The Art of Sneaker Culture: Exploring the Deep Connection Between Graffiti and Sneakers

31.01.24 General



The writing is usually on the wall for graffiti artists – but not always when it comes to sneakers. Since hip-hop first exploded out of the South Bronx in the late 70s, sneakers have been intrinsically linked to the culture’s five elements: MCing, DJing, Breakdancing, Knowledge and Graffiti. Influential artists like Run-D.M.C. certainly sent sneaker culture into the stratosphere, but there was a whole generation of b-boys and graffiti artists who were responsible for cementing sneakers in the cultural movement. 

Graffiti, the most underground of all the elements is one area where sneaker culture has been neglected in terms of its cultural influence. On the surface, graffiti and sneaker culture seem to have a loose association with one another, but you only have to look back at films like Wild Style or archival photos of early writers like Henry Chalfant, Futura, Dondi White and Zephyr wearing the same Superstars, Campus and high-top Decade’s worn by B-Boys and MC’s at the time. The same walls that these artists were painting on often became the backdrop for some of the first promo shots and album covers, where artists like KRS-One, Rakim & Eric B and Run-D.M.C. posed against the building walls that were graced with the era’s best graffiti.

Rap and graffiti were about expression, and forerunners in the rap scene were mixing up their style with brand and logo-heavy pieces. Of course, repping the latest sneakers was an essential component to the perfect fit. Adidas and Puma were some of the first brands associated with NYC’s hip-hop scene, but it wasn’t long before Nike got a foot in the scene. At the same time Run–D.M.C. was doing the infamous all-adidas “Kings of Rock” fits, Nike dropped the first ever Jordan which was quickly swept up in hip-hop culture. It’s not unusual to see graffiti kings in retro styles like Penatrators or Cortez either.

Naturally, it didn’t take long for writers to start customizing their kicks, using the sneakers as a canvas for creative expression. Keith Haring, who started his career drawing on blank billboard ads on the subway, was renowned for his sneaker collections. Early shots capture him throwing up wearing Nike Delta Force, K Swiss Briston and adidas Centennial. In 2021, a pair of Nike Penatrators went on sale on eBay featuring hand-drawn graphics by the late artist. The pair, which dates back to 1986 and sold for over $25,000, were placed on auction by the pair’s OG owner, who had the Haring draw on and sign at the opening of the Pop Shop in New York City on ‘the Saturday morning of April 16th, 1986’.

While Haring never got a chance to collaborate with a sneaker brand during his lifetime officially, his iconic work has been rendered onto countless silhouettes posthumous. This crossover between legendary artists and sneaker brands has proved lucrative with high-profile names such as KAWS and Futura, both artists who got their start in graffiti, bringing their signature artwork to the sneaker world. The result has been some of the most influential and collectable styles of all time. Take, for example, Futura’s Nike SB Dunk High “FLOM”, a style considered to be one of the rarest in history. Last year, a pair sold for 63,000 USD at Sotheby’s.

Known as one of the founding fathers of the graffiti movement in NYC, Leonard Hilton McGurr a.k.a. Futura started his career in the 1970s tagging subway walls as Futura 2000, a nod to his favourite movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick). Fascinated with technology and science fiction, Mr McGurr began tagging as Futura 2000, fulfilling the forward-looking promise of that nom de graf through his use of abstraction, expanding the form beyond lettermaking to include impressionistic fields of colour, blooming nimbuses that seemed to be in motion even when holding still. Soon his influential artwork went on to be exhibited and housed in the collections of the Musée de Vire, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Museo de Arte Moderna di Bologna. Despite his ascent into the higher realms of the fine art world, Futura has remained a man of the culture. During his 50-year tenure in the game, he has contributed to all the stages of street culture and has closely collaborated with influential names such as BAPE, Stussy and of course Nike.

According to Dennis Mazur @sneakerdenn, Futura’s relationship with the swoosh began back in 2004 with the OG Flom SB Dunk High. An acronym meaning ‘For Love or Money,’ the sneaker is rendered with a pattern that was created from different denominations of printed money. Only 24 of the works were made. Most were distributed to friends and family at the opening of The Futura Laboratory store in Fukuoka Japan, making it incredibly difficult to find and among the most coveted examples desired by collectors worldwide.

“The message behind the “Shoes For Love or Money is the question Futura raises to the sneaker community at a time where resale culture was truly emerging, it’s amazing how relevant this message is twenty years on,” says Mazur who helped source the rare sneaker sold at Sotheby’s. The London-based sneaker collector and reseller count other styles like the yellow and black treatment of the Flom as part of the Livestrong fundraiser in 2009 as well as Futura’s link-up with Virgil Abloh’s Off-White imprint for a duo of Dunk Lows in 2019. The latter was originally released as a friends-and-family exclusive, but last April eight pairs of the sneakers were auctioned off by Sotheby’s to benefit The Virgil Abloh Foundation, the Art for Justice Fund, the Boys & Girls Club of America, and the Innocence Project. Collectively, the shoes sold for over half a million dollars, with a single pair fetching a jaw-dropping $107,950.

In a Youtube video, Mazur explores some of the more obscure styles from Futura’s Dunk history with Nike including a 2003 SB Dunk low inspired by the NYC subway steel canvas and a super rare 2005 Futura x Stash Nike ID, featuring a mysterious Trenitalia logo, the Italian train operator, which actually looks like an F and an S, the two artists’ initials. He also counts the 2004 U.N.K.L.E. Dunk in the list too. While many associate the model with Futura, due to his signature point man artwork being used on the upper, he had nothing to do with the design. “The Dunkle, which everybody goes crazy over, I see a posting of a Dunkle daily on Instagram, it’s a shoe which is pretty much like a Futura “shoe”, with the UNKLE characters that I created for Mo’ Wax Records in the ‘90s,” Futura told Sneakerheadz. “And I never really liked it. I don’t want to blow up the spot and say it was completely unauthorised, but it was a little bit like “Oh…oh you’re doing it? Oh ok.” Y’know, thanks for asking me.” 

In a recent interview with GQ, Futura explained that the key to a good collaboration is being a good team player and building relationships. “The more you work together as a team, the easier it is to stack some Ws. If there’s egos and in-fighting, you’re probably not going to win as much in the long term.” Back in October last year, news leaked of another upcoming FL SB Dunk collaboration meaning we can expect more from this fruitful relationship. Unlike the U.N.KL.E. and Off-White sneakers, which featured creative additions of his work on the sneakers, this upcoming release will see Futura have full creative control over the look and feel of the sneaker, just as he did back in the day. 

Of course, Futura isn’t the only graffiti artist to get a Nike collab. NYC-born graffiti artist Eric Haze added his signature style to a Dunk High and a Dunk Low, both of which were one of the earliest instances of an artist collaborating on a pair of sneakers. Like Futura’s, Haze’s release was extremely limited with only about 1,000 pairs produced. The High and Low SB Dunk editions feature an airbrushed design, which also gives off the “Fade” look.

In an interview with Japanese magazine, BOON, Haze revealed some details about how the collaboration came about: “About last fall, Nike asked me if I was interested in a limited edition Dunk model. When they told me that they could now do spray painting, I decided to proceed with the project.” He notes the custom box, which featured stencilled artwork as a perfect addition to the product design, but admitted it was one of the biggest challenges of the project. “To be honest, I had a hard time designing a custom box. The box Nike sent me was flat before assembly, but I was confused as to which side would be where… Sometimes the layout was different from what I imagined.”

Another musical collaboration under the SB Dunk series which features hidden graffiti is the 2007 release from MF DOOM. While the high-top Dunk celebrates the acclaimed rapper, the logo on the heel is the tag DOOM used when he wrote graffiti. Elsewhere, the SB Dunk series has also produced other standouts from graffiti greats like Stash (Josh Franklin) who dropped 50 pairs of his Nike Dunk at the famed Paris concept store Colette in 2003. Released as part of his travelling exhibition, “Tools Of The Trade,” the sneaker was printed with Stash’s tags on the lateral side of the heel and is accented with a paint drip motif on the quarter panels. Due to its rarity, the Dunk sold at an unprecedented price of EUR 350, atypical of classic Nike Dunks at the time. What made this pair so special was that each box was numbered and personalized by the Stash himself, with his graffiti tag on the exterior lid and side label. It’s this type of detail and care that truly blurs the line between sneakers and art.

The success of the original release inspired Stash to release a special Nike Air Force 1 20 years later. Released in March 2022, Nike and Stash dropped an Uptown inspired by that rare classic at SKP S as a part of the Style in Revolt exhibition. This reboot was faithfully rendered to the original Dunk design with the help of Stash and local artisans to update this collectable grail. Haze also reworked the AF1, adding his tags to an all-white pair in 2016 as did Craig Costello, aka KR, who added the KRINK silver treatment to a pair in 2008.

Beyond the Dunk and AF1 series, Mazur counts other standout sneaker-graffiti collaborators like Mr Cartoon and KAWS. KAWS first collaborated with DC Shoes in 2001, followed by BAPE on a number of classic Bapestas and Chompers colourways in the mid-2000s. The New York-based artist then worked with Nike on an Air Force 1 in 2007 and on an Air Max 90 in 2008, before coming with the instant classic Jordan 4s duo in 2017. On the West Coast, Mr Cartoon has a few memorable Air Force 1s to his name – the iconic Mr Cartoon Spiderweb and Clown set (2004-05), the Livestrong pair, and a few other AF1s were characterised by the artist’s pronounced tattoo-art influences and his LA and Mexican heritage.

More recently artists like Neckface have dropped SB Dunk editions (2013 and 2022) and last year’s RAMM:ΣLL:ZΣΣ Dunk with Supreme sold out in seconds. Outside of Nike, major brands like Adidas have tapped underground names like Kunle Martins aka EARSNOT, who has designed a duo of Adidas tied to his IRAK crew. The prolific writer first teamed up with Adi in 2007 and 2008 for a pair of IRAK x Adidas Remix EQT Sport Runners. He expanded the line-up in 2022 with another pair of IRAK x Adidas ZX 8000, which he explained in an interview with Brendan Dunne of Complex was inspired by the GORE-TEX outerwear he grew up within in his possession.

In that same interview, he revealed why technical outerwear became so popular in the graffiti community. “They weren’t things that we could really afford, so we had to steal them,” he says of his obsession with functional clothing. “Wearing expensive clothes and then painting and ruining your clothes—it doesn’t make any sense,” he says. “There’s no consistent line of thought throughout the whole thing. I’ve been in a subway tunnel wearing all white before.” 

Martins admits that he was never driven by hype sneaker culture, but instead opted for more practical footwear. “The only thought I’m thinking of is being electrocuted to death or tripping and falling and a train hitting me,” he explains. “Neither of those things has happened—knock on wood—yet.”

While most graffiti artists like Martins favour more inconspicuous dress to avoid capture, some communities buck the trend and embrace a more flashy approach. Nike’s futuristic Air Max 97 ‘Silver Bullet’ struck a chord in Milan when it was first released in 1997. “They looked like they were from another planet,’ Sha Ribeiro, a member of the graffiti group Lords of Vetra told Sneaker Freaker. “I mean, wearing them, you look like a fucking alien from another planet entirely.”

The crew, whose name paid homage to Casa Vetra, a park in the middle of Milan, were notorious for tagging and bombing around the city, in particular the subway system tunnels. Throwback photos capture members proudly posing in front of idle trains with aerosol cans in hand and the reflective details of their ir Air Max 97’s 3M illuminating from the flash.

Given that most of the collaborative graffiti sneakers are locked away on ice in the collections of diehard sneakerheads around the world, it’s refreshing that actual writers continue to take a less precious approach to their footwear. Known names like 1UP crew wear nondescript styles from Nike and adidas when bombing locations, while crews like @crapsule2000 opt for performance brands like LA Sportiva and Salomon to negotiate the practical demands of their urban environments: whether it’s abseiling down walls to throw up giant tags on the side of buildings or surfin subway trains in Berlin.

Graffiti writer Touch notes that the boosting popular sneaker styles like the Airmax has been a big part of the culture in the UK. The Brentford-raised writer reveals in an interview with The Graffiti Hub that he met a lot of graffiti writers in the scene through theft. “I’ve been out with 20 people from the street running up shops for jeans, jackets, shirts, jumpers and shoes. Basically every shop in London I’ve raised something from, whether it’s an electrical shop or a clothing store.” He goes on to say the main retailers he used to hit were designer stores like Ralph Lauren, Stone Island and renowned sneaker stores like Size. According to London-based cultural commentator @gullythreads, one of the techniques often used by writers to steal popular sneakers was to take odd display pairs from various stores. “You started having right foot, left foot, where you would raise one shoe from one shop and then get the other shoe from another shop.”

With so much hype around the current sneaker market and such a deep history of sneakers within the culture of the graffiti scene, it’s no wonder that more and more brands are embracing this cultural exchange. As Graffid notes, “They’re not only recognizing graffiti artists but are also providing them with a platform to reach a global audience. It’s a harmonious partnership where both the art form and the footwear benefit, pushing boundaries and sparking fresh trends within the industry.” Of course, there will always be a culture for underground artists to aquire their favourite kicks through criminal means. After all, it’s this counterculture mentality which maintains the street credibility of major corporate brands like Nike and adidas within the scene. But for those writers who have broken through to the mainstream, the opportunity of putting their art out onto the covetable styles they grew up boosting is a great way to turn such a shoe into a narrative, a piece of graffiti storytelling that connects the wearer to the broader context of street culture.

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