Rob Heppler got his sneaker schooling in jail. While serving four years at various state and county institutions (three in Massachusetts and one in Texas) after pleading guilty to five charges in 1998 (mayhem, assault to kill, armed robbery, larceny of motor vehicle, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon), the Everett native learned that running-shoe styles had names, like the Air Max 95. He learned how to launder sneakers by watching other inmates ritualistically scrub their prize kicks with rags, toothbrushes, and soap, “just like you would wash your car on the weekend.” He learned that a nice pair could get your ass beat, so you had to be careful putting them aside in the shower. “People don’t put up as much of a fight when they are naked,” Heppler notes. He learned that you could upgrade your footwear by quietly convincing corrections officers to smuggle new shoes inside — even the tattiest pair of Air Jordans were worth $500 to an inmate, “like owning a Ferrari.” And new kicks were rarely confiscated. “The cops were always looking for tattoo guns, crack pipes, shanks, so they don’t care about sneakers.”
More important, Heppler learned that when you are locked away without a car or a girlfriend, sneakers aren’t just accessories, but your identity. “Everything was the same [in prison], except the sneakers, to define yourself,” the 26-year-old recalls one Thursday at the Middle East Upstairs, a platinum Nike Dunk dangling from a silver chain around his neck. “Anyone that had super-awesome sneakers, it was for a reason. It meant you were a huge drug dealer or you were rich or somebody cared about you on the outside. Or you were the baddest-ass ever and the [shoes] were given as ‘Please don’t kill me.’ Or you were snitching.”
What Heppler didn’t know is that out in the free world, there is a larger urban global culture that regards sneakers with the same high esteem — a streetwear-savvy population that will pay hundreds for the right shoe. People who post digital pics of their daily footwear choices on message boards and mull over strange street phenomena like “Homeless People in Non-Homeless Sneakers.” Men who keep fresh pairs on ice. Adult couples who save their best “deadstock” (unworn supply) for their wedding days. Arty-sporty girls who paint Nike swooshes on their bedroom walls. Kids who camp outside urban boutiques the nights before limited-edition releases drop, so they can slap down $100-plus for a rarity they’ll probably either put in storage or resell for three times more on eBay.
They’re sneakerheads. The whole process of buying, reselling, trading, collecting, discussing, analyzing, blogging, ogling, worshipping, scoping, hoarding, storing, and rocking them is what’s called the sneaker game. And with easily accessible online fashion-hype builders like HypeBeast.com (tagline: IT’S AN ADDICTION) and Niketalk.com, it’s being played now more than ever.
Sneaker culture isn’t just confined to online forums and brick-and-mortar high-end stores; it’s also creeping into the mainstream. Last February, when 150 potential buyers showed up at a Lower East Side boutique to purchase only 30 pairs of a $300 NYC-tribute shoe, the Nike Pigeon Dunk SBs (skateboards), a minor riot broke out. Thugged-out dudes waited on nearby corners to rob buyers leaving with their spoils, the NYPD swooped in, and the New York Post splashed the street ruckus on the front page. This past summer, Where’d You Get Those?: New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 author Bobbito Garcia hosted It’s the Shoes on ESPN2, a late-night sneaker-centric summer-series featuring interviews with the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Spike Lee, and Missy Elliott. In November, Riverhead Books published Sneaker Freaker: The Book, a softcover compendium of the first six issues of the sleekly designed Australian fan-magazine that’s become a scene linchpin. There’s even a specialty market for art with sneakers as a muse: paintings, customized jewelry, Swiss chocolate.
New York City, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo were early-adopters of sneaker culture. Now Boston’s really starting to get into the game. Femalesneakerfiends.com, a Web community for laced-up ladies, launched from Jamaica Plain last April. Rob Heppler, now a free man living in Pepperell, hosts a biweekly sneaker Podcast called Weekly Drop with Arlington resident Jeff Cavalho. When New Balance released its first “Artist Series,” the Allston company selected only one contributor, Somerville painter/illustrator Josh Wisdumb. The national traveling collectible-shoe exhibition “Sneaker Pimps” has stopped by Lansdowne Street two years in a row. Over the holidays PUMA offered its design-your-own-shoe process, the Mongolian BBQ, in Boston. New Balance, PUMA, Converse (now owned by Nike), and Reebok (now owned by Adidas) are headquartered in Massachusetts. And then there are the new independent outlets selling specialty sneakers: streetwear boutique Karmaloop settled into Newbury Street this past fall; last month saw the soft opening of Laced, a brand-new NYC-style sneaker/skateboarding boutique in the South End.