“Don’t Call Me Sticker Lady”

Street artist Sam Lo is no rebel, but she definitely has a cause. She talks to us about her life before art, and how her emblematic stickers turned her into a national icon.

“Don’t Call Me Sticker Lady”

Sam Lo is a lot of things. In the years since her cheeky stickers catapulted her to fame, she’s become one of Singapore’s most recognisable street artists, a vocal LGBT-rights advocate, and an accidental poster-child for anti-establishmentarianism in Singapore.

But before Lo was any of that, she led an entirely different life: As a food technician at a local drinks company.

“After poly, I was just living day by day, thinking that by the time I was 25, I’d be married with kids or some sh–,” deadpans the 32-year-old. Under her father’s advice, Lo took up a ‘sensible’ job with a well-known drink manufacturer. 

But a sense of staleness and resignation always lingered in the air. “There was this sense of ‘Where else can I go?’ with a lot of the workers there,” says Lo. “Everything there was, like, sepia-toned. But in real life.”

Before she was an artist, Lo worked a dreary 8 – 5 job – until one day, she couldn’t. Today, she’s become one of Singapore’s most recognisable street artists, having recently designed Nike’s largest store in Southeast Asia and India. (Image: Sam Lo)

One day, Lo hit her limit. She threw in her punch card, took up a “generic” course in Business Management and started a part-time job at DHL. She didn’t know what her next move would be: But anything beat returning to the factory.

It was around this time that Lo got into street culture. She was a loyal follower of Hypebeast — before it became a pastiche — and started hanging out with more creatives in Singapore. Think DJs, artists, the like. There, she was surprised by the spirit and community she found:  “At that point of time, Singapore was always looking outside, internationally, to find creative talents,” she says. “I didn’t know any better, either — we always thought that what we had was inferior.” 

Soon, Lo began digging deeper into Singapore’s nascent, pre-2010s arts scene. She disliked how local acts were always considered second rate next to anything foreign — but at the same time, she was grappling with what it really meant to be a Singaporean.

“One of the biggest questions that kept coming up for me was: ‘What’s our culture here in Singapore? What are we, and what’s our identity as Singaporeans?'” she says. 

So she went out and started probing around. She asked people what they thought being Singaporean really meant: The most common response? “Who got time to think about that?”

And so, ironically, Lo accidentally stumbled onto her first big idea. She came up with her first set of stickers that said: ‘Slow the f–k down.’ The only question was where to paste them. 

As Lo tells it, that, too, was serendipitous. 

She says: “One day, I was standing behind an aunty at a traffic light, and she was just jabbing the button non-stop… I looked at the size of the traffic button and realised, it was the perfect size for those stickers!”

So Lo rushed home and cut them all down to size. She printed a few more while she was at it: ‘Press once can already’, ‘press until shiok‘ — all Singaporean adages that she knew would resonate with anyone born-and-bred locally. 

The sticker that started it all. (Image: Sam Lo)

And that’s how the ‘Sticker Lady’ — as most of Singapore knows her — was born. As Lo tells it, it was hardly an act of rebellion or something anti-establishment: Her stickers were, truthfully, born out of an innate patriotism that she still bears today. 

“It was sort of an inside joke that only Singaporeans would know,” she says. “That was the whole point — when people saw those stickers, they would get this feeling of being at home.” (Though Lo also continued pasting those stickers out of her own personal amusement: “It was funny. In fact, I thought it was so funny I did it for a few years.”)

But despite her stickers being her initial claim to fame, Lo shies away from that moniker these days. Not least because of the negative connotations that came after that — Lo admits that she struggled with depression following her arrests, and took a long time to come to terms with it — but because her dislike of the ‘Sticker Lady’ title is twofold. 

Firstly, because it pigeonholed her into doing just stickers (“Can you call yourself an artist if you know how to paste sticker only?”), but also because Lo doesn’t personally identify as a lady. 

Lo is openly gay, and has been out for so many years that thinking back to her days in the closet makes her feel uncomfortable. 

“I know how hard it is to not be out, because it feels like you aren’t living a hundred percent,” she says. “And that’s what hurts me most, knowing a lot of LGBT people in Singapore experience that.”

That’s why much of her personal works revolve around LGBT rights and advocacy. While Sam Lo the artist is more than happy to do tie-ins with the Singapore Tourism Board and Nike to represent her country, Sklo, on the other hand, openly advocates for gay rights, does collaborations with Pink Dot, and lives her best life as a gay woman.

Some think that she’s sold out, in part due to her commercial collaborations.  But for Lo — who proudly identifies as a ‘balance-loving Libra’ — she sees the value in maintaining her dual personas. 

“I work with a lot of commercial brands just so I can get by, and because of that, lots of people think I sold out. But Sam Lo is the commercial artist, while my Sklo persona is the street artist, the advocate,” she explains. “Maybe ’cause I’m a Libra. That’s why I can split the two evenly.”

Earlier this year, Lo did a special mural for the YouthX festival, a comission by the National Youth Council. It’s one of the many commercial works she does to help fund her Sklo alter ego. (Image: Sam Lo)

Beyond her art, Lo is also looking to build an online resource where victims of sexual harassment and homophobic bullying can find information and help. It’s so that people can access the resource at any time to be able to seek help for themselves. 

Lo admits that she still does get ‘hate’ from people, whether its for being outspoken about her homosexuality, or just for simply being a non-closeted gay woman. But it hardly deters her from speaking up about the causes she supports.

“One of the biggest issues about Singapore is that if we don’t talk about these issues out loud, then nothing changes,” she says. “So for change to actually happen, we need to talk about things.”

Lo doesn’t deny that it is tough being an artist in Singapore. She admits that many of her peers, including herself, have to “self-police” their works to ensure that they stay within the boundaries of what’s legal.

But despite those limitations, Lo wants to continue creating art in Singapore – mostly because her love for her work is second only to her love for the people that live here.

“And really, I have so much fun with art,” she says. “I had such a rush when I pasted that first sticker, and I still do!”

“If I didn’t do art, I wouldn’t know how it would feel to be alive.”

A version of this story first appeared in the October issue of A.

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