Cory Bailey started sketching when he was just a little boy in Randallstown, Maryland, filling up books with swirling compositions of faces and geometry. By the time he entered high school, Bailey had the talent with pen and paper to elicit surprise from people who peeked over his shoulder. It wasn’t long before upperclassmen on his basketball team took notice, and a couple of them even started requesting designs for tattoos.
“I was really into that kinda stuff, and I’d do portraits of stars like Lil Wayne and other dudes like that. I take a lot of pride in detail work, even then, so I’d recreate all their tattoos on the images I was drawing,” Bailey says.
Focusing on tattoo art was fulfilling enough for Bailey to drop out of college in his first year, and in his downtime, he practiced inking designs onto cheap shoes, mostly Vans and Converse. A break came when he and a friend decided to rent a kiosk at the Towson Mall to sell some clothing with Bailey’s designs. “I decided to fill out the back half of it with shoes that I had done, just to take up some space. We didn’t have that much merchandise yet. But I guess I got noticed by a couple of Ravens players who were walking through,” he says. “And that was the first time I got a sale with a pro athlete — he was an old Ravens player, Chykie Brown.”
More orders came, notably a pair of cleats for wideout Marlon Brown. The NFL took notice, featuring the ornate shoes on its homepage and boosting Bailey’s work to hundreds of thousands of eyes. It was the push needed to accelerate his career as a shoe artist, and gave him clarity about his professional future away from tattoos.
It also gave him the template for the first iconic look in his repertoire. “It’s actually ironic because that galaxy design I did around the classic Ravens shield logo is now one of my signature designs that I’m most known for, and kind of most copied for,” he says.
Bailey, 27, has risen quickly in the custom sneaker scene over the last five years. Under the moniker Sierato, he’s made designs for athletes like Andre Drummond and LeBron James Jr. and hip-hop A-listers like Chris Brown and Roddy Ricch. The boom in his business and reputation came at the perfect time, amid a cresting of mainstream interest in the art and craft of modifying shoes — mostly basketball shoes, and particularly Jordans. And like a number of other customizers, he’s battling for a place along heavyweights like Dank, JBF, Mache, the Shoe Surgeon and others who have made their names a permanent, if sometimes controversial, part of sneaker culture. That culture is projected to be worth $95 billion soon, and the “secondary” market of resales and customs is becoming a larger part of the bloom.
Some customizers are known best for their repainting ability, while others opt for full Dr. Frankenstein mode, unstitching and resewing entire panels to create shoes that make you question its origin altogether. Sometimes the goal is pure artistic expression. Other times it’s more of a hustle to sell shoes painted to look identical to a rare model but costs a quarter of the price. Custom Jordans in particular have launched endless debates about what’s real and what’s fake, what’s “replica” versus “authentic” and whether or not any of this effort is just plain cool. Repainting your cheap Jordans is practically a real-life sneakerhead meme now — and everyone has an opinion to share.
For many customizers, the inspiration for their interest comes from a place of simple pragmatism. For David Navarro, 25, the itch to start painting Jordans arrived after he noticed, again and again, how people gravitated toward the same models and colorways. “I just wanted to stand out a little,” he says. “And I realized that instead of spending X amount of money on a shoe that lets me stand out, I could create my own for a much, much lower price.”
Navarro has been repainting shoes since high school and has grown an audience in the last few years by showing off his designs and techniques on YouTube under the alias Davidgotkicks. Like Bailey, he learned through a slow process of trial and error, guided by a handful of fuzzy instructionals and debates on sneakerhead forums. It’s a learning process not far departed from the OGs who have been “airbrushing shoes at malls and boardwalks for decades now,” as he puts it.
The difference is that mainstream interest and cachet, especially, is fueling the present-day demand thanks to Instagram and YouTube. It’s a sentiment Bailey agrees with, too: “Social media has had the most impact on this line of work and art, for sure. It’s not something I paid attention to or noticed any notoriety around until something like Instagram came around.”
Vans, Nike and other major shoe brands have offered customization options for decades now, but putting a brush to leather with your own hands brings a legitimacy to a shoe — as well as pride. Bailey points out that his signature aesthetics are constantly getting “ripped off” by other artists; he mentions people who pump out custom shoes with trendy designs “as just a way to make quick money,” and there’s a touch of disdain in his voice as he says it.
The territorial nature of custom-shoe artistry is a little ironic given that once upon a time, the thought of slathering layers of third-party paint on Jordans was damn near unthinkable. Even today, there’s lots of shade thrown across the aisle between sneaker obsessives over whether or not Customs Are Fakes. Marcus Jordan — yes, the son of Michael Jordan — sure thinks that’s true. But given that fake shoes themselves are the same thing as the “authentic” model rolling off a licensed Nike factory line, it’s not an easy argument to make.
Nor is it an argument that Geoff Murakami accepts. A close friend of mine, Murakami is on his fourth pair of repainted Jordan 1s, motivated by the fact that he can’t afford the shoes he really wants. The first pair he attempted to recreate was the iconic red-and-white “Chicago 1s” worn by Jordan on the court. It was a slow and grueling job, thanks to nerves about screwing up edges and his inexperienced hands. But the process showed him how much fun it could be to transform a blank white pair of Nikes into all kinds of coveted looks, with the sweat and real hours to show for it.
“The resale prices for some of these shoes are out of control, and a lot of people who have started customizing shoes casually, like me, are doing it purely because they can’t afford what they want,” Murakami notes. “I mean, $800-plus for a pair of Jordans that are normally under $200, how many can possibly justify actually paying for that? Sometimes it’s as simple as changing one panel and adding a stenciled design and wow, you have a $2,000 shoe now.”
Putting in the time is big. A newbie like Murakami can pass 24 hours on even a simple repaint job, and both Bailey and Navarro tell me that doing custom-shoe orders for random people is exhausting work that doesn’t pay all that well. Maybe it’s proof that the do-it-for-yourself mentality that fueled early custom culture is still alive (or just that showing off a shoe on YouTube to millions is a better business plan than selling a pair at a time). Demand for such shoes, meanwhile, continues to rise. Custom-sneaker culture is even influencing big brands to fund experimental artistry; Bailey’s calendar of events and collabs has died down as a result of the pandemic, but he expects it to be the core of his personal business, alongside social media, for years to come.
The backdrop of sneaker culture is really depressing in so many ways, largely as a result of price inflation and exclusive-at-all-costs behavior from both shoe brands and buyers. Amid this, custom sneakers still serve as a bit of a freak flag for those who can’t help but want to tinker. Navarro is happy to see a growing, tight-knit community of customizers who are eager to share and receive constructive criticism. And Bailey tells me that it’s gratifying to see that his artwork can attract all kinds of eyes in 2020, not just those obsessed with shoes.
“It’s all about the love of actually making the shoe, and making it for myself,” he says. “But seeing celebrities and athletes I love wearing that shoe and showing that reaction of, ‘Yeah, this is special… that’s an amazing feeling, too.”