Peter Beaumont, The Guardian, June 17th 2012
In Hoxton or New York, it might be regarded as commonplace – witty stencils and stickers posted by an artist around public spaces. In Singapore, however, a city obsessed with order and where “vandals” can be flogged, 27-year-old Samantha Lo – the so-called “Sticker Lady” – has inspired a massive online campaign after being arrested for posting stickers.
Lo, founder of an online arts magazine, has been arrested for sticking messages on traffic signal buttons, including “Press to Time Travel” or “Press to Stop Time”, as well as on suspicion of painting messages on roads reading “My Grandfather Road” – a Singaporean pun on bad driving and, some believe, the out-of-touch government of Singapore.
Lo’s arrest, which has been condemned by more than 14,000 people who have signed an online petition calling for leniency in the way she is treated, has triggered deep soul-searching in the city state, which is infamous for its enforcement of strict social order and banned the sale of chewing gum to keep its pavements clean.
If charged under Singapore’s draconian 1966 vandalism law, Lo could face up to three years in jail and a $2,000 (£1,000) fine. Men who are convicted, even of first offences, also receive three strokes of the cane.
Lo’s stickers first appeared earlier this year, and included a monochrome image of an older man stylised in black-and-white, with the word “Limpeh” – meaning “your father” – which is sometimes used as a rude phrase in Singapore. Some have suggested that the man bears a resemblance to Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding statesman.
While Lo herself was unavailable for comment, an online petition has attracted a large number of comments criticising Singapore’s repressive laws. “Creativity requires a little chaos,” wrote one poster, while another, named Gene Ho, argues: “I think it’s tastefully done. Not political nor damaging to the nation. In fact, by issuing a fine or caning sentence shows just how tight-assed and conservative the nation is. Supporting the arts you say? Why not open up your minds first. Laugh at yourselves a little and maybe you will really understand what art is. It’s not just ballet or drama or a che che symphonic event. It’s more than that. So take the stick out of your asses and let the girl go. She’s helped a lot of creatives open up.”
In a statement, however, Singapore’s police insisted, “the case is classified as vandalism”, adding that offenders would be dealt with severely.
Defending the tough line, a police spokesman told a Singaporean website that it had diverted “substantial resources to identify the suspect involved” and carried out “intensive inquiries and legwork”.
“This is on top of the considerable time, effort and cost to clean up the roads and affected areas. Vandalising public property is a very irresponsible act. Offenders will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”
In the escalating row over her treatment – in a country where locksmiths and other small businesses regularly put up advertising stickers but are rarely prosecuted – Lo has attracted the support of several members of Singapore’s parliament, among them Janice Koh, who has compared Lo’s work with that of the British street artist Banksy. She called on the authorities to handle the case “with a light touch”.
Koh said: “It is almost impossible to talk about developing a culturally vibrant, creative or lovable city, without some tolerance for those slightly messy activities that sometimes challenge the rules. For Singapore, it would be useful to make a distinction between this kind of art and outright graffiti or vandalism that seeks to deliberately destroy public property for its own sake.”
Not all those who have commented publicly, however, have been so tolerant, with a number calling for Lo to be punished under the vandalism law.
One, Ann Hee Kyet, insisted: “This is definitely vandalism. Stop hiding behind the excuse of art. The stickers are creative and cheeky, in the style of schoolgirl pranks. If we allow such acts to go unpunished, more people would be encouraged to try their own versions.”