Phibs Treats the Uptown as His Blank Canvas

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If a young Tim Phibs could flash forward and see himself spray painting fresh Air Force 1s – at Nike’s invitation! – he’d likely utter a surprised word or two. As a graffiti artist kid, Phibs appreciated untainted kicks to the extent that he’d paint walls with plastic bags wrapped round his feet. But that was then. The Australian artist has since graduated from his ‘apprenticeship’ and is today less about traipsing through train yards and scaling fences, and more about large-scale murals and partnering with Nike.

For a new collaboration with the Swoosh, Phibs has been hard at work on the Blank Canvas Collective — a colossal feat of customisation that sees the artist’s distinct iconography colour the community with wearable art.

What can you tell me about the Blank Canvas Collective?
The Blank Canvas Project is a collection of Air Force 1s custom-painted for the model’s 35th anniversary. We're creating each pair so that they're unique and individual, like a piece of artwork. They're not necessarily clean-cut, straight-from-the-factory looking things. They've got a bit of over-spray and texture and some cool laser etching, which creates a bit of an embossed look.

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You’re painting 70 shoes, right?
Yeah, 70 pairs, so 140 shoes.

What are the challenges of doing that many?
We had to be very conscious of time. We're using different tools and ways of getting the main line work — my line work, my style — and then I'm incorporating a lot of these little templates using leather spray, which is like a leather paint with more give to it.

You said you’re trying to make each pair unique — how are you doing that?
Well, half of them are black and the other half are white, and I've got a whole lot of different colourways that I’m messing around with. There are some oranges and blues that are working nicely and really popping against the black. Then you’ve got imperfections that add character to the sneakers. I want diversity in each one so that they become an art piece. Still, it’s up to the buyers whether they want to wear them or stick them on a shelf.

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How have you approached the project from a technical perspective?
I’ve been adapting my work to complement the sneakers, just like working on a wall. Not all walls are rectangle. You might have lots of obstacles — windows etc. — therefore you have to consider how your design interacts with the space you're working with. You might have things that wrap around a corner, and it’s the same with a shoe; it's not a flat wall, it's a bit tricky. And then I’ve linked the design into the Swoosh — the Swoosh is still in there, but it's camouflaged among the pattern work.

Would you like them to get some wear, though?
I'd love to see them walking around out there. Being a graffiti or street artist, it's about putting your work out in the public space and people seeing it, but I don’t mind. It’s up to the individual. As a kid I tried to keep my sneakers as clean as possible, to the point where I’d paint walls with plastic bags on my feet. These days, I tend to wear my shoes to death and enjoy the paint splatter.

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Jumping back a bit, how did you go from painting streets and trains to working with Nike?
At age 13 I moved to the big smoke, to Sydney, and straight away got hooked on the graffiti scene. I was going out painting and getting up to mischief — I like to think of it as my apprenticeship.

But as much as I love sneaking down onto the train tracks, I couldn’t do it for the rest of my life. I started to meet some of the older generation artists who took me under their wing. They started to school me up and I started to look at things different. I learned more about the history and practice. I wanted to do more than just tags; I wanted to start learning letter styles and evolve. It wasn't something that I predicted when I was a kid, but it’s become my career and led to some amazing opportunities.

Australia’s graffiti and street art cultures have a unique relationship with Nike’s Air technology. Why do you think that is?
It comes from B-Boys and hip hop culture. It's all about wearing the freshest gear. You can always tell Sydney writers from Melbourne writers. Melbourne writers always seem to be a little more out there, while in Sydney they’re more short shorts, polo shirt, Air Max. It’s like a uniform — sneakers are a big part of the culture and always will be.

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The proceeds are being donated to YMCA’s basketball program — how important is the community aspect?
I think it's important to give back, definitely. I’ll often donate work for particular exhibitions; I like doing art and giving people my time. I do a lot of work with at-risk kids and I see it as supporting the next generation. Some of these kids that I used to do work with have actually become the next generation of painters. That's how I got into what I do, so I think it’s important to have mentors.

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What do you hope people get out of this project?
I hope a whole lot of people out there really enjoy their sneakers. It’s also a great opportunity to work with Nike to bring art into a completely different realm. Sneaker customisation is an art form in itself, but I’m hoping this will kick off more of these projects with other artists.

The Blank Canvas Collective will be available on December 3 via and on display at the inaugural Battle Force Sunday presented by Nike, Foot Locker and Melbourne Streetball Madness.

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