On the surface, graffiti art and sneaker culture seem to have a loose association with one another. This can be contributed to hip hop culture, which ironically, some hip hop heads and graffiti historians argue have nothing to do with each other.
However, graffiti and hip hop came out of the South Bronx, so their histories intersect to some degree. In the 1980’s, the South Bronx had an abundance of abandoned buildings where early bombers could practice their handstyles and block parties where DJ’s experimented with mixing records.
While MC’s and DJ’s did their own thing, graffiti writers did theirs and the two subcultures grew with competition. Rap battles focused on who was the best MC, while graffiti focused on who could get up the biggest piece in the wildest place. These two movements caught the eye of the mainstream, as shown in films like Wild Style and Style Wars grouped graffiti and rap as part of the same youth subculture, which became known as “hip hop.”
Rap and graffiti were about expression, and forerunners in the rap scene were mixing up their personal style with brand and logo heavy pieces. Of course, a big part of customizing their aesthetic was sneakers. While Nike and hip hop seem seem like old friends these days, they weren’t necessarily the first shoe hip hop heads started collecting. In 1985, German-footwear giant adidas first became associated with the NYC’s rap scene by way of the “Kings of Rock,” better known as Run–D.M.C.
Like the Hollis-Queens natives, early graffiti crews could be found rocking the class adidas Superstar.
At the same time Run–D.M.C. was doing the all-adidas fit, Nike dropped the first ever Jordan which became a hit with both sports fans and hip hop fans. Sneakers, specifically from Nike and adidas, became a staple in the golden years of hip hop style.
As rap music was tapped into by a wider audience, certain images became associated with hip hop culture—the classic shot in front of graffiti, the sneakers, the pose. Graffiti thrived on its own, becoming a definitive aspect of the urban landscape, especially in New York City.
Some of the first promo shots and album covers were taken out in the streets, where graced the building walls were graced with the era’s best graffiti.
Almost thirty years after, the sneakers, hip hop, and graffiti all comfortably exist in the same community. In terms of art and personal expression, sneaker customizers are taking an approach similar to the early graffiti artists—anything can be your canvas.
You still see you favorite rappers posted up in front a huge piece, but you're might also see than likely to see them wearing graffiti in the form of custom sneakers.