Remixed Kicks: Sneakers as a HybridMaking Connections to Music, Art, & Imageexternal image tim-kerr-vans.jpg[1]


Sneakers, like other objects that we use on an everyday basis, have a meaning that goes far beyond their original intended use to cover one's feet. The footwear presents an interesting context for the exploration of culture because it is at once a basic need and a means for expressing style. In the context of today's advanced societies, I argue that sneakers and the culture that has developed around them has an "absolute emphasis on its exhibition value" (Benjamin 225).

The footwear has been recreated in our society as many other styles of art have been. This project will demonstrate just a sampling of the ways that sneakers represent both concepts of cultural hybridity such as intertextuality, dialogism, and imitation and critical theories of postmodernism, pop art, imitation, and spectacle. I argue that sneaker culture is a microcosm of the greater concept of cultural hybridity, encapsulating the tenets of a hybridized world that is always-already remixed.

//[2] Gabriel Dishaw, 100% recycled metal

Street Beats: The Sneaker's Connection to Music

My Adidas cuts the sand of a foreign land
with mic in hand I cold took command
my Adidas and me, close as can be
we make a mean team, my Adidas and me
-"My Adidas", Run-DMC

A Brief History of Kicks Culture

The connection between hip-hop and sneaker culture is undeniably symbiotic. According to Just for Kicks, sneaker culture as we know it traces its origins to New York City in the 1970s. The rise in popularity in basketball and hip-hop were responsible for sneakers becoming a "staple style". First an element of utility when playing basketball or simply everyday life in the New York City boroughs, sneakers developed into a way to express personality in concordance with how hip-hop lyrics expressed a personal style. As Smits and Maat point out, "customizing is a trend in fashion, but it booms in footwear".

Shoes like the Adidas "Superstar" were worn for their comfortability when breakdancing or playing basketball, but also because the chosen sneakers came to embody the personal preferences of the wearer. The originators of the sneaker culture were not "people of means", notes Just for Kicks. This only contributed to the value bestowed upon sneakers. Keeping sneakers clean and "correct" was an indicator of prestige in the social hierarchy, so much so that the footwear was cleaned with toothbrushes and laces were washed by hand.

It is no wonder then, why these valued objects were referenced in hip-hop lyrics in with highest regard. Just as hip-hop has elements of "peacocking" and asserting dominance, the rapper's shoes, too, emulated a distinctive, recognizable style (Just for Kicks). Run-DMC's "My Adidas" is a seminal example of sneaker culture's connection to hip-hop culture. Wearing the shoes imparted power within the hip-hop community, which is in turn expressed in the song's lyrics.

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Connections with music go beyond a direct "call out" in a lyrical piece. There are also direct and deliberate mimicry of musical representations. The Nike SB (skateboarding) Blazer "A Tribe Called Quest" sneaker references the album art from the hip hop group's seminal album, The Low End Theory, released in 1991. The colors, font, pattern--all visual cues reflect the album's cover. Therefore, it is a visual reference to another visual artifact (album cover) that itself represents an auditory artifact (the album).

Intertextuality & Remix

I argue that sneaker culture and specific incarnations in the realm demonstrate the quality of intertextuality found in our culturally hybridized world. The concept of intertextuality holds that "each text exists in relation to others", and it is "reflected in the fluidity of genre boundaries and in the blurring of genres and their functions" (Chandler). There are codes or sign systems within certain genres to which they are linked.

In the frame of sneakers, references to other texts are able to be made because the "codes [to which they refer] transcend structures" (Chandler). Some sneakers only exist because of other texts, like the "Tribe Called Quest" Nike SB Blazer. Likewise, some musical lyrics only exist because of sneakers, as in "My Adidas" by Run-DMC. Just as the world of hip-hop is an "open source" culture that constantly borrows from bygone rhymes and verses, so too does sneaker culture borrow from the genre of music. But it also gives back, becoming the subject of the lyrical art, both the object and the objectifier.

While some intertextuality between genres and codes are subtle, the references made in sneaker culture, I posit, are of the "self-conscious" persuasion, as Chandler would call it. These kinds of allusions are created, fully aware that the audience has the experience to make sense of them. Indeed, they are built on the "pleasure of recognition" (Chandler), depending on the notion that the consumer will "get" the reference. It is a tongue in cheek way of reminding us "that we are in a mediated reality" (Chandler).

Indeed, Nicolas Bourriaud notes that "since the early nineties, an ever increasing number of artworks have been created on the basis of preexisting works" because of easy access to myriad "available cultural products". In creating sneakers, the designers do not start with a "blank slate", but instead remix already-known works, whether they are of the same genre or not. One may question whether these sneakers could be considered "new", but I argue that they can be considered new inasmuch as any other culturally-informed product can be. The newness comes from putting the always-already presents codes and content into a new context.

Upon its creation, the sneaker is then a "temporary terminal" (Bourriaud 19) of a network of references. Examining sneaker culture from the heuristic of dialogism, the word temporary is critical here. This instance of creation is merely another quote in the ongoing cultural dialog. For example, perhaps the sneaker which references a hip-hop rhyme will one day end up as graffiti on the side of a building.

High Art Hi-Tops: The Sneaker's Connection to Art

Sneaker as Pop Art

While shoes have been the subject of artists for decades, now they "have become the canvas itself" (Smits and Maat). In fact, nowadays "it is locate a style that has not been touched by the hand of an artist, designer or cartoon character" (Wilson). Pop Art did this very thing, turning art on its ear and exploding over objects that had never been "touched" by art before. The concept of creating art in new places, where "art" as it is traditionally defined did not exist before, is a central tenet to the Pop Art movement.

I argue that sneakers exhibit the qualities of pop art as elucidated in Richard Hamilton’s 1957 Letter to Peter and Alison Smithson. To start, pop art can easily be consumed by a mass audience, and this is certainly true of the commodified nature of sneakers. It is rare to find a person who has not owned a pair. Hamilton posits that pop art is transient and expendable, which is seen in the wax and wane of styles' popularity. Sneakers are low cost and mass produced. Even the specialty sneakers imitate the mass produced versions, and are expensive only because collectors drive up their prices. Sneakers appeal to youth, which is an often-glorified aspect of pop art.

Sneakers can demonstrate the wittiness of the wearer when the contain other subtle cultural references, like the "Tribe Called Quest" sneakers shown above. Wittiness is also exemplified in that the wearers demonstrate they are self-aware and that the references they sport on their feet are tongue in cheek. Sneakers can be classified as sexy, gimmicky, and glamorous. Pop Art created a shift and reversal of traditional values. Whereas before an object would be prized for its natural extension of the human form, sneakers as pop art would be prized for their flashy, flamboyant nature. Roy Lichtenstein said, “What characterizes pop is mainly its use of what is despised.” Whereas "big business" is typically despised in the art world, a curious part of the sneaker world is that unlike in other subcultures, megabrands such as Nike are not looked down upon. For example, coffee connoisseurs may frown upon Starbucks' corporate domination in favor of local shops. This concept does not seem to play out in sneaker culture, however, with a few major brands like Nike, Adidas, and Vans, dominating the scene.
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An Art Which Imitates Art

Sneaker makers have experimented in the customizing of footwear, in effect allowing the wearer to imitate the artist. "Customizing, the popularity of which is growing, gives consumers more control over what makes a product special," notes Rob Walker. In 2006, Adidas re-introduced a concept first launched in 1983, Adicolor, in which buyers can customize their sneakers with included art supplies (Wilson). By doing this, Adidas was trying to target a younger, hipper demographic that is already familiar with the underground art world (Tunison). Of the 42 shoes in the line, 36 were produced with the collaboration of artists who design the base of the shoe. In this way, the consumer was able to feel a part of the design process as if also in collaboration with their favorite artist. The relates to the concept of do-it-yourself, putting design in the hands of the masses.

Yet, controversy does not shy away from art, and it also appears when the worlds of art and sneakers collide. Eyebrows were raised when famed San Francisco-based graffiti artist Barry McGee represented what was perceived as Asian stereotypes on a pair of Adidas for the Adicolor line known as "yellows". To the uproar, Barry McGee said, "You have to look at it as a piece of artwork...The way we put it all together, it becomes as collectible as art" (Tunison). "People can perceive it as whatever they want. I guess that's just the power of images. The whole project was kind of a joke to me, so it's weird because I never saw this coming."

However, author and Wayne State University Law School Dean Frank Wu says of cultural representations in sneakers, "..these images, even though crude and cliched, are powerful, almost indelible. They write the scripts that we expect others and we ourselves to follow. You can't read all that into a shoe, but it's part of a pattern" (Tunison). Perhaps if McGee's artwork was housed in the confines of a canvas, it would not have incited the same controversy. It can be argued that there have been far more blatantly offensive images depicted in paintings, sculptures, etc. The issue at hand is magnified because the sneaker world has (pardon the pun) one foot in the art world and one foot in the commercial world. By placing an incendiary image on a mass-marketed good, without the frame of art reference, "there is no means to indicate that the image may be a wry commentary on stereotypes, rather than perpetuation of the stereotype itself" (Tunison).

An Art Which Imitates Life

Nike x Junya Watanabe

Far more available to the masses than art, the commodified nature of footwear lends itself to blurring the lines between artistic creation and commercial tactic. Rob Walker believes that one facet of the sneaker phenomenon is "the way that fashion and brand loyalty can come together in what might be considered the folk art of a consumer culture." This melding and merge of folk and consumer culture often creates the artistically innovative collaborative projects.

Nike's collaboration with Japanese fashion designer Junya Watanabe is an example of the simulation of consumer culture that pop art often expresses. Much like Andy Warhol depicting Cambell's soup cans, Watanabe's shoes are "a comment on both the iconic look of sport, the innovation which fueled it and the culture it went on to influence" (Patta). As hand-made replicas of some of Nike's first footwear, the shoes were designed with yellowed midsoles, imperfect suede, and other signs of wear that sneakers actually over 30 years old would possess.

Sneaker culture turns the everyday object into art by becoming an art which imitates art. Steve Van Doren of Vans shoes notes, "We had a canvas shoe and we're trying to make it look like a marquee diamond. So how do we do that? With colours and fabrics" (Le). Utilizing commonplace materials, and reappropriating cultural references, the sneaker makers turn utility into expression. Sneaker culture got its start as a lowbrow art, growing organically from the creativity of the streets. Often times it was the buyers who bespoke the sneaker trends, not the makers. For example, the iconic checkerboard pattern on Vans shoes came about from the consumer's own making. Van Doren says, "In the late seventies...I noticed kids were taking the side profile off the shoe, where the white rubber was, and coloring it in checkerboard. So the first thing we did was start making rubber with the checks on it and eventually we made some canvas" (Le). This demonstrates how sneaker culture is also an art which imitates life.

Foot(wear) Fetish: The Sneaker's Connection to Image & Film


"Back For the Future"

In 1989, Back to the Future Part II was released as the second installment of what would become a cult classic film franchise. The movie explores the concept of time travel and depicts a world set in the future year 2015. It aimed to parody ubiquitous marketing and product placement techniques which already had some foothold in the 1980s, so the filmmakers recruited Nike designers to create a mock-up shoe of the future. Consequently, Actor Michael J. Fox made their design for the "power-lacing, self-illuminating, Nike MAG...the most famous shoe never made" ("The Nike Mag").

The shoe had such an effect that, in 2005, sixteen years after the film was released, diehard fans organized to petition Nike to produce the MAG. Translating enthusiasm from fanboy blog status to the real world, Nike responded to the sneaker-obsessed fans' requests. Designers used prop sneakers from the movie to create a "perfect replication of the original" ("The Nike Mag"). A limited edition set of 1500 pairs were released in 2011 to great hype, and auctioned for thousands of dollars for Michael J. Fox's charity.

Sneakers as Spectacles

French theorist Guy Debord introduces the concept that in societies such as ours, fully engrossed in a cycle of production and consumption, modern life becomes an amalgamation of "spectacles". These spectacles are both born out of, and seeking to propagate, the mode of production. Taking the form of advertisements, propaganda, entertainment, etc., spectacles are a "social relation among people, mediated by images" (Debord, Thesis 5 and 6). I argue that sneaker culture, notably in the instance of the Nike MAGs, exemplifies Debord's theory in becoming a hybridized commodity.

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Like other forms of commodity fetishism, sneaker culture "does not sing the praises of men...but of commodities and their passions" (Debord Thesis 66). In the case of the Nike MAGs, devotees organized themselves to demand a product from Nike based on an already-commoditized franchise of films. In the intersection between film and footwear, a new hybridized commodity was born. Debord notes that "commodity contemplates itself in a world it has created" (Thesis 53). Devoted fans contemplated the MAG from the pseudo-world of Back to the Future (even after sixteen years), transforming it into another commodity within itself. As Debord argues, because of the saturation of goods in society, consumers must take on the role of collaborative producer. Nike, of course, responded by treating the devotees with "zealous politeness" (Thesis 43), producing the shoe with great fanfare.

[10] French theorist Guy Debord

The fervent fans did not seek satisfaction in using the sneakers, (to be sure, most would never take the shoes out of the highly-stylized packaging) but in the "recognition of their value as commodities" (Debord Thesis 67). The use value of the sneakers has already been eroded (Debord Thesis 48). They sought out the sneakers with the goal of displaying a "proof of intimacy with the commodity" (Debord Thesis 67). The lucky few who could acquire the sneakers would then be able to possess "indulgences of the commodity", and assert their "real presence among the faithful", in this case, sneakerheads, whose "life is now his product" (Debord Thesis 33).

Image & Representation

Sneakers have become indelible cultural objects of nostalgia and representations of far more than simply footwear. They are hybrid mashups of representations of self and identity. For example, sneakers can indicate which gang someone represents or from which coast someone hails. "There was that kind of East Coast / West Coast thing going on. Converse on the east and Vans on the west," noted Steve Van Doren, son of a co-founder of Vans (Le). There are countless examples, but the case of sneaker-maker Vans and its relation to the California, West Coast lifestyle is an important one.

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Above left: Characters from the cult classic film Fast Times at Ridgemont High sport iconic Vans sneakers.
Above right: The film's soundtrack features Vans sneakers as the album art.

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A Vans ad plays off of the notion of what Barthes might term Californianocity, signifying a laid-back surf culture.

The images above represent Vans' iconic linkage with society's notion of California "cool". Featured in the cult classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High, "definitely put us on the map", said Steve Van Doren, son of a Vans co-founder. "We were about a $20-million company before the movie came out, and we were on track for $40 million to $45 million after that" (Tschorn).

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These images relate to Roland Barthes' concept of anchorage, in which linguistic elements guide the reading of a text (Chandler). In this case, the movie and the ad shown above guide the interpretation of the footwear. Since the film was about "cool" Southern Californian teenagers, Vans embody this image. Likewise, since the shoes are depicted in the ad with sand, surf, and shells, Vans has a connection to the beach lifestyle. I argue that this is why they are representing a hybridization. It is not simply that the sneakers represent sneaker culture. Because they are anchored in other aesthetic notions, they can take on other representations. They can link people with a nostalgic "Californianocity", the history of which that may not have existed in real life, perhaps only in the film and in the ad.

Roland Barthes


The examples discussed serve to demonstrate sneaker culture's relation to the concepts of cultural hybridity. They are by no means a definitive list. Additionally, this is by no means an indication that other forms of culture built around commodities do not exhibit these same characteristics. When I state that sneaker culture sings the praises of commodities, this is not to the exclusion of another form of commodity fetishism.

Sneakers are an interesting case because of their original high use-value that has been transformed to high artistic value. For those who do not agree that sneakers can be art, Danto states, "Something is an artwork, then, only relative to certain art-historical presuppositions." Sneakers have been inserted into the artistic dialog through the examples discussed above, and there is now no way to remove them. Perhaps one day sneakers will be examined like an ancient pottery is today, telling the story of our culture through their connection to music, art, and images of today.

I mention that in the realm of sneakers, references to other texts are constantly made (for example sports teams or films), and there could be an entire study on why these references are made to certain things and not to others. Suffice it to say that sneakers are a vehicle of representation for other meanings. As Danto states, "It is after all possible for two things to resemble one another with radically different meanings: a quotation is about an utterance, not about what the utterance is about." In this way, sneakers both quote popular culture and contribute to a greater cultural dialog. This in itself demonstrates their hybrid nature.

Works Cited & Consulted

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1969. Print.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction. New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002. Print.

Chandler, Daniel. "Intertextuality." Semiotics for Beginners, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

Danto, Arthur C. "The Transfiguration of the Commonplace." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 33.2 (1974): 139-148. Print.

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1977. Print.

Hamilton, Richard. "Letter to Peter and Alison Smithson." 16 Jan. 1957. Warhol Stars. Web. 5 Dec. 2011.

Just for Kicks. Dir. Thibaut de Longeville, Lisa Leone. Caid Productions, Inc., 2005. DVD.

Le, Jason. "The History of Vans: Interview with Steve Van Doren." Sneaker Freaker. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.

"Nike x Junya Watanabe." Patta. Patta, 16 May 2007. Web. 9 Dec. 2011.

Smits, Kim and Matthijs Maat. Custom Kicks. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2008. Print.

"The Nike Mag." Back 4 the Future. Nike, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

Tschorn, Adam. "Fast Times at Ridgemont High: 27 Years of Vans, Spicoli and SoCal culture." Los Angeles Times 13 Aug. 2009. Web. 8
Dec. 2011.

Tunison, Michael. "Asians Decry Adidas Shoe as a Misstep." Washington Post 14 Apr. 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

Walker, Rob. "For Kicks." New York Times 20 Mar. 2005. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

Wilson, Eric. "Sneakerhead Bonanza." New York Times 23 Mar. 2006. Web. 8 Dec. 2011.

Photo/Video Credits

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