Originally published in Sneaker Freaker Germany issue 13. Photo credit: Alexander Münch.
The strictly limited Montana x Sneaker Freaker Infrared spray can colab created a nice segue for us to talk to two true German sneaker and graffiti connoisseurs. Lars a.k.a. AtomOne was born in '72 and is among other things MC of the Too Strong hip hop crew, a busy graffiti artist of more than 25 years and a long-running Montana Cans employee. Niko – also known as Besser – was born in 1975, also grew up in the Ruhr's graffiti scene and currently runs the first sneaker store in the city of Essen, Sole Hunters. Both of them have been passionate about sneakers for a long time – and to celebrate, they sprayed a piece for Sneaker Freaker on a wall in the centre of their native, former coal-mining area known in Germany as 'The Pott'. Fresh!
When did a general interest for both shoes and graffiti turn into a passion for you guys?
Lars: I took up hip hop and graffiti through Wild Style and Beat Street, I wanted to look like the guys in the movies. Back then you could only get Superstars in the US army base in Frankfurt, but you had to build up some connections first. Or you drove to Amsterdam. In our generation you were a forerunner. I remember how they laughed at me when I showed up to school in my Superstars in 86/87. Those same people were all wearing Superstars at the high school reunion 10 years later!
Niko: For me it began when I started Junior High. I played basketball and took part in streetball tournaments; of course I also wore the Streetball 2s. That’s when it took off with the Jordans, mostly the 4s. Towards the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, everyone was wearing stuff like that: Flights, Air Raids, Pumps…
You guys are from the Ruhr area, which was highly influential to the German hip hop scene. Tell us more from the earlier days.
Lars: We never really planned to change anything – it just happened by itself. In the city of Dortmund, there were two groups with five people each who were really big in the train painting scene. In '96, I was standing at a train station and saw nothing but painted trains on each platform. That’s when I realised that we had accomplished a piece of graffiti history. Americans, Australians, the whole of Europe suddenly came to Dortmund. Every city, every area has its time. That went on until 98 or 99, then others got their turn.
At the time I was unemployed – I had nothing better to do than organise some cans and going out to spray at night. I lived in Dortmund’s northern town, for 200 Deutsche Mark a month, no heating, one and a half rooms, one of them was filled with spray cans… we just did it.
Lars, in 1989 the rap crew Too Strong was formed. How did you become part of that group?
I came to Too Strong in ’91. We shared the same interests, met up, went to concerts, talked, and at some point they said: 'Hey, why don’t you?' In 1992 the EP 'Rabenschwarze Nacht' (Pitch Black Night) came out, then in '93 the album 'Greatest Hits' – we called it that because we thought we'd never make another album (laughs).
On your tracks you talk about graffiti and DJing. How important is the connection between hip hop and clothing – especially shoes – to you?
For me it all belongs together. There were these skateboard and BMX guys that walked around in Vans and Quiksilver shirts – I always wanted people to see me as a hip hopper. I also wore floppy hats that I painted myself, until I got a Kangol hat in London for 70 pounds – I was so happy! That defined itself, especially through the sneakers, since we wore those with the fat laces. I used curtain borders that I treated with hairspray and ironed so they would become stiffer and wider – the 'real' fat laces were only available in neon colours, those were not cool!
Niko, how did it all start out with you and graffiti?
From '93 I went out every night to paint along the tracks and the Autobahn. That’s how most people start out – you go to your local hardware store and steal a few cans or you look around in your parents’ or neighbour's garage. Then you hang around the central station and hope to see someone who looks like they're into graffiti. I didn’t see anyone at first (laughs). But my neighbour’s best friend was a locally known painter in our city. Then there was this legal wall – it was unique, you could see it from the trains. That is where I met more and more people.
Hip hop is also about style and fashion. Applying that to shoes, what comes to mind when you remember the 'golden era'? Which were the must-haves, what didn’t fly at all?
Lars: You know who really inspired me? Niklas Beckert. He used to have this shop called Mad Flavor in Berlin and told me 'Lars, just buy a whole lot of shoes, some day they will be worth a lot.' He already had a huge collection. When I went to his house and he opened up his little chamber – it was incredible! Until ’96 Mad Flavor was the undisputed place to find the best shoes in Berlin. A few managers from Solebox were temporaries there, and certain Overkill boys worked there too. Amsterdam and Berlin were the places to be for awesome kicks.
And you, Niko? What was cool – what wasn’t?
Towards the end of the 80s it was all about basketball for me, you'd wear Ewings and Barkleys. The first Huarache basketball shoes were also popular. I remember that very well, because most of the shoes would go for 100 to 150 Deutsche Mark and the Huaraches cost 350 Marks, just like the David Robinson Pump and the Shaq Attaq. Jordans were around 300 Marks. I remember because of the discussions with my parents – it was hard enough to get 100 Marks from them, let alone 300. Towards the beginning of the 90s I took a different path than Lars. I continued doing graffiti but I have also been listening to Techno music for over 20 years and therefore went frequently to parties in Netherlands. In that scene you see people rocking Nike 100% of the time: Classic BWs, 97s … it’s a phenomenon. When I drove to the parties I would sometimes see 100 Dutchmen getting off a bus wearing the same jacket that read 'Rotterdam Terror Corps', a real army.
Lars, you were involved in the 'end2end' project by Adidas. How did that come about? There were other big names in the graffiti scene involved, right?
In 2006 I got a call that Adidas wanted to do a project where seven graffiti artists from all over the world would design shoes to be released exclusively at Footlocker in Europe. Adidas rented a studio in London where we could do what we wanted. They put the graphics out on sneakers, sweatshirts and stuff like that. It was really successful and Footlocker started a huge campaign with it. So it got to the US, Australia, Japan and so on. We really wanted a Superstar, but they didn’t give us one – instead they gave us models they wanted to place. Nevertheless, that project was the bomb.
Niko, in 2013 you opened up your own sneaker shop with Sole Hunters. How did that happen?
Let me think (laughs). I used to be a real sneaker addict. At one point I ordered 12 pairs in a week from Overkill – I remember the shop from way back when they only had a small rack of spray cans.
In hindsight I must admit that I had no idea how much time, energy and money you have to invest, especially since there is another sneaker shop opening up every month. In the beginning I didn’t understand why I couldn’t get certain products. Now, as a shop owner, I understand that you have to earn the laurels before the brands give you the products that bring better business.I frequently brainstorm with the older guys – Marc from Overkill, Oliver from The Good Will Out, Mo from Monox. At the end of the day there are many factors that decide whether you are successful or not. Many of the people in the scene believe the bubble is going to burst and the running sector is going to die out. But we have been open for almost a year now and I don’t see it that way. The trend will stick around.
Maybe the trend will go back to basketball?
Niko: But the problem with that is that the kids don’t know Ewings and the Mutombo, and they won’t appreciate them. For them it’s all about Jordans and then only retros in different colours. Nobody really wants anything like Flight Club here. There is also a rumour going around that soon only Footlocker and Snipes will be allowed to sell Jordans. But as I already said, Basketball isn’t really working right now. Sure Kobes and LeBrons are, but that’s it.
If you look into the past, is there a shoe that you’ve stayed true to the whole time?
Niko: We all still have Air Max 1s and 90s or Jordans. I always make sure that the shoes are super comfortable, therefore my view has completely changed since I opened up my store – I now wear almost exclusively New Balance and ASICS. They are really great when you spend most of your day standing on your feet in the store.
Lars: I am definitively an AM1 and AM90 fan, but I also like the ZX850 from Adidas – on feet I like them more than on the shelf.
Niko: The ZX850 also makes an appearance in the picture we made for Sneaker Freaker.
Lars: Yeah, I wasn't allowed to paint two Nikes (laughs).
What do you have to say about the current trends in hip hop and shoes?
Lars: I don’t like what they do with the materials; the hybrids, I don’t need those. Rather than mixing everything up they should give new people the chance to create something new.
Niko: I deal with shoes on the daily and I see what’s happening abroad. And I never observe the same trend in two different countries. In Holland and France they wear completely different things from us. In England every hipster still wears the Puma Suede, especially in the b-boy scene.Regarding colabs: it’s all a thank you for all the people that generate the hype, like Ronnie Fieg and Jeremy Scott, in return their brand or store is pushed a little. But first a sneaker store has to earn a bit of a reputation before they can work on a huge collaboration. And right now there are not a lot of stores in Germany that could do this. At the moment you only have Solebox, Overkill and The Good Will Out. You have to have a certain international relevance. Sure, there are a lot of stores that do a good job, like 43einhalb, Afew, Asphaltgold or Suppa, but they don’t have that international relevance. It all has to fit together.
Graffiti, sneaker culture and hip hop seem to be making a return together – or were they never gone? How do you see it?
Lars: Maybe you could call it a high phase, since the brands have realised the potential in this fashion thing.
Niko: In the sneaker sphere people are more concerned about what they wear. When somebody buys New Balance made in England or the USA then that’s a statement. You want to distinguish yourself from the others. Or why else would you stand in line for a colab shoe? Because it’s something special, not something you see every day. There may be 2-4 per cent of sneakerheads like that in Germany. The rest of them are 'normal' customers that buy AM1, AM90, ASICS and New Balance, but rather the inconspicuous monotone standard models.
The graffiti and sneaker scene are quite alike – some post shoes online and gather likes, the others paint and earn fame. What would you say about that?
Niko: Graffiti was never really present on the Internet until Streetfiles came along. It was the first platform where people could show their photos and you could comment on them. Before that the scene rather kept to itself. The sneaker scene on the other hand is rather rooted in the Internet with forums, groups and websites. The sneakerheads spend most of their day whining about shoes – 'the materials have changed, the shape isn’t right … it’s weird' – everyone’s complaining, and yet everyone keeps buying it.
Lars: The scenes do resemble each other. You come to a point in every scene where you no longer need to earn fame; you just do it for yourself. I collect sneakers because I feel like it. Sometimes I prefer looking at my collection of sneakers to looking at the last piece I just did.
Is it not a big difference though, that spraying is all about skills while sneakers are all about taste?
Niko: And money! (laughs) You don’t need skill to compile an extensive collection.
Lars: Well, the companies that sell equipment for sprayers adapt to their audience just like sneaker companies to their customers. They optimise the tools – the spray can – so a 14-year-old can paint as good a picture as someone who’s been spraying for more than 25 years. Skills are only techniques. With 14 you won’t make a name for yourself in two years. But there are definitely 16 year olds that are better than me.
Back in the day you had to find out which caps work best on which can, you went to drug stores to take the things from the deodorant spray cans and you tried them out. Nowadays the kids know: I’ll go on the Internet and order skinny caps. It’s all become a lot faster paced and easier. But it’s fine that way.
Lars’ shelf is filled 90% with runners – what does yours look like Niko?
Niko: I believe that it has something to do with my age. My taste has completely changed. As a teen I wore mostly Nikes and only later realised that there are other fantastic shoe brands out there and they each have their own great models.
Do you guys have an all-time fave, a holy grail you don’t own yet – or you do own?
Lars: I had one – but I had to sell it again (laughs): An AM90 in yellow croc leather, an English edition. I payed 350 Pounds for a size 8, because I really wanted them. I would love to have them in my size. Other than that: the Superstar and the Forum.
Niko: Something I am definitely going to get my hands on is the Gel Lyte III by WOEI from Rotterdam, one of the best colabs ever. In the Netherlands the shoe is traded very highly and I don’t even follow the prices in Germany. Concerning colabs I also really enjoy the stuff that Concepts in Boston does. In my mind they are doing the best colab work out there right now. That’s why you’ll find the C-Note and the Three Lies in my top ten as well – those are out of this world!
If you were allowed to design a shoe, which one would it be?
Lars: It would be really awesome if I could do an AM1 or an adidas Forum. I love the Forum.
Niko: Lars really is an artist through and through. I in turn am only a shoe sales man. I am already aware of how the colab business works, like I said. I can safely say that I would do a colab with Nike, but I would probably need to get myself frozen – and when you defrost 150 years later, a colab may be possible.At this moment Nike isn’t doing anything in Europe, they are concentrating on the US and Japan. The colab hype is currently the hottest with ASICS and Saucony. Every sneaker shop in Germany would say yes straight away. So: GLIII or GLV, or 998 or 997 from New Balance – I'd be so happy my heart would stop!