Sticking to budding artist label

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 18, 2013

Artist Samantha Lo could do with a speed limit sticker that she designed and first stuck on traffic light buttons more than a year ago. Specifically, the one that says "Slow the f*** down".

With the recent conclusion of the high-profile court case over slogans she spray-painted and pasted on roads and traffic lights, the 27-year-old has found renewed vigour in her creative work.

Her hands are full with no fewer than seven projects, including a series of paintings she plans to show at the Affordable Art Fair later this year. The works on canvas will mark her debut as a visual artist and her move off the streets.

The paintings feature bottles of cultured milk marked with her witty humour. The label of the drink reads: "More cultured than you will ever be!"

The piece pokes fun at art as high culture, and artists and art-buyers who rely on their association with art as a status symbol.

The crux of the work is the question of identity and the issue has been close to Lo's heart since the case made headlines last year.

She says: "For the past year, my biggest struggle was with my identity as an artist and embracing the term 'artist'.

"After I was arrested, day one, I was labelled a vandal, day two I was labelled a street artist... and I was thinking, was that my intention? I just wanted to make things that made sense and that other people could relate to. That has always been what I stood for."

Lo, who has a bachelor's degree in business management from the Singapore Institute of Management University and was formerly a project manager at a brand consultancy, adds: "I remember my friends telling me, 'People already say you're an artist, then be one lah.'

"I'm like, okay, maybe that's what an artist should be doing. But I never went to art school, how am I credible?"

Equally, there were those who advised her to distance herself from the title. "But how would you label the things I was doing?" she says.

However, she was gradually moved to see herself as an artist.

For one, the arts community embraced her unreservedly as one of its own and frequently spoke out in support of her during the case.

Encouragement from prominent Thai artist Pratchaya Phintong, with whom she collaborated on an art installation at the Singapore Art Museum last year, also assuaged her self-doubt. She reveres the role of an artist and felt her lack of technical skill made her undeserving of the title.

She recalls: "He was like, 'It is what you create out of what you feel that is important.'"

But she is acutely aware that she is a greenhorn. When talking about her practice, the budding visual artist peppers her speech with the phrases "I'm still very new", "I'm still learning" and "I'm still not there yet".

Similarly, she is not embarrassed about having to learn and hone her painting skills by watching fellow artists in the 10-member art collective RSCLS (pronounced Rascals) at work. "I know that if I could paint and if I could visualise things better, I could communicate more powerfully," she says.

She is also tackling another predicament in her works. Because they are characterised by simple, catchy images and phrases, they tend to evoke an impulse reaction but not deeper contemplation in the viewer.

"My next challenge would be to stretch that reaction," she says. Works in her first solo show, which she is progressing towards, aim to do so by getting viewers to interact with the pieces and in turn, develop strong attachment to the message and issues raised.

The various challenges she faces may make her a dark horse in the visual arts scene but she is no stranger to the rank of an underdog.

Her involvement with the arts grew out of a platform, RCGNTN, which she founded in 2009 to champion local art talents who had fallen under the radar. She started the website from scratch and taught herself graphic design for this purpose.

But she realised after three years that the website and the art shows it organised were unable to break out of audiences in creative circles and reach the man in the street.

Dissatisfied and refusing to let it go, she thought hard about how she could change things. "If I want my message to reach out to these people, how am I going to do that? To me, it is to make it straightforward, relevant, easily understood," she says. With that, the infamous traffic light stickers were born.

She was ready for the legal repercussions of her actions - she was sentenced to 240 hours of community service within 12 months and a day reporting order for three months - but she did not count on having her life scrutinised by the media and her loved ones dragged into the fray.

Yet she acknowledges that good has come out of the saga. Her ties with her father, a pilot, her mother, a housewife, and friends who stood by her were strengthened through the ordeal.

Her work also gained prominence and opened doors to commissions from organisations such as the Singapore Zoo and Sentosa, as well as individual art collectors. In turn, the money she earned allowed her to pay for removing the spray paintings and stickers, which totalled $3,888.

She says: "I'm also very, very grateful that people started looking at my story, talking about it, creating dialogue. It's a fine example of how unity and solidarity can encourage some change and bring issues to light. This is an example of how much we can do, and we can do so much more as a people."

It is for this reason she hopes to publish a book in time that will document the episode through personal writings and essays by others.

But she is otherwise eager to put the episode behind her and move on, especially when it comes to her art because she does not want to ride on the hype.

She also admits feeling pressure from having her art live up to the extensive reach her stickers had.

"A little bit, I won't lie, but not so much because it is still me who is producing it," she says. "I am sorry if I cannot produce something as funny or as light as the stickers again, maybe, because after my year of experiences, I am no longer the same person as I was before. But I know I feel more satisfied doing this now."

And there is no stopping her.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on June 18, 2013

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