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Mark Ong aka SBTG
FOR a small country that is used to importing everything from sand to talent, it's rare we have anything or anyone we can call our own.
But Mark Ong has been quietly doing Singapore proud for over a decade now. He may not be a household name but the 37-year-old has achieved cult status and is revered by sneakerheads all over the world for his customised shoes.
Working under the moniker SBTG (short for 'Sabotage'), Ong is the OG - or Original Gangster, as the hypebeasts say for someone who is a pioneer in a certain field. At about US$500 a pop, it's no wonder his camouflage designs are to sneakerheads what Louis Vutton's monogram is to fashionistas.
Among his celebrity customers are basketball player Kobe Bryant and nu-metal group Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda, who have all come to personally collect their kicks from him.
By his own admission, it's a "21st-century job" and a dream-come-true for someone who hasn't stopped drawing since he was a kid and was inspired by the murals his father painted.
His works are also heavily influenced by skateboarding culture and punk rock - two of his passions - and Mr Ong hasn't looked back since he sold his first pair of customised Nikes online for US$300 in 2002. Some of his earlier works (if you can find them) now sell for thousands on dollars on auction sites.
SBTG's range has since been expanded to include apparel and small leather goods but it's sneakers that Ong is still best known for. He continues to collaborate with a variety of brands including New Balance, Asics and Puma.
His latest is with Reebok, where he has put the SBTG touch on a pair of Instapump Fury for local sneakers retailer Limited Edt. The trainers feature his signature "Parsillia" camouflage pattern and gets a feline makeover - a sign that this Lion City Boy hasn't forgotten his roots.
How did the ball start rolling for SBTG?
I won an online competition in 2003 and the next thing I knew, I had an order for 72 pairs of sneakers! Back then my techniques were not legit yet and I found myself having to sandpaper 72 pairs of shoes just to prep them - it was crazy but I hired a friend to help out. You could say I'm an idealist because I tend to see things in a different way and I use my hands to make that vision come true. I also like to cook but I don't look at recipes; instead I just work with the ingredients around me.
Did you get into trouble when you were younger by drawing on things and places you shouldn't?
I'm not a vandal or graffiti artist. I drew band logos on my shoes and textbooks; and when I came home from school, I would watch Masters of the Universe cartoons on television with a drawing board and sketch the Skeletor character from memory because there was no way to pause the show back then... I like to observe things and then try to remember (and reinterpret) them.
Why did you call yourself SBTG?
It's just a name. A lot of hobbyists paint but they have no name or they have one that is hard to remember. I didn't think too much about itafter I branded the first pair I sold as SBTG and it's been 14 years since.
Do you remember the first pair of non-commercial shoes you ever customised?
When I started skating as a teenager, we skaters would cut our shoes and leave the sponge exposed. I remember going to a bookstore and using a marker to paint it. I left without buying the marker!
What's SBTG's production run like these days?
I don't keep count but we're close to 5000 pairs over the last 10 years. It has grown a lot and we paint about a shoe a day. About 90 per cent of our customers come from America.
You run quite a tight ship with SBTG being just a team of three including yourself...
We don't strive to be a mass market brand; we just want to work with like-minded people by becoming their friends and then building on that relationship. As a team, we've been doing this for eight to nine years now and there is harmony in the studio. Before we got married, my wife Sue-Ann was already helping me in my parents' kitchen where the utility room was my studio and we had shoes all over the floor. The team could eventually grow but it has to be with the right people.
Both your logo (in Jawi characters) and camouflage patterns have become SBTG signatures. How did you come up with those designs?
The logo is based on the concept of camouflage. I got the inspiration when I was in the army and I was thinking of ways to camouflage my name in another language. I also like patterns and painting (military camouflage designs) can be quite therapeutic although that has become a luxury for me now because I deal more with the business side of things.
Why aren't there more people doing what you do?
There are actually, on and off, but it's still very niche. A lot of these hobby sneakers customisers will try to replicate the design of one shoe on another - like painting a Reebok to make it look like a Nike Air Jordan and then calling it a Jordan-inspired Reebok - but we have a certain aesthetic so we operate more like a brand than a hobbyist. Having an original style is important so we adopted a signature look which people come to us for.