Made in Ohio: Van Taylor Monroe, Artist & Sneaker Customizer

We continue to broaden our scope and put the spotlight on sneakers customizers from around the globe. This week, we speak to Van Taylor Monroe, an artist and sneaker customizer from Cleveland, Ohio.

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Van Taylor Monroe (right) with movie director Spike Lee, at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival

Van Taylor Monroe started dabbling in art at the tender age of two. In his adulthood, he realized that sneakers were a unique vehicle to tell a story and share with the world, so he left his job as a broker to focus on his passion in the arts and custom sneaker-making.

The journey was certainly not easy, and Van was at his wits’ end when one night, he dreamed of a sneaker that had a Barack Obama-inspired design. Van woke up at two in the morning, painted that shoe, shared photos of it and landed himself in the big leagues, with the sneaker making the news and finding a new home at the Smithsonian Museum, where it is on display permanently.

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This custom pair by Van now sits in the Smithsonian Museum

Were you a sneakerhead to begin with?
I’m not really a sneakerhead, so I don’t own many sneakers. Weird, right? Nonetheless, I would say my favorite models are the Nike Air Force 1 Low and the Air Jordan 1.

What got you interested in sneaker customization?
In 2003, my college teammate approached me with an old beat-up pair of shoes. He knew I airbrushed t-shirts and wanted to know if I could paint his shoes. In college, many students did not have money to spend on new kicks. So for US$30, I would refurbish their old sneakers. That’s how I got into the game!

What type of designs do you specialize in?
I would say portrait work and my wood-grain baseball bat textures.

What are some notable works that you have produced?
A few customs that were popular over the years were the Air Force 1 “Obama 08”, Air Force 1 “MJ Thriller”, Air Force 1 “X-Men Origins”, Air Jordan 7 “Bad 25”, Air Jordan 1 “Red Sox” and the “30 Years of Jordan” customs.

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An updated version that was made to commemorate the 2012 Presidential Elections

Typically, how long does it take to customize a pair of sneakers?
A typical pair of sneakers could take around six to 10 hours. Extremely detailed sneakers with many portraits can take up to 80 hours.

Where do most of your customers come from?
The bulk of my clients come from California or New York City.

Is there a trend in terms of the sneaker brands and silhouettes that they usually want customized?
Most people ordered Air Force 1s when I first started years ago. It used to be an unwritten rule that customizers would not paint on Jordans. Nowadays, Jordans are the most requested. It’s funny how times change.

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These customized Air Jordan 4s were made for Spike Lee and are inspired by his movie, Chi-Raq

Are there any notable personalities who have ordered custom sneakers from you?
I have been very blessed to do work for President Barack Obama, Spike Lee, Carmelo Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, P Diddy, Josh Hutcherson, Hill Harper, Will I Am, 20th Century Fox, Nike/Jordan Brand just to name a few. In 2008, the Smithsonian Museum requested the Air Force 1 “Obama 08″ and it became the first customized sneaker to be submitted to the largest museum in the world.

What’s the biggest challenge in customizing sneakers?
I would say the biggest challenge in customizing is challenging yourself creatively and really pushing the envelope to truly explore the aesthetic possibilities in every project.

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Clean line-work looks like it came straight out of a comic book

Are there any type of customization jobs that you would not accept?
I will not accept any commissions that do not align with my values. Anything hateful, racist, or derogatory will not be accepted by me.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give to an aspiring sneaker customizer?
If I could offer any advice, I would say to always be true to your gifts and identify what makes you special as an artist.

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These sneakers and artwork were created for American footballer Brandon LaFell

Have you received orders from Singapore?
Unfortunately I have not, but hopefully after this feature in Straatosphere, opportunities will open for me in Singapore!

What are your future plans for the business?
I plan to change the way in which my custom shoes are being used by my clients. This is an effort to re-brand myself and offer an unique product to the custom industry. Stay tuned to my site for details and announcements!

See more of Van Taylor Monroe’s customized sneakers on his website and Instagram page.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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