[dropcap size=big]M[/dropcap]ark Ong’s success story is a charmed one: A young man who loves drawing on sneakers enters an international sneaker design competition, wins, and instantly becomes popular enough to turn his hobby into a cult-status business, known as SBTG (which stands for sabotage).

In just 12 years, Ong and his wife, Sue-Ann Lim, have become legends in the sneaker scene, with celebrities like basketball legend Kobe Bryant, actor Don Johnson, rock band Linkin Park and rapper Q-Tip among their many dedicated fans. Sneaker companies like Converse and DC have scrambled for collaborations, and even non-footwear brands like Casio and Johnnie Walker have released limited edition SBTG-designed products. Their partnership with leading streetwear online magazine Hypebeast on a capsule collection in June added over 1,000 followers to SBTG’s Instagram account.

SBTG’s thriving Instagram account has achieved a cult following.

“There are very few people who do what we do, and we’ve been around the longest,” says Lim. “Those who didn’t last probably still treated it as a hobby instead of a business. Painting for fun and painting every day from nine to five are two very different things.”

It did, of course, start as a hobby. Ong entered a competition to customise sneakers on www.niketalk.com in 2003. Almost immediately after his win, he got an order for 72 pairs from Tokyo iconic sneaker boutiques Atmos and Chapter, and Singapore progressive multi-label retailer Ambush. The rest is history. He started working out of his father’s kitchen with the help of Lim and some friends, but was later invited by his pals at art collective Phunk Studio to share their office.

“If they didn’t offer, I never would have committed to renting a space. I was just 25 years old,” he says. Phunk Studio didn’t just give Ong the push he needed. Its members were unwittingly teaching the pair the ropes of running a creative outfit. “Seeing how they came together to make decisions and just observing them in their environment gave us a point of reference,” shares Lim. “We learnt a lot in the five years we worked next to them.”


While the two are both gifted artists who paint each shoe by hand with the help of just one employee, it is Ong who sets the design direction, while Lim acts as his sounding board and financial officer. It is, after all, a guy’s brand.

“I don’t get in his way,” she says. “But, if he shows me a design that I think is too out there, I have to tell him to rein it in,because the general population may not appreciate it. As long as I understand it, it’s good to go.”

Ong chimes in: “We used to take 12 to 16 hours to paint one pair. But now we can finish one in four to six hours. We’ve got a good rhythm going.”

Ong’s influences come largely from military camouflage patterns and the punk subculture – specifically the parts that espouse freedom and the DIY ethic. These values took root in Ong early and, perhaps surprisingly, due to his father’s influence.

“I’ve been sketching since I was three, but my dad was creative as well. I grew up surrounded by his beautiful murals and DIY projects,” he recalls. “Once, he wanted a brick wall in the house but didn’t want to lay any actual bricks so he painted them on, complete with textures. So I always thought that was how you do things in life – by yourself.”

About 95 per cent of their clientele is based in the US, majority of whom discovered the brand through online sneaker community Niketalk. “Americans are more receptive. Our shoes aren’t exactly cheap. They start from US$500 (S$705), and we had a security guard from New York buy a US$2,000 painting of ours. Singaporeans may have the money to do that too but they won’t; they’re not ready,” he says. “That being said, more Singaporeans are buying our stuff now than before, and department stores like Tangs and Robinsons have approached us for their events.”


The launch of their special edition Nike SB Dunk Low in 2006 was so successful, it made primetime news in New Zealand and Thailand. They even recently shipped a pair all the way to Kuwait, and will be travelling to Hong Kong and Tokyo at the end of the year to launch collaborations with Asics and Puma, respectively. The outfit receives a monthly average of 50 orders and, if that number seems small, that is the way he intends to keep it. He says: “Every SBTG product has a story. If we start mass producing, that takes away the exclusivity. I don’t want to turn this into a factory.”

Despite the possibility of greater support and opportunities stateside – or anywhere else for that matter – the pair are staying put. “We see it as an opportunity and a duty. It’s important to have that ‘Made in Singapore’ label. Our creative climate is growing and we get to help write this chapter in history,” he says. As Lim sums it up: “The scene isn’t going to grow if you’re just going to complain and move elsewhere.” For Mr and Mrs SBTG, it’s go big then go home.