CookiesThis site uses cookies to offer you a better browsing experience. Read our privacy policy to learn more
The Explosion of Sneaker Culture

The Explosion of Sneaker Culture

Lifestyle5 min Read

Here's a little rundown on the cultural history surrounding sneakerheads as well as some kickass shoe tattoos by Dan Smith.

Hey, you sneakerheads out there, we’ve got a surprise. We recently scoped out some sick tattoos of kicks and came back with some new-in-box (NIB) deadstock for you. For those of you who struggled with that bit of insider slang, we also decided to fill you in on the swiftly growing subculture surrounding sneakers, so you, too, can do the right thing and learn to appreciate these tattoos that make you want to throw out your old beaters and break in a pair of uptowns or maybe some bred retros. To get you in the mood to talk sneakers let's start you off with some badass kicks rendered in ink.

It’s hard to believe that within roughly three decades, the culture surrounding sneakers has grown to the extent that it has spilled over into the world of tattoos. To most people shoes are simply a necessary part of their every day outfit, to a true aficionado the perfect pair is something to be revered and cherished. Of course these fans are going to want to hold their kicks in their hearts forever in the form of a tattoo. Here's a quick recap about how sneaker culture grew from nothing to having conventions all across the country that draw tens of thousands of rabid sneakerheads. 

The origin of sneaker culture is highly debated. Some point to the All Stars released by Converse way back in 1917. While seemingly nobody knows what exactly Chuck Taylor did (he worked for Converse hawking the shoe to college teams and at basketball clinics), everyone knows his name since it's been attached to the All Star since 1923. However, the modern day subculture started to take definitive shape with Nike’s release of their Air Jordan product line in 1985, which took advantage of Michael Jordan’s immense fame as a basketball player to promote shoe sales. Those of us that are old enough probably still remember the commercials of Jordan flying through the air and dunking as Mars Blackmon (the dorky alter ego of Spike Lee) emphatically yelled, "It's gotta be da shoes." Here is, by the way, a tattoo version of one of the shoes that he so enthusiastically repped.

An illustration of the coveted Jordan 4 by Dan Smith (IG—dansmithism). #DanSmith #Jordan4 #kicks #Nike #sneakerheads

Given the incredible success of Nike's marketing campaign, other footwear manufacturers such as Adidas and Reebok followed suit and started putting out other models endorsed by exceptional professional basketball players. This tradition still carries on today with new lines branded under names of athletes like Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and etc., a few of which have also been re-released as tattoos.

The OG black-stripes-on-white Adidas Superstar by Dan Smith (IG— dansmithism). #Adidas #DanSmith #kicks #sneakerheads #SuperStars

While Jordan’s image carried sneaker culture past its infancy, what made it grow into a full-blown subculture was how hip hop transformed footwear into a status symbol. From Run DMC’s “My Adidas” to Nelly’s “Air Force Ones,” tracks about sneakers have been breaking charts for a quarter of a century now, and through these songs’ praise, kicks’ cultural capital skyrocketed. As rappers and other pop-culture icons started adopting sneakers into their wardrobes, the inner-city market flourished and they started garnering street cred. 

A kickass Adidas Samba illustrated by Dan Smith (IG— dansmithism). #Adidas #DanSmith #kicks #Samba #sneakerheads

Alongside the spread of sneaker culture through evolutions in hip hop fashion, the rise of other sportswear for activities like running and skateboarding also contributed to the the subculture’s expansion. Within the burgeoning extreme sports scene, for instance, sneaker culture developed quite early. Chuck Taylors were worn by many of the competitors at the world’s first skateboard competition. Within a decade of Vans being founded in 1966, the brand became a staple in the skateboarding community when the famed Z-Boys adopted Vans as their preferred kicks. From there on out, sneaker culture became intrinsically linked to skateboard culture, and the two continued to grow side by side as extreme sports stars like Tony Hawk and others began having designer apparel marketed under their names. This practice remains in place with the most popular sponsored skaters of today. Check out some of these awesome Vans-inspired tattoos.

An awesome portrait of the much beloved Vans Style 36 sneaker by Dan Smith (IG—dansmithism). #DanSmith #kicks #lowtops #sneakerheads #Vans

In addition to the popularity of kicks in the extreme sports scene and others, more genres of music also started to adopt certain makes of sneakers into their fashion sense. In the punk rock community, for example, artists such as Black Flag's Henry Rollins regularly sports brands like Vans. Also, it's incredible how many members of rock bands — Anthrax, Guns and Roses, Megadeath, and etc. — sported Nikes on the reg. Although these were very different demographics of sneakerheads than those inspired by basketball and hip hop, they still contributed to the contemporary makeup of the subculture, as these kick-crazed communities began to intersect at places like sneaker conventions to swap and purchase each other's stock. 

As sneaker culture began to take more formidable shape, companies like Nike recognized the value placed on certain famed shoe models and decided to capitalize on it by releasing more limited editions. The marketing approach further fueled the flames of fandom by creating extreme situations of supply and demand. The perfect example from recent history is the Nike Air Yeezy model promoted by Kanye West. These coveted shoes run anywhere between just under a grand for used and over $2,000 if not $3,000 for a NIB pair. Impressively, OG Jordans are worth even more if in mint condition.

Classic pair of high-top Vans by Dan Smith (IG—dansmithism). #DanSmith #hightops #kicks #sneakerheads #Vans

Mainstream contemporary sneaker culture is full of this sort of hype, and at conventions these individuals from a number of walks of life all gather to swap and resale limited edition shoes. These gatherings are bustling and tons of young sneakerheads come out looking to sell unwanted parts of their collections or impulsively buy (i.e. instacop) new pairs of ultra-rare kicks. The amounts of money that are exchanged are, for lack of a better word, mind-boggling. For instance, individuals in their preteens regularly make and spend in the hundreds if not thousands of dollars. If you look closely, chances are that you will even see tattoos of sneakers on some of the older attendees.

An Air Jordan next to a low-top Vans by Dan Smith (IG—dansmithism). #DanSmith #kicks #Nike #Jordans #sneakerheads #Vans

Because the appeal of sneaker culture is so strong, more tattoos of people's favorite kicks are popping up every day. One of the most requested artists that does these pieces is Dan Smith. Footwear fanatics are seeking him out regularly to memorialize their most beloved hyperbeasts, jumpmen, OGs, and even white-on-whites. If you want to see more of his work, check out his Instagram. Also, if you, too, are a sneakerhead, consider hitting him up for a tattoo of your number-one pair. He tattoos at Captured Tattoo in Tustin, CA.

A Nike Roshe Run illustrated by Dan Smith (IG—dansmithism). #DanSmith #kicks #Nike #RosheRun #sneakerheads

We hope you liked this article about sneaker culture's history and the tattoos of fly kicks that fans are getting nowadays. These pieces of shoe-inspired body art exemplify just how intersected the worlds of music, sports, tattoos, and fashion have become as they've moved into the mainstream.   

Ross Howerton
Written byRoss Howerton

BA in Literary Studies from The New School. MFA in Creative Writing from NMSU. Staff Writer for Tattoodo. I love art, books, movies, music, and video games. Hit me up on Twitter @Powertonium

Find tattoo artists and tattoo shops in top cities