Pink Eye: The Enjoyable Kind

by Chris O’Leary

Something I’ve learned over the last few years of writing is that it’s the shorter assignments that can cause you the most grief. I remember looking at SLAM when I was in high school and thought there would be no way that I could write a couple thousand words on a player. I liked the size of the In Your Face pieces better. Short and to the point and maybe catering to what was a terribly short attention span, the 400-or-so words that made them up seemed right up my alley.

Things change quickly. Write a few 500-word stories and suddenly you don’t have enough room to get everything in that you wanted to. You get a 1,000-word piece and still there’s juicy morsels of story left floundering on the cutting room floor. And of course, with a 100-word limit in front of me for a collector profile (in SLAM 131) I got Erica Purnell on the phone.

A graphic designer and sneaker customizer who works out of Queens, Purnell, aka Pink Eye, turned what could have been a five or 10-minute interview into nearly an hour of sneaker talk. The frustrating part, content-wise, was that her best stories wouldn’t fit in the mag. I’ve gone back through our conversation and included the highlights.

SLAM: You’ve said you’re a lover more than a collector of shoes. What’s that mean?
Erica Purnell: I have a few pieces here and there. I keep some of mine in boxes and stuff like that but there are people that actually collect them. They stand on line for sneakers and things like that. That’s not really my forte. I really just buy what I want, what I really like. I shop a lot at mom and pop shops, I don’t spend a lot of time at the big retailers. I try and find gems at places that people don’t go to. I try and call myself a sneaker lover, or a sneaker connoisseur rather than a collector. I’m always on the hunt for good deals and the best buys and really [follow] what my taste is.

SLAM: Are there still some shoes that you’re looking for?
EP: There’s a few pairs that I actually had that I wish I still have that I threw out over the years. My Air Humaras, I had the original olive green pair and I made a dumb decision and threw them out. I was probably a little careless with some of the sneakers I did have. I probably could have kept a lot of them or kept them up with cleaning them but I was younger so I was a little more careless with them than I am now.

SLAM: Were you always writing on them?
EP: Not all the time. That kind of happened as I got older. I was always an artistic person, sketching on my books and stuff and I was always the one drawing on the desk with SharpErica Purnellies, stuff like that. When I got a little older I started playing around, tagging up my sneakers. When I was a little out of high school, I started playing around and experimenting and local people were saying, ‘Those look cool, where’d you get those?’

And it was really like I’d do them and they asked if I could do theirs. Everybody knew I was an artist, so they trusted me with doing their shoes. I was nowhere as good then as I am now because of course it’s a skill and trade to learn what sort of things you have to work with. I just started earning a little extra cash here and there and it became something bigger than I expected it to be. It was really cool for me.

SLAM: What are some of your favorite custom jobs that you’ve done?
EP: In my earlier days I did a lot more names and cartoons and stuff. I’m not a big basketball fan, but I did a pair of Jason Kidd-themed customs for this girl early on on a pair of Air Force 1 highs. She was maybe 12 years old and she was a big Jason Kidd fan. Her uncle got them for her. I had Jason on one side and Kidd and the number and there was this whole theme, and she loved them, adored them.

Some of my newer pairs, I did this jumbo print Puma Monstro boots that are on my site, a few pairs of the brick Dunks where they’re actually hand-made bricks that I’ve actually done and they’ve been really popular with people.

SLAM: Handmade bricks?
EP: They’re really cool in person. If you touch them, they’re three-dimensional. It’s not just painted on there. I used this compound, almost like I layered the bricks right on the shoes. I actually debuted them at Sneaker Pimps 2007. People went insane over them.

SLAM: You ended up doing a pair of shoes for your high school librarian. What’d you do for her?
EP: She’s a little older, she comes from the ’60s era of peace and love so she wears these Reebok princesses, these little aerobic sneakers. She’s been wearing these sneakers since I was in school there, probably for years before that. I just did these peace signs in pink and blue and gave her custom shoelaces in them and there was an airbrush affect. It was a medley of peace signs going up and down the shoe. It was really girly and dainty but it fit her.

Because she’s a published author too, the next pair I’m doing for her are based on her books. It’s nice because it’s personal to her and it opens a whole new world to her. The possibilities are really limitless.

[Shoes are] something we all wear, whether you’re a sneakerhead, a collector, you just wear them. Sneakers touch everyone’s life, whether you’re getting them for athletic reasons, or just running down the street to the store. Most people would just want their name or something going on in there and she’s making it work for her, and that’s the whole point of customization, making it work for yourself. It’s a pretty cool concept.

I had an even older guy who I did shoes for, he was really into tribal stuff, Native American, Mayan stuff, so I did Myan glyphs on his new balances. They were size 13, 14 or something like that so there were a lot of Mayan glyphs on them [Laughs].

But he loved them and he would walk down the street and so many poeple would compliment him on them. It catches everybody because even if you’re not into it you’ll say ‘Wow, I’ve never seen New Balance make those before, I’ve never seen Reebok make those before,’ and you’re making it work for yourself. It’s the attitude of, ‘These are mine and nobody’s gonna have it but me.’ I think we all like that, whether you’re more flashy than the next or you’re more humble, we also like to have something that, you go to a store and spend 400 dollars on a shirt, you don’t want the next person to have it. That’s the whole point of spending 400 dollars on it and it’s the same thing with the shoes. If that’s the case then we all look the same.

Did you run into discrimination, being a woman in such a male-dominated thing like sneakers?
EP: Not anymore, I’ve been doing it long enough. I’ve been in this circle for a long time. When I started I was local, I was living in Westchester County New York and I was just kind of working for a few clients there and when I came back to the city I started working with adidas, and that’s where Pink Eye kind of got more into the mainstream, more to the forefront. It just took on a life of its own.

It was always about the sneakers. People would see the customs I was wearing and then I’d start talking to them about sneakers, about how the two owners of Puma and adidas are brothers and people don’t know that. So when you drop knowledge on them, people are like, ‘Oh this girl knows her stuff.’

I started getting respect on it more than being an artist and a custom girl to actually being someone who knows what she’s talking about when it comes to sneakers.

I don’t do a lot of female customs. The sneaker culture is still dominated by men, at the end of the day. It’s like almost any industry in this world, but there’s a few women who will step up. I don’t let it bother me, or take the focus off of what I’m doing but I also let them know that I am a girl and give me my props. I kind of demand their respect. When you present yourself professionally to people as an artist, people can’t do anything but respect you. You get it and you talk like you have a good knowledge on what you’re talking about, they don’t even see a sex anymore. They see a good business person and they see the talent, which feels good. That means I’m doing my job the right way.