Mark Ong (aka SBTG or SABOTAGE) has to be the most prolific custom sneaker artist on the planet. Renowned for his scientifically precise brushstrokes, Mark has a loyal fanbase that dig his inimitable and ever-mutating punk rawk style of cut and paste. Now he has his talented fingers all over a mini-range for DC that includes shorts, hats, tees and shoes, making this a pretty big deal. Fresh from a promotional tour through Asia, we sat down with Mark to see what’s what in the land of Singapore.
As seen in Issue 18 of Sneaker Freaker.
How’s Singapore these days?
Aside from the humidity and heatwave, it’s great! As described by my friend Jeremy Hale, we live in God’s country, the Garden of Eden. We also have two excellent new malls that I frequently visit, the ION Orchard which has MUJI, my favourite store, and the best foodcourt on the planet! There’s also 313 at Somerset which has carpeted flooring, the Limited Edition Vault, UNIQLO and Marche. The feng shui of this mall is just perfect.
You’ve been customising shoes for quite a few years now, how do you stay motivated and creatively satisfied?
I must say that it’s getting better and I am at the highest point of my career right now. I’m working with my wife and my brother. I stay motivated by constantly making an effort to deliver value and make a difference in people’s lives in every platform I can. That keeps me motivated and feeds my creativity.
I was surprised at how incredibly prolific you were last year. How do you balance the Royalefam label with everything else you’re doing?
I‘m delighted that you think so. All in all it has been a great year, despite the fact we actually closed the book on the clothing line. Surprisingly though, once that was out of the way, I felt a great sense of relief knowing that I could now refocus my energy on the rest of my journey. We also found out that Royalefam will exist in collaborations and it’s no longer bound by a certain look. We will be doing collaborative projects with experts in their respective fields and various other companies.
Are you still painting sneakers yourself?
Hell yeah! There’s always something that’s personable about hand painted shoes and I do have my trusty assistant, Jean, who makes sure everything is on point! Other than that, the base painting is now done by our interns. It all works out very well, they get the experience, build their confidence and we get the job done. It’s win-win!
One custom project that stood out was the SBTG Cadillac SUV for luxury4play.com. What was that all about? The car tax if you ever brought that beast home to SP would be nuts!
This was all made possible by my friend and client, Knick Jimenez, who is the founder of Luxury4play.com. We were simply chatting online, sharing ideas about a car that looked just like my Nike SB and he suddenly said ‘Fuck it! I’m gonna do it!’ We flipped when we saw it and he drove it all over the state for their GoldRush Rally.
Hanging with Kobe Bryant and presenting him with your Black Mamba custom Nikes would have to be a highlight as well?
Hell Yeah! Shaking his hand was quite an experience, I literally felt his greatness. I wouldn’t have been able to present those shoes to him with that much confidence had it not been for our great concept, ‘What if Kobe went to Duke?’, a story nailed by my good friend, Dennis Tan.
Looking at your recent work, you seem to be getting punkier as you get older.
Yes, as the years drift by my designs mature, meanwhile I’m discovering more about myself. My expression is honest and reflective of my influences. I’m not all that into music but I often become obsessed with specific musicians. At one point, I had nothing but Rancid playing on my Discman for an entire year. Tim Armstrong definitely contributed to my aesthetic. It definitely resonates with how I work. I was also a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan, I could recite every track from their debut album and during that phase I wore DC shoes a lot.
Didn’t you do a Michael Jackson tribute as well?
Yes, the Thriller. Not only was the design a breakthrough for me but it was the first custom without a Swoosh. That tribute was based on Michael Jackson’s jacket and it sold really well too.
Many ‘older’ guys are going back to basics, as if they’re scared of colour and energetic clothing. How do you feel about this conservative aspect of the scene right now?
It’s a phase, a cycle that is inevitable. I was talking to Eugene from New Balance today about going through these phases and it is very important not to remove the power from a style that isn’t current. Styles will always evolve but just always remember not to lose yourself in it. As long as you’re still you, it makes no difference what style you carry.
Ok! Of course we’re here to talk about your DC colab, actually it’s a lot bigger deal than just one shoe. It seems to me that this might be the way forward, letting creatives develop a mini-range over time that matures.
This DC project happens to be the biggest project I’ve ever done – designing a mini range and touring to promote it and organizing competitions around it. We had everyone from Hollywood celebrities to NBA athletes requesting it and we even had a huge billboard on Melrose! I’m stoked. I also got to complete part of my mission in life, which is to fill the world with sneakers designed with integrity. It’s all about the people that will wear them, not an international project to boost my ego. I’ll be working more with DC and I must say that they’re the most organised company I have worked with. I am very thankful for the relationships and friends I’ve made and most of all, how they take care of people.
You’ve been a Nike guy for such a long time, why step into the water with DC?
Well I was a skate-shoe guy the entire ‘90s before I got my first pair of Nikes. For this Circus of Mutants project it only made sense to work with a skate shoe company and DC was the natural choice. Working with DC is like revisiting my roots, if you will.
Did you get to see your billboard?
I shed a tear when I saw it. It was a moving experience, it’s not everyday you get to see a billboard bearing your work in one of the highest profile places. I love how we’ve been able to make so much noise, despite the fact we’re on the other side of the globe.
Agreed! I’m intrigued by the local angle of the Mutants crew...
Quoting one of the founders, Suhaimi, “Circle of Mutants was formed back in 1984 on the eastern side of Singapore with the intention of raising my younger brother in a positive way through skateboarding!” They were most well known because they had ramps that they built themselves.
Singapore is notoriously hardline, I remember when chewing gum was banned! How does the Singaporean establishment cope with kids skating? Does this hinder creativity?
Yes, it is a tightly controlled regime but that’s the impression the Singapore Government wants to portray. It’s beautiful! I would assume that the restrictions on skateboarding are very similar to other parts of the world. If you disturb the peace, you get kicked out. Have you been here?
Many times. I like Singapore, it’s just a bit clean for me. What about graff?
I’m not sure how you would define it but we have a handful of good graff writers and we also have legal walls that the Government approves. In my opinion, it teaches respect more than it hinders anything. I like it this way.
The first SBTG DC was all about Lucas Ng. How did the Fly get his nickname?
It was very simple back in the day, Lucas had the highest air!
Is he really annoying as well?
You have no idea...
Ha! Cockroach, Mosquito, Dung Beetle. Did you have a nickname?
I was too young to be part of that crew. The intention of this project evolved from telling a story about the Fly to paying tribute to skateboarding in Singapore, which was awesome! We took a localised story and presented it to an internationally respected leader in skateboard footwear. However we are gonna close the chapter for Circus of Mutants and move on to tell the story of other cities! We’re having talks with Jimi Skateshop from Taipei and perhaps Malaysia is in the pipeline. It’s all about glorifying these communities that kept it alive since day one.
Speaking of which, you have been on tour through Asia this month. What’s the reaction been like? It’s like you’re a rockstar!
I feel like a rockstar when I’m being interviewed by the media, signing autographs and all that, but I must say, the biggest reaction came from people in Manila. I was told that I make them proud because I’m a fellow Asian and I kinda look like them. What was interesting was that I autographed my first body – a girl’s waistline. My number one fan also happens to be from the Philippines. Meeting him for the first time was amazing. I was even surprised with a custom tailored vintage Zorlac workshirt that was my size. The shirt said, ‘No Punk Rock No Life’ and was won from an eBay auction. Top that! I made so many friends during the tour and aside from interacting with my fans, I became a fan of Renee Renee and Greg Myers!
Finally, if you could change one thing in the streetwear industry, what would it be?
Nothing, it’s perfect as it is and I’m very happy to be contributing to it.