You’re pretty highly regarded in the custom scene, but we we’re just talking about some of the frustrations you’re feeling about being part of that world. Where are these coming from?
Customising in itself isn’t entirely sustainable, especially as a living. It gets to the point where you’ve gained as much information and as mush respect as you can out of doing other people’s designs. It comes to the point where you have to almost give up on customising and get to actually producing original work which is what I am all about. I think a lot of people when they start out in customising have to play to what other people want in order to get orders, in order to obtain jobs
You’re talking about safari print pattern or the stuff that’s already out there on the latest Quickstrikes?
Yeah that’s right. I get never-ending amounts of Tiffany, UNKLE, sort of inspired things that people want you to do. And it’s so endlessly frustrating because it’s not original.
But do you think people generally want stuff that’s truly original? Fashion by definition has an element of conformity to it. Who would you say your customer base is?
I think my main customer base is either the wealthy who can afford to spend the extra money and get an original pair of custom sneakers. Or people who just want to be different and stand out, some guys even get it as a piece of “art” to shelve and show off. I think you get to a point in a culture that values originality so much that originality becomes hard to sustain, with the amount of stuff produced…
But I wonder if it’s all about originality, even in the custom world? Take Methamphibian and SBTG. Both are fantastic artists. They make the most desirable custom shoes you can get. But they both make a very identifiable product. Each has developed their art into a very identifiable, relatively standardized brand. Meth’s work is amazing, no doubt. But my guess is it sells and attracts the hype because it is so recognizable, rather than being unique in a one-of-a-kind sort of way.
I think that’s right. He’s almost become a designer now more so than a customiser. And I think that’s what you desire to be when you become an artist. If someone can identify your product without your name on it you’ve really achieved what you’re after because at the end of the day you’ve developed your own original style. Anyone can paint a safari or a cement print. There’s nothing to it. Meth and SBTG have become a part of a niche market and they’ve found a way to exploit it with their designs which are original.
And I think most of all they’re proud of what they do and they really enjoy it. If you can find something that you enjoy doing and you’re proud of then it’s always going to look better than work that someone’s employed to produce just because they are technically a good artist.
A lot of customizers also want to get into this these days because they see it as a way of doing a collaboration with a sneaker company. Both Meth and SBTG are original and they both achieved this. At this point in time though no one else has been picked up to the best of my knowledge by a sneaker company, it seems to be mostly clothing labels and stores for example that get the collabs, I hope a few more customizers get the chance in the near future though.
This is probably a hard question for you to answer without you sounding a bit self serving or above it all. But there’s so much custom stuff out there now. How much of it all actually makes an impression on you?
I think it’s funny. I’m a pretty modest guy and don’t like talking down anyone else’s work. But if you go to any custom forum and you pick at random 50 customisers, I’d say that only 3 or 4 could call themselves artists.
In saying that, you’re actually quite humble about what you’re creating too. You’d probably have reservations about describing what you do as art. Why is that?
I think I get a little embarrassed when anyone gets excited about what I do. Honestly it’s a pleasure and very rewarding to have my work recognized on any level but I don’t feel its necessary for me to be there while its being recognized if that makes sense. I prefer to keep myself out of the limelight and let my work do the talking. What I do is a little left of center and I think that’s why I’ve gained a little bit of noteriety… At the end of the day I’m most well known for painting sneakers, I do heaps of other stuff, but its sneakers that has helped me make a name.
I mean yes what you do is well produced and it looks good and you’ve developed an identifiable range of characters and visual themes, but as you were saying to me before, what you can actually do with acrylic paint on tiny sneaker panels is limited to begin with.
That’s right. It’s a pretty small canvas, and artistic ability doesn’t always come into it when you fill such a small space. I just play to my strengths: an eye for color, detail and patience. I think a lot of customisers don’t have a good eye for color. You can produce a simple shoe that looks ridiculous, just because the colors don’t go together so well. You don’t have to paint a mural of the Mona Lisa on the side of a sneaker for it to look good. In fact it would probably look bad! Because it wouldn’t suit it’s medium.
And the other thing is, with so much retail product out there now, with so much variation, how hard do you have to try if you want to wear something that’s different anyway? We all talk fondly about the good old days. Well in the real good old days your consumer choices were a hell of a lot more limited than what they are today. You can appreciate how custom shoes back then might have been necessary in order to make a fairly uniform product fit your own personal style. But now there’s just so much stuff everywhere, there’s so many choices that you rarely see people- barring a few conspicuous models- with the same thing on anyway. And most of the retail stuff you do see is so over the top that it makes a lot of the more in-your-face customs just seem run of the mill.
That’s exactly right. We’re sitting at a basketball court now and there’s a kid in front of us who has painted his swooshes on his shoes. It’s got to the point where it’s really not so original anymore.
We’re doing this interview in a fairly affluent part of town and you’d have to say that despite it being very fashion conscious It’s not a sophisticated market. Lots of fluro colors. Lots of euro trash. There’s little tangible connection to street culture, yet every second kid here has a pair of white AF1 mids that they’ve customised with a really sloppy spray job and some odd colored fluro laces. Does that kind of thing worry you that something that was once fun and vibrant in an underground way is being washed out with over exposure?
Absolutely. When I started this there were probably only two or three names that were recognized here in Australia. When I got on to forums back in the day there were maybe eight or ten dudes who posted regularly. So automatically as soon as you produced stuff frequently you gained notoriety pretty quickly. I think customising gains it’s popularity because everyone has probably had a shot. Seems like everyone at one time or another has grabbed a Sharpie and painted on a pair of sneakers, like this kid’s done here. The way I think its going now is a little unfortunate. I think the current climate in sneaker culture is not sponsoring a creative society. The majority of work you see now is like an AF1 with cement print on the toe and a Jordan logo on the back, which to me is disgusting. I don’t see why you’d use up a pair of sneakers, put all your time into it if you’re not going to end up with something that’s original. You wear a pair of customs that are well painted now and you stand out the way you would in a pair of Jordan 1’s back in the day.
Well what shoes stand out for you now? When you walk down the street what model shoes stand out and make you take notice?
I think anything that’s slightly left of centre. Maybe like a custom New Balance or Force 180, or Lebron II low for instance, or some kind of sneaker that’s very casual based yet hasn’t been absolutely destroyed by popular culture. You walk down the street now and every second teenager has a pair of white AF1’s on. With over 1000 colors released for a shoe it almost voids any attempt to customise it simply because with over 1000 colourways chances are you’re just recycling something that’s been already been produced. That’s why I take pleasure designing on shoes that are left of centre, like my Rupture 180’s or Lebrons or something like that. At the same time the panelling on an AF1 or a dunk is so perfect for customising that’s it hard to deny its pull. It provides you with a multi-layered canvas with all panels of substantial size and manageability. Whereas if you look at a New Balance sneaker it’s hard to get a consistent design over a sneaker that would pull it together and make it look complete. So many customs just don’t look complete. Yeah the guy spent a lot of time painting it but the shoe just doesn’t balance.
Earlier this year you had a lot of you shoes, both customs and regulars, on show at a sneaker exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. How do you feel about sneakers becoming the property- not in a literal way- of somewhere like an art gallery? A real formal intellectual space that isn’t part of this culture, but which wants to present itself as an authority on it.
If I’m not mistaken the space that was used for that exhibition was previously used for a Picasso exhibition. So it’s a bit of a head trip to think that someone as brilliant as Picasso was on show there two weeks before. I think that sneakers have become the fashion icon of our time. You look into some hip hop superstar’s wardrobe or some kid’s wardrobe and you see more sneakers than you would ever have seen before. They really are representative of design in today’s modern culture. You see in them so many different styles, and people find it so easy to define themselves according a kind of sneaker.
If they are so ubiquitous, does that mean that they cease to be anything really special though?
I think unfortunately that most of the shoes you see worn these days are retros, so that’s almost true. With the amount of hybrids and retroing you see at the moment how many new sneakers do you actually see? Yeah it may be a new color, but that shoe was designed in 1972.
At the same time there’s still a great deal of fresh design and ingenuity going into running sneakers and basketball sneakers. The leaps and bounds that Nike for instance have made in their basketball market over the past five to ten years is incredible. You look at the design that’s gone into some of the Jordan shoes. Now I’m a big fan of the Jordan Brand because you can actually see where they’ve pulled inspiration from. You can see the Stealth Bomber inspiration in the 22 and that sort or thing.
I really love old Pegasus runners and old Air Icarus runners, Trainer IIIs, Air More Uptempo’s, that sort of thing. If I had to pick something lately I’d pick the Nike Zvezdochka, the Marc Newson shoe. That was crazy. It’s absolutely representative of his style, Nike allowed him to design that shoe from scratch. I can’t think of another designer whose not only done a collaboration but designed a whole new style of shoe. They were crazy. They had a Zoom Air unit in a casual shoe. They looked nuts. They were something I was excited about.
What about the 25th Anniversary AF1’s? Given that that model is your canvas of choice, how do you rate Nike’s reinterpretations of that shoe this year? Has anything special stood out for you from a creative point of view?
You know I thought the anniversary was a great idea, I was even at celebrations for the release in Melbourne and Singapore. I really love the fact that they brought out a new Air Force 25 mid cut basketball shoe, because that’s what AF1 was all about when it came out in the 80’s. It wasn’t a casual shoe for fashion boys. It was a basketball shoe. It was functional.
You think there’s been too much AF1 product this year?
Absolutely. I think that’s been part of the reason I haven’t purchased a pair. The amount of AF1s that have come out this year has floored me. What’s floored me more is that they’ve all sold out. Production is obviously market driven, so if they can sell out then I guess it’s really not too much.
And I guess people hate on that, but isn’t that what we want? To have a scene that has commercial clout?
Yeah, that’s why we have a "sneaker culture". If people weren’t buying AF1’s then I wouldn’t be able to get them either because they wouldn’t be available.
You have a pretty good relationship with SBTG and Meth. What observations have you made about the way they do their thing? How do they work as creative people?
It’s funny. Mark (SBTG) will laugh when he reads this but he’s like my sneaker godfather. Any credible customiser will probably cite one of those two as their inspiration to start customizing seriously. For me it’s a pleasure to talk to those guys and listen to their experiences. Mark particularly I speak to, I don’t speak to Meth the same amount. But I’ve found that both are really nice guys. That’s probably part of why they’ve been around so long.
What have you learnt from them that you directly incorporate into what you do?
Me and SBTG had a conversation when I first met him about the colour and design of my sneakers. He was saying how because I was taking so many orders the shoes on my website were representative of my customers and not myself as a person or an artist. He was absolutely right. It was like I was just a sign writer, a purely commercial artist. Nothing was what I wanted to do. That’s why now the stuff in my store or in competitions is purely original. The shoes I won the 2007 Sole Collector Custom Competition with for instance were completely my own.
Also he made the point I was using such outrageous colors a lot of the time that it was actually difficult to wear. If you can’t put something on your feet at the end of the day what’s the point, know what I mean? So he’s really helped me out a lot. I run my sketches and designs past him, and it’s really good to have someone at his level so willing to give an honest response. I appreciate his help and respect him a lot.
So how long does it take you to do a pair of shoes?…
Do you enjoy that process? Is the end result worth all that time?
You look at someone like Meth and Mark who wouldn’t spend more than 10 or so hours on a pair of sneakers. It wasn’t uncommon for me in the beginning to spend 40-50 hours on a shoe. And when you weigh that out and consider the average cost of a shoe and your sale value, you’re getting nothing! With their help I’ve been able to develop better techniques so I can get it down to probably around 14 hours a shoe.
You’ve gained an international following for your work. What countries do you get the greatest demand from?
Initially a lot of my recognition came from the Netherlands, I’m not quite sure how that happened but I am very appreciative. After that it kind of spread through parts of Asia and now my greatest demand seems to come from America. I’m still very careful however about where I sell my sneakers, guys like Emmanuelabor and ATC have sold into China and since seen fakes of their products turn up on websites and ebay, some people have no shame.
Speaking of fakes, picking the difference between the artist who draws inspiration and insight from other artists and the artist who straight-up bites is always a touchy subject. How do you draw the line between appropriation and homage on the one hand and duplication on the other?
When it comes to this kind of work very little these days is truly completely original. I admire say Kaws for instance, you look at his work such as the new Smurf’s or Darth Vader stuff and you wouldn’t ever think of it as theft. That to me is still original work and completely recognizable as his own, he has his own twist. Duplication on the other hand is rife in the custom world. I think it’s due to the groups of people who custom sneakers, not everyone is in it for the same reason. Some guys just want a dunk with cement print and they are content, other guys like myself would rather produce new styles and designs. In any form someone who bite’s or steals directly deserves to be called out if they seem to be claiming it as their own.
We also touched earlier on customisers copycatting well known sneaker prints. Haven’t we seen it go the other way of late with manufacturers taking cues from the custom world? How do you feel about that?
When you look at Hybrids for example customizers have been doing them for years and now they are a staple in the casual sneaker market for Nike. It would be hard for any customizer to really be able to claim the work as stolen though because to begin with we were using Nike designs ourselves for our work so it’s all cyclical. The payoff for customizers is obviously far less however. More recently Mache produced an Air Force 1 x Jordan V hybrid and now a similar hybrid using the two styles is being produced, I don’t for a minute think Nike “stole” the idea because we all know how long it takes for a shoe to be put into production and made available at a retail level however the 150+ posts in his thread on ISS probably made them rush the idea a little. With so many guys on custom forums I think it would be naive to assume that sneaker designers or companies don’t sit on there every now and then and check out what’s hot or getting a good response, it’s like a free market survey for the companies. A few years ago we probably would have never seen a Freddy Kruger Dunk Low but themed customs have probably lead the way for such releases.
Any last words? Any shout outs or slams?
The famous final last words. I’m collaborating on a clothing label called Diamond Fondue at the moment, look out for more information on the name and products in the coming months. As for Sekure D products, I’m expanding past sneakers before the end of the year, all important information will be released in the near future also.
As for shoutouts, big hello to Jazz, Brett, Justin, AstoriaVIII and my Kickz101 family in Melbourne. Very Masa, SBTG and Killer Gerbil for their hospitality on my recent trip overseas and then finally I guess guys like Methamphibian, SBTG and then Mache, Emmanuelabor, bLue, Astoria etc etc for keeping creativity and originality in this artform alive. Sorry if I missed anyone
Slams, I really want to do this and it’s very tempting to get myself into trouble, I think I have covered a lot of it in the interview though.
One last thing, it is integral for the sustainability of creativity in the custom scene to support the original ones who take their time to work on a canvas that most other people wouldn’t, so support them where you can. People spend crazy amounts on limited edition shoes when there is often thousands of pairs available at a retail level. Most customizers produce a lot of work on very limited runs so if you like what someone is putting out then maybe check out a pair of their shoes before dropping a crazy sum on the bay.