my process. A lot of the things I plan to show have never been shown publicly, and I hope that when they see it, they will be able to add on more pieces to the story that they thought they knew.
With the increasing number of art institutions and collectors around the world embracing graffiti/street art as fine art, can you see a future for street artists in Singapore? If yes, what kind of future will that be, considering that Singapore strictly condemns vandalism?
To be honest, I’m not too sure about that. The interest in street art fluctuates here in Singapore, so I can’t really say, though I recognise that there is more acceptance [for] public art now as compared to back then. But I can say the number of artists, street or not, will only continue to grow as long as the artists who are around now keep doing what they do [while] kicking ass while at it. That will ensure that we will have a healthier take on a more art-filled future in Singapore.
You have revealed in previous interviews that you worked as a laboratory technician before becoming an artist. You also mentioned that you never had formal training as an artist. Could you share with us the very first piece of art you worked on? What prompted you to keep on creating?
When I was a child maybe? I’ve always loved drawing from the cartoons I watched after school but I never could colour within the lines. But I think the best thing I made back then – not an artwork per se – [was] a doorbell fashioned out of an old cassette cover and the sound module out of a Christmas card.
Fast forward to the first ‘proper’ art piece I worked on professionally, it was probably the LIMPEH painting using acrylic on canvas. Creating things that were functional were more appealing to me, but as time went by, I’ve learnt to enjoy art-making equally.
Your art is complemented by other initiatives, such as the Barter Market, wherein creatives acquire products/services from other creatives without putting out money. If ‘feeding your family’ were not an issue in your art making, what kind of artwork would you put out there?
I would invest in our creatives. One of my biggest dreams is to create a self-sustaining environment where creatives – artists, musicians and designers alike – could come together to create without worry, coming up with crazy interdisciplinary work that would serve a meaningful purpose in our society, while blowing minds at the same time.
We have some amazing people here, a lot of them haven’t met each other yet and they’re already great! Can you imagine if we got them all together, united like we were sharing a heartbeat?
Your process is summarised as “observation turned obsession”. We would like to know your current obsessions or the small things in Singapore that you would like to translate into future works of art…
I’ve been studying tiles and patterns from different religions as of late, as well as the tiles we find on our local streets. While learning more about the history of these patterns, I’ve been drawing parallels [between] the way we live and our human beliefs, so it has been really fascinating so far. Can’t tell you more!
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