Living by his own rules

Individuals are putting their stamp on the world, making real their aspirations in ways that previous generations might never have thought of. Our series delves into how they take bold steps to achieve their life goals in Big Plans Take Time. Michelle Chin speaks to sneaker artist Mark Ong, our 16th profile, whose love for customising sneakers led him to do it for a living.

Mr Mark Ong's clientele includes celebrities like American band Linkin Park frontman Mike Shinoda and basketball legend Kobe Bryant. PHOTO: SBTG SURPLUS
Since 2003, he has customised and sold more than 5,000 pairs of sneakers. PHOTO: SBTG SURPLUS

Skateboarding might as well be a metaphor for today's gig-economy-driven climate, where short-term positions and temporary contracts are common. Fancy tricks and stunts take a blink of an eye to display, but they require long hours and much effort to perfect.

Sneaker artist Mark Ong's passion for skateboarding has trained him to be not only constantly creative, but also "evolve beyond his surroundings".

He says: "Skateboarding taught me to accept failure as a journey towards success. It also influenced me to depend less on external sources and have a strong do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude in life."

With steely resolve and this mantra, Mr Ong took on gigs that utilised his expertise in customising sneakers for more than 14 years, and turned it into a full-time career that is still going strong.

Since 2003, he has customised and sold more than 5,000 pairs under the SBTG brand, which stands for Sabotage. The latter was a moniker he coined to brand himself as an artist while he was still schooling.

Live your life and be free

Mr Ong has always lived life the way he wants, balancing his passion for skateboarding and punk rock music while making a livelihood out of creating bespoke sneakers.

Says Mr Ong: "I'm essentially an artist. The sneaker is one of the mediums I use to express myself. Painting on sneakers gives me the freedom to turn my imagination into reality. That it is my livelihood is the icing on the cake.

"To me, it's living on my own terms."

Mr Ong's creative work extends to customising jackets and leather bags. But he still finds time to skate with his buddies every weekend, mostly around the Marina Bay area.

Creative work remains Mr Ong's first love, though he is more business savvy now. PHOTO: SBTG SURPLUS

Keeping it real

Mr Ong buys sneakers, customises their designs and then sells them to sneaker fans worldwide. Each pair typically ranges from US$150 (S$199) to $800, but the price can go beyond this range.


Most of his clients are from the United States, including celebrities like American band Linkin Park frontman Mike Shinoda and basketball legend Kobe Bryant.

"I always believe that we are only attracted to a pair of sneakers 80 per cent, and what we do fulfils that crucial 20 per cent," he says.

Last December, he received individual orders for 68 pairs of sneakers and a bulk order for 111 pairs. Customers usually make advance payments in full, so this supports cashflow and funds his business.

He plays many genres of music in his rented 800 sq ft studio in a flatted factory at Commonwealth Drive, but punk rock is the soundtrack that influences his work.

Mr Ong co-owns his company with his wife Sue-Anne, who quit her financial planning career in 2008 to help him plan their financial future. Besides hiring two staff members, they have also engaged an external financial planner for the long term.

"Our roles overlap a lot, but mostly, she manages the finances and paints, while I attend to sales matters and everything creative," he says.

Creative work remains his first love, but he is learning to be astute about finances, keeping inventory close to zero and making everything to order.

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