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Sneaker Toons Speaks on His 'Illegal' Nike Art

Date: February 03 2018

By: Sneaker Freaker

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I never set out to break the law. But on January 31, 2018, I found myself in an unexpected legal predicament. Should I have known better? Did I bring this on myself? Did my work deserve to be classified as illegal? I first dipped my toe box into the world of sneaker art back in 2013. It started simply as a creative outlet fuelled by a growing passion. I never planned to sell what I was creating – I didn’t even think it was possible. It was only after one of my designs won an Air Max Reinvented competition hosted by size? that the idea of making money from my hobby became a reality. 

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When I first popped the tags off SneakerToons, it was just for fun. It was a cheeky dig at the swollentoed retros of beloved classics. I couldn’t really call myself a hardcore sneakerhead back then, but I had a background in automotive design and the aesthetics of ‘shape’ were fundamental to me. Good proportions and sweet lines were my bread and butter.

These cartoon interpretations of the sneakers we all covet seemed to strike a chord in the community and requests for prints began to appear in my DMs and comments.

It’s at this point that the future of SneakerToons could have split like the tongue of a GEL-Lyte III. On one foot, it could have remained just a hobby – a small part of my busy life that gained me nothing more than the kind words of a few like-minded sneakerheads. On the other, it could become a small business. It went the latter, and I poured my heart and soul into SneakerToons over the past four and a half years. And it’s brought me to my current conundrum: is what I do – what I’ve built my business around – sneaker art or a criminal act?

I’m certainly not the first to walk this path and I won’t be the last. There are hundreds of us reinterpreting popular footwear in our own styles and media. And, like me, many choose to try and reward their hard work by offering it for sale. It’s a decision that allows the admirers of your work to show love and support an independent artist. Sounds fair, right? I thought so too in the beginning. What harm could I be doing? I’m simply supporting brands, enriching sneaker culture and promoting the shoes we all love. Surely, no one could object to me making a little shoebox stash on the side? After all, it’s not like I was trying to sell fake Yeezys!

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SneakerToons continued to grow, projecting only positivity within the scene and nurturing mutual respect among my fellow sneaker artists. An expanding following and official collaborations with Reebok in 2015 and New Balance in 2016 fuelled its growth. People who worked for the brands and stores behind the sneakers I illustrated followed my work on Instagram – and not once in four years had I received any negative vibes or inclination that I should stop what I was doing. With the blessing of the footwear industry seemingly behind me, it made sense to carry on.

SneakerToons went from strength to strength, expanding and embracing other products. I had the fortune to meet and work with some amazing people. These collaborations are some of my proudest achievements. They made all the hard work and late nights worth it. One colab in particular represented what I believed to be SneakerToons’ true purpose, and what I had been working towards since the beginning. Enter, SneakerToons 3D.

With the help of one of the UK’s top digital sculptors, SneakerToons 3D sprang to life as if propelled by an Air-cushioned sole. It was to be a line of three-dimensional art toys based on my stylised designs. I had a master plan and I was going to do everything I could to make it happen. I thought that it would allow me to not only provide an even brighter future for my family, but also allow me to give something back to the sneaker industry and community. I’m not always the most optimistic person, (my wife and best friends will testify to that!) but I had faith in this idea, and the initial response only caused it to grow.

I had been lucky enough to forge connections and relationships with some influential people in the sneaker game over the years, and I drew on them to help me achieve my goal. I had a string of positive leads and was in talks with one of the top two brands for many months. I started to get excited, like the feeling you get when you peel back the tissue paper on your latest cop. But, as the months passed, this excitement turned to frustration. The leads dried up and crumbled like a vintage sole unit from the early 90s. Emails were left unanswered despite much chasing, and all seemed lost.

Now this story could have ended right there – just another idea abandoned too soon, like so many other failed startups. Was it a victim of my own enthusiasm? Perhaps, but with a substantial following on Instagram asking when was I going to launch the first model, I decided to take a risk. I always knew that to do this properly I would need licenses, or at least an agreement with brands. I knew that it was effectively a death or glory scenario to manufacture a sneaker toy without their consent. After almost two years of deliberation, consulting with peers and industry gurus along the way, I decided to go it alone. I risked not only a sizeable chunk of cash, but also the future of SneakerToons. I genuinely believed that if I went ahead and produced the first design in the series, the Art Max 90, I could build enough hype around the project to prove consumer demand and gain the attention I sought from those higher up.

Two months after I opened pre-orders for the Art Max 90, my online store, hosted through Big Cartel, was served with a ‘Notice of Trademark Infringement.’ The email resulted in the closure of my store and the branding of my work as illegal.

I figured it would lead to a positive response and the possibility of working together would present itself. Unfortunately, it seemed that the attention I received had a far more negative impact. Two months after I opened pre-orders for the Art Max 90, my online store, hosted through Big Cartel, was served with a ‘Notice of Trademark Infringement.’ This email resulted in the closure of my store and the branding of my work as illegal.

If I’m honest, I don’t know for certain that the first 3D SneakerToons catalysed the notice sent to Big Cartel. The offending email had come from a ‘brand protection agency,’ something I had never heard of until then. They worked on behalf of a major player in the footwear industry and had spooked Big Cartel with a threat of legal action if my store, accused of selling ‘counterfeit products,’ was not shut down within two days. The fact the notice mentioned counterfeit products suggested to me that it was probably generic and possibly even automated. (Damn those bots!)

This made it even more frustrating. There was no way to counter it. I replied to the email without response. If only I could get word to the right people at the other end, maybe this could all be overturned. I decided to make a statement on Instagram in the hope that representatives of the brands might see it.

I was blown away by the response, and the countless messages of support I received. It was a hot topic and one that drew many opinions. On the whole, everyone was behind me. How could limited-edition art pieces that portray sneakers in a positive light and support the community deserve such treatment? However, among the outrage and artistic solidarity, there emerged a few sobering truths and a conclusion that I never wanted to hear.

The unfortunate truth is that – if you follow the letter of the law – my artwork is illegal. It seems that all is rosy until you decide to sell artwork that uses another’s trademark. You are free to create it and to display it on social media, but as soon as you use that ‘art’ to make money, you are breaking the law in terms of copyright infringement.

So what now? That’s a very good question. Should I call it a day and leave it to the rest of the artists, customisers, photographers and counterfeiters to carry on where I left off? It’s a tough one for me. I really don’t want to be doing something that is, in the eyes of the law, a big no no. But it’s a tough call to abandon my baby. I suppose I could become some sort of sneaker philanthropist, effectively a charity. Keep producing my art and releasing it in to the world for free... I would love to be in a position to do that – believe me. And while I don’t rely on my art to make a living as many do (and I have the ultimate respect for these people), I am very fortunate to have a full-time ‘day job’ that pays the bills. The commodity at stake here is time, a precious asset in anybody’s language. So to carry on committing a large portion of my free time to SneakerToons – with no reward other than the intangible feel-good factors – is a hard choice.

The events of the past few weeks have certainly got me thinking: is there a solution to this problem? In collaboration with a fellow artist, I’m trying to propose an alternative to the ‘cease and desist’ mentality and come up with ways brands and artists can come together for mutual benefit.

Is there a way to address and perhaps influence what is ultimately a blanket mentality when it comes to cease and desist? Is the one-man band producing posters in his spare time really akin to the boundless number of counterfeiters pumping out thousands of Air Max 1s and Jordans? Surely not. So is it the brands who are at fault? Of course they need to protect their assets and police those who are genuinely out to rip them off – those who steal sales and dilute the brand – but I also think brands are neglecting valuable opportunities. They are turning their backs on uncovering bedroom Banksys and hypothetical Hatfields, the very kind of creative collaborators and potential employees they seek. 

What allows some creatives’ work to be praised by brands, while other similar crafts are deemed copyright infringements? Talents such as Dave White and miniswoosh are embraced by the world’s biggest sportswear brand and held in high regard. But what makes them different to Sneakertoons? I have no idea. Were they, and others like them, just lucky and merely in the right place at the right time? Maybe it’s that simple, but surely there is a better, fairer way for artists and creatives to be judged.

Right now, ‘collaborate’ is every brand’s favourite word. But if you’re a relative unknown or emerging artist, then there seem to be few, if not zero, options. I’ve tried for years to get in touch with ‘the right people’ – those who could discuss licences or grant permissions. People who would listen to ideas, even if in the end the answer was ‘no.’

I think this is where a possible solution lies. We need to work together towards a platform for discussion – a two-way exchange that could foster positive, mutually beneficial relationships. One possible scenario is a registration scheme of sorts, whereby brands would have access to what artists create; an online database of art that uses logos or other trademarked material. Brands could easily work with individuals who catch their eye, and also police and guide those who may be crossing the line. The database could be used to establish whether a ‘permission’ or a deal is granted, allowing the artist to carry on without fear of retribution.

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I appreciate that this might seem like a utopian scenario, but I’d like to think it could be made to work in some form or another. As a designer, I firmly believe that the cross-pollination of ideas, disciplines and people is the key to new ideas. And as a designer, I also know you have to have your head in the clouds, but your sneakers planted firmly on the ground. So I understand that this grand plan would require a hell of a lot of groundwork. Something simpler to execute might be a talent search similar to those conducted by radio broadcasters – the kind of nationwide quests that unearthed mega musical talents such as Silverchair and Florence and the Machine.

I could go on, but I will leave it there. I don’t know what the future holds for me or the sneaker brand/artist relationship in general. l believe everything happens for a reason and as I write this article, new opportunities and connections are presenting themselves. I feel very proud and fortunate to have been able to make my small contribution in the form of SneakerToons and believe artists will always play an important part in the community.

This isn’t the end of SneakerToons. In fact, maybe it’s a jump start in disguise. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 40

Words: Steven Piantoni

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