Kicks with character

graffiti art moves from streets to sneakers

Tatum Fjerstad

Chris McDuffie stinks up his room in Sanford Hall.

“My roommate comes in and says, ‘Oh! What’s that smell? – Chris must be doing some shoes,’ ” McDuffie said.

The first-year student uses acetone, a scratch pad and a few cotton squares to rub the factory coat off a pair of Adidas shoes.

Then he paints.

Right now he’s prepping and painting a pair of shoes for his little sister. She’s competing in a spoken-word contest in New York soon and wants to rock the competition in style.

McDuffie, who wears a healthy size 12, has customized about 30 pairs of shoes since he started the hobby a couple of years ago.

The idea came to him after browsing the Internet.

“I’ve always liked to draw, so I just applied it to something else,” McDuffie said.

Until the past few years, custom shoes have been an underground art form. The world’s largest touring shoe show, Sneaker Pimps, brought it to the international level by taking more than 800 one-of-a-kind shoes painted by top artists on a tour around the world.

Of course, custom shoes are a business as well. Big-time artists who design custom shoes for companies like Puma make top dollar for their work.

One of these top artists, Jor One, took a four-day break from the Sneaker Pimps tour a few weeks ago to visit Juxtaposition Arts, a nonprofit, youth-focused visual arts organization in north Minneapolis.

In those four days, Jor One taught 10 kids aged 14 to 22 how to customize shoes. The lesson’s product became 19 pairs of kicks on display until April 26 at Juxtaposition Arts. Nike Shocks, Adidas Stan Smiths, Gola’s, Abdul Jabbars and Nesra Forces helped make up the exhibit.

The kids’ creations were vibrant and contrasting with bright purples, yellows, blues and oranges. The shoes’ designs included childlike patterns and animals alongside more volatile severed hands and feet painted by Jor One himself.

McDuffie missed Jor One’s visit and the lesson he gave – because he didn’t know about it.

“That would have been awesome,” he said.

Roger Cummings, 37, co-artistic director of Juxtaposition, has been customizing jackets and shoes since high school.

“In the ’80s, after school me and my friends would meet and paint,” Cummings said. “Then whoever got done first would go to Block E and rock their stuff.”

He plans to host another exhibition of custom shoes later this summer or fall, and McDuffie has been invited to help teach. But teaching’s tough, as first students have to learn persistence.

“We had more patience when we were kids,” Cummings said. “These kids wanted to hurry up and paint their shoes, get out there and wear them.”

Some kids sell their shoes. Beginners charge $10 to $20 while big names like Jor One will sell shoes for as much as $2,400.

To customize shoes, first an artist grabs a pair of all-leather sneaks, like Nike Air Force Ones. The paint adheres to leather best. Before painting, artists take off the factory glaze with acetone or a de-glazer. Once the shoe is a dull gray, artists use acrylic paint to cover the shoe with personal expression.

Using inspiration from art books and magazines, McDuffie spends about 12 hours on a pair of shoes. He goes beyond paint by gluing different types of denim to his shoes. He also sews and paints shirts that match his kicks.

And after all that work, he wears them with pride.

“If they get dirty, I just clean them off,” McDuffie said.

McDuffie feels a bit alone in this hobby. Aside from the few recent friends he made at Juxtaposition, he doesn’t have any friends at the University that paint shoes.

But he does have customers. He charges about $50 to $100 plus the cost of shoes. Customizing footwear, it seems, is a little like getting a tattoo: sometimes the customer knows exactly what they want, while other times they come with just a vague idea, or “sometimes the best thing is to let me do my thing.”

McDuffie also tries not to spend too much on shoes and scopes out the deals. He bought the pair for his sister as part of a two-for-$90 deal. So he kept the second pair for himself.

McDuffie isn’t a boastful guy – he just knows what he enjoys and does it.

“It’s just a hobby I like to do. I’ll do it until I find another one.”