What is the measure of success for an artist? Some might say sales, some say name recognition, others say a little bit of both. In 2016 though, eCommerce and influential websites have changed what success in the art world looks like, but when you're featured on certain sites, you're there. Love it or hate it, the website Hypebeast has the pulse of fashion and culture. So when on artist is featured on there, sandwiched between a Kanye feature and a new season drop, it's a big deal—you're doing something right.
For Sydney Kay, one of our sponsored artists, this was the case. Sydney was kind enough to take set aside some time from hustling, creating, customizing, and going to school full time to talk to with us.
The custom sneaker world knows you as Sydney Kay. Can you give us a little about your background and how you got into art?
From a young age I’ve always been creatively inclined, but it wasn’t until high school that I took a serious interest in pursuing a career in art and design. Actually, at one point I was certain on going to college for soccer, until I experienced a career-ending injury that pushed me towards what I’m doing today. I gave up my athletic career at the age of 17 and instead found a passion for art. Now, I’m 20 years old currently working towards a degree in design at an art school in Cincinnati.
For a time, the oil spill effect has been a huge hit. How did you come up with the idea? What does the creative process look like?
The idea came to me while working late in my studio one night. Creatively I was getting burnt out from painting 30+ pairs of Wavy roshes when I decided to step back and figure out my next move. I knew I wanted to continue making more unconventional work, which is what led to the creation of the “Oil Spill” concept. I had a brand new pair of triple black AF1’s sitting on a shelf, so I broke those out and started prepping. Unlike every other pair I didn’t have a predetermined design, I just picked up a pair of shoes and started painting, making design decisions as I went. Somewhere throughout the process, the paint started to have this weird iridescent effect even though I was only using flat colors. It reminded me of the way oil reacts with concrete, which inspired the entire concept, including the name, packaging, and product shots. It was all just a way for me to push through my creative burnout, I never anticipated it to be as popular as it was.
Speaking of aesthetic, your trademark work is often subtle and monochromatic, but refined. Personally, I think your work looks like it would be perfectly at home in Dover Street Market as a display. What are some of your main creative inspirations?
My aesthetic is actually a result of my newfound interests in contemporary art and fashion. When I first got into sneaker customizing I was just mimicking the big guys. Being a young artist fresh out of high school, I hadn’t defined my own artistic vision, so everything I was making was directly influenced by other sponsored sneaker artists. I did a lot of floral themes, a lot of sports references, but after a while I started realizing that wasn’t me. I knew I was doing something wrong when I realized that I wouldn’t wear any of my own work. The Wavy Roshes were the first step towards my own unique style. I still feel like I have a long way to go, but now my creative inspirations lie outside of the sneaker world.
Sneaker customizing is as popular as ever, but you've separate yourself by thinking outside of the box. For instance, you've been doing these really cool custom insoles, how did you get into that? What's next?
I have many different interests outside of painting sneakers. Creating these highly detailed, graphically-driven images on insoles is a way for me to expand the media I’m working with so I can utilize my skills in design. I’ve found that it’s a really effective way to depict a concept without jeopardizing the simplicity of the shoe itself. I prefer there to be a balance between art and wearability. When I say wearability I’m not talking about the physical durability, but the functionality of the design itself. I would never wear a pair of sneakers with a hand painted, photo realistic portrait on the side—to me thats not wearable. But there are other ways to get that concept across: through insoles, packaging, product shots, etc. I like working with more than just the outside of a sneaker, which is why I’ve taken such an interest in custom insoles. I’d like to continue pushing that and ideally expand beyond just footwear.
Your work made it to Hypebeast, which can either be an awful or amazing site. How was the response to that?
The response was incredible, regardless of how you look at it. I got an overwhelming amount of both positive and negative engagement. Almost every comment on Hypebeast and Highsnobiety was harshly critical, but I sold out almost instantly after that feature. It inspired an insole collab with Footcanvas shortly after the release, which was a lighthearted acknowledgement of all the hate anonymously targeted towards me. I decided to have 10 of them made to send with every “By Any Means Necessary” order.
How did you turn customizing into a business? Are there ups and downs? Ebbs and flows?
There are most definitely high’s and low’s to turning customizing into a business and it’s different for every artist trying to do so. I made the decision a while ago to stop accepting client orders—which is a strange decision especially in the business of custom sneakers. It’s completely opposite of the way every other customizer is running their business, but it’s what works for me. Creatively, I can’t function just doing client requests, so instead I make limited releases of my own designs. It’s difficult to keep up when taking on 10+ orders at one time, but at the same time I get 100% artistic freedom and the willingness to work at my own pace without any restrictions.
Lastly, any advice for the young artists/customizers/hustlers trying to monetize their creativity?
I’m a 20 year old struggling college student going to school full-time while holding a job and trying to run a business. If I can do it, anyone can.
(Source: All images courtesy of @syndeykaycustoms)