by Sandy Dover / photos by Dan Folger

Sneaker culture has grown exponentially since the first sneaker had been produced by Converse a century ago, and companies such as Nike, adidas, Reebok and more have made names for themselves as leaders in what we now know to be the footwear industry. Creativity has become a way for companies and wearers alike to distinguish themselves in order to express style and uniqueness relative to the producer and to the customer, and now independent artists have become more influential in the way that footwear is designed, more specifically, customized; one such person who is changing the way footwear appears is Ben Smith.

Smith, founder and principal artist of Brush Footwear in Pennsylvania, has become a leader in footwear customization. Having done custom footwear for music artists such as Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa, and having become a guest lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University in its Sneakerology series, Smith is certified.

Smith connected with SLAM some time ago, and graciously, he produced a pair of some of the slickest custom jobs in the last year, a special SLAM version of the highly sought-after Nike Air Max 90 for me (which is the only one of its kind), which led to an interview in which Smith talked about his art career, his passion, and why he does what he does.

SLAM: Where did sneaker customizing enter into your life? What inspired you to pursue this avenue?

Ben Smith: I’ve been doing sneaker customizing since I was in junior high school. It really started with me being bored in some classes and just drawing on a pair or chucks or some vans for something to do and pass the time. I’ve always been into art, so it was only a matter of time before I started incorporating my art with what I wear. So from then on I’ve been looking at the shoes as another means for my art and self expression. It honestly fell into place naturally and it just made sense for me.

SLAM: You first got major looks for your work fairly recently when you made an exclusive custom pair of Vans for star rap artist Mac Miller—what was the inspiration for you, specifically in featuring Mac and doing the custom on Vans of all shoes?

BS: Yeah, that was really dope to do Mac some pairs of kicks. I’ve been a fan of his music so it was real cool to work on something for him… I wanted something that would go with Mac’s style and that would be a timeless shoe while providing plenty of canvas space for the artwork. So the Vans Classics seemed like the go-to shoe. One pair was painted to match the cover of his debut album, Blue Slide Park, and the other was a “Most Dope” inspired pair. They both turned out crazy, the Blue Slide Park shoes are one of my favorites so far!

SLAM: Did you communicate with Mac personally on the Blue Slide Park Brush Custom or was it merely a fan appreciation piece in honor of him?

BS: I just made those as a gift (for Mac).

SLAM: What led to you becoming a business with Brush Footwear?  What about your skill set and background as an artist encouraged you to move forward into customizing shoes for a living?

BS: It was really a natural progression into it…I just kept with it and improving my skills and techniques as an artist through the years. To where the shoes had a “factory made” look and quality that wouldn’t chip off or crack the artwork. I was only doing them for friends and myself at the time and not really thinking about it as a business. When I would wear them out though, I would always get so many people asking about them and wanting them. Then I started to look into actually making it into something bigger and taking it to the next level! So in the fall of 2010 I started Brush Footwear.

SLAM: So you stepped into it raw? You clearly have the eye for translating images through your media…no fine arts background? Just raw talent?

BS: Yeah, pretty much. I’ve never had any formal classes or anything in painting and drawing; just always been into art and drawing since I can remember and just never stopped doing it.

SLAM: Wow. Can you divulge what your techniques are, as far as how you are able to make the vibrant designs and images that drive your customs?

BS: My process and techniques vary from each project. I’m always trying to do something new and explore different techniques with each piece. I start each piece by drawing out designs and fitting the artwork to the selected shoe to where everything fits aesthetically with me. Once the design is finished I start masking off the shoe and get it prepared for paint. Once the surface is properly prepared I start drawing on the designs and artwork. I then start the painting and every piece is painted freehanded by me.

SLAM: That’s impressive, considering that I’ve seen the detail in your catalog. What materials do you like working on the most—leather? Suede? Canvas? Mesh?

BS: Thank you, I really appreciate that. Yeah, I like doing everything freehand. It allows me to make every pair an original piece of artwork…I like to work on all different types of materials, each one offers a unique finish and feel to it when it’s finished. If I had to pick though, it’d probably be leather or canvas shoe.

SLAM: Why is leather and canvas your choice of base to work on with shoes? Do they offer any benefits to your work that others fail to bring?

BS: I guess it’s the finished feel and look of the leather and canvas shoes, it really compliments the artwork and ends in a luxurious finish. Not so much that other materials lack anything though. Every material offers [its own] unique feel and finish when the artwork is applied.

SLAM: With your success really starting to come as a artist in the footwear industry, do you have any advice for anyone that’s looking to do what you’re doing or advice for any artists that are trying to monetize their business?

BS: I mean for me, I think it all comes down to work ethic, and staying true to yourself and vision. If you really want to succeed at it, you got to stay focused and keep working toward it. Keep exploring, learning and putting yourself into new situations!

Sandy Dover is a veteran feature columnist and media producer who has written for SLAMonline and various print editions of SLAM since 2009, and his work extends to Yahoo!, The Shadow League, and the YES Network’s The Brooklyn Game, among other major publications. You can follow Sandy at @San_Dova on Twitter and also find him on the web at about.me/SandyDover.