Brian Wallace and his array of monstrous characters created from old skate shoes
Whilst it’s certainly not unusual for us to receive bizarre emails from people that we don’t know; even by our own standards, our first communication with Brian Wallace whose world you’re about to delve into was, shall we say, somewhat disorientating.
“My name is Brian and I make monstrous characters from skate shoes” is definitely a strong opening gambit and had us intrigued immediately. After further conversation, we learned a lot more about the art work that Brian makes and, more importantly, the strong belief system that lies behind it. It will be impossible for us to even attempt to sum up what Brian Wallace and The Skate Shoe Crew are all about here so, do yourselves a favour and put aside a bit of time to learn more. You might even feel inclined to get involved with this madness.
Once you’ve read this interview, go take a look at Brian’s website and follow him on Instagram.
Can you give us a little bit about your involvement in skating to start with please Brian please? You’re from the Midlands, right?
Yeah, well, I’m 27 and I started skating when I moved from Hodge Hill, Bimingham to Lichfield in Staffordshire. A skate shop opened in Lichfield called ‘Old Skool’ in the early 2000’s run by a guy called Tom Stammers AKA ‘Big Tom’.
There was a pretty big skate scene there at that time centred around Aldi carpark’s waxed curbs, manny pads and a few home made things hidden in the bushes. We would skate carparks and schools in Lichfield, or the skate parks in surrounding towns and cities like Burntwood, Rugeley, and Derby and then later on parks were built in Burton and Tamworth. We’d go in to Birmingham to skate the city, head to Ideal and the Epic Skatepark all-nighters. One of the most notable skaters of our crew is Jesse James, one half of the ‘A Golden Egg’ duo who rides for John Cattle’s company Wight Trash and is a guest rider for Fancy Lad.
Lewis Threadgold is from the area too but I only met him when I moved to Manchester.
Was this where your forays into the world of art/making stuff began? Is that something you followed academically?
Art came after skateboarding when I was about 13. When I first started making art my approach was heavily influenced by an adolescent life full of love for skateboarding and not much else. My approach was that no one could tell me how to express myself, no one could tell me how to make my art and that all art teachers were failed artists who didn’t know anything. Therefore I would do whatever I wanted and not ‘study’ art, but of course it was all around me on boards and tees. I’ve realized that there were some holes in that philosophy since. It was carefree creation, I was focused on drawing pictures to elicit a response, bizarre and gross simple drawings to make people laugh or reel in disgust. I started illustrating on old T-shirts when I was about 15 and have made over 200 to date; that might have been where the idea of ‘renewing the old’ began for me.
You described your work as being completely DIY – is everything you make focused around recycled materials? To make something beautiful out of what might be considered rubbish?
They’re certainly elements of it, however it came to mean more. I think it’s also a case ‘disrespecting the authority of objects’: the shelf life, the perfect form of an object (it must be discarded when it no longer has that form) and questioning the ‘added value’ given to objects by advertising and branding. This approach could be seen as an extension of seeing new and exciting potential in cityscapes as a skateboarder. You’re refusing to accept the designated usage of the architecture – you’re doing more with it and challenging those opposed to it.
The Skate Shoe Crew began as a series of ‘skate hunt trophies’: these were the first skate shoe creations. I created animal like heads, hunting trophies using one shoe, bits of board and broken bearings mounted on a skateboard piece.
The point was to draw a similarity between going on a hunt and going skating using ‘skateshoe skins and skateboard bones’ as materials. To elaborate on what exactly it has in common with a hunt; it’s the pre-skate rituals, the donning of the clothes, the recognition of symbols and signs left by others (crumbling ledges, scuffed shoes, certain brands), the scars collected along the way, the music, the encouragement, togetherness but separate, the sighting of weird species of humans on the night streets. Instead of chasing an animal it’s catching the experience you’ve been hungering for whilst you’re pre-occupied with sedentary necessities of work or school. The trials and tribulations that are recorded upon the board and the shoe being the scars of that hunt, and the ruined shoe showing the captured trick – the collective experience or the spirit of the hunt. To go further, they capture the very energy of skateboarding and one further – the expenditure of energy in pursuit of happiness and overcoming what some thought was impossible for shits and giggles.
A thought I’m still working into it came from Australia, after reading about the incredible abilities of the first people of Australia to recognize hundreds of different plants and know their uses and qualities. I realized this same ability; probably common in all peoples is being used today, but with brands. Some plants have mystical qualities that go beyond their physical properties in folklore, something people would laugh at now perhaps. But today all our objects have this mystical added value that give objects qualities far beyond their cotton or raw material origin. If you forget that your imagination is the powerhouse of your reality then you’re in for a train-tracked ride to the graveyard, never really holding the reigns, chasing the carrot all the way to the coffin.
There’s a Japanese idea that an object has more beauty and worth after showing the wear of its use. It wasn’t necessarily to make something beautiful out of rubbish or recycling, I stopped seeing them as rubbish.
I began to appreciate the time taken in the design of the objects, thought about the age of the tree, time in making the product, and where it was made, leading to the uncomfortable truths around the manufacturing industry, and as aforementioned the enjoyment and destruction of the materials. I wanted to draw attention to the whole process, the story of the object by bringing them all back to ask questions, I wanted them to be complex. But I didn’t want to it to be completely polarized with one theme, that’s why the characters work so well.
How did this aesthetic begin and what influenced you originally?
The aesthetic didn’t precede the project it was entirely consequential, resultant of mundane 9-5 circumstances…and as for influence maybe Neil Buchanan? I admired painters who use bedsheets and primed them a few times to make cheap canvas, those who used what was at their disposal to create something because they enjoy it. I’d create drawings on the backs of gig posters taken from the street and biros from Barclays. Beanies found discarded on the street were ‘street treasure’ – unlocked supermarket bins were also street treasure. My favourite painting is ‘On The Edge of a City’ by Ken Currie (1960).
I was working in a Wetherspoon’s kitchen full-time when the project started. I was so determined to make something, anything, happen so that my life wasn’t just working in Weatherspoon’s, bingeing and skating in the rain. So, painting, reading and making were my escape. I’d daydream at work about making things. I thought I’d try making a wood sculpture as I admired wood workers. So, one day whilst masterfully microwaving chilli-con-carne I was struck with inspiration for my first project.
I was going to make a fire-breathing reptilian monster with moving parts out of old boards. I was frustrated at that time, a feeling of fire inside, irritability near fury so a fire-breathing monster fit. If it didn’t go well I thought I could just burn it or make something else. So I bought cheap tools from Wilco and started ‘acquiring’ wood to complement the old skateboards I had. I made the body from pallets and other bits of found wood, neck, head, hands and feet using boards. I decided it need scales and started looking for suitable material.
Distinct characters made from old skate shoes – where did this idea begin?
I found the right materials for the scales of the dragon. I looked at an old shoe and the shape of the fabric that houses the toes and found it was the perfect scale shape. I cut it up and started asking all my friends for theirs. But I soon realised I’d made the dragon frame way too big and it was going to take about ten years to cover the dragon in shoe scales. So I took the old shoes off and that’s when I started to see all these faces and possible compositions. The textures, fabric colours and prints, just physical properties were amazing and varied. But I started to think about how the tears, rips and stains were made and the stories they told. Looking at the boards anew I looked at all the smudges of graphics and chips. I realised both these materials were like diaries of the passions, best and worst days, trick struggles, progressions and depressions, sessions and painting quests of the wearer. So I did the Skate Hunt Trophies, but saw the potential for more. These materials showed all the signs of wonderful horrible life, but they weren’t alive anymore. So I decided to bring them back from the dead (lightning flashing, distant thunder). It’s like a collaboration with shoe designers, makers, skaters and me: nearly everybody else is oblivious to their involvement.
Where do the shoes come from? Are they your own or do people donate them?
The majority are immediate friends and my own and I ask around shops or skateparks. I always want new material, like paint. It has meant I’ve started to have a great interest in what shoes my friends have, and even at the skatepark I’m checking out the colours of people’s nearly ruined shoes thinking “they’re ripe” [laughing]. People look at me quizzically, confused, maybe a bit scared when I approached wearing characters on both hands asking for their old shoes. Bowl skaters seem to react better for some reason, God knows why?
Of course there’s a lot of indifference and that makes you want to try harder. I get asked if I have a foot fetish a lot. Talking of sniffing feet – it’s gnarly cutting up a shoe and finding the hidden depths of cheese scent and fish odour, you never know when a foot dust bomb is going to go off. You quickly find the hidden away compartments that have been festering since the first wear, it’s like the movie Hurt Locker except better. But if you wash them you remove a lot of the original marks and scuffs and it just looks like fabric, so dirty it is.
I was so lucky when I went in to Cre8ive Sk8 in Townsville, Queensland. I met Tyson who got me in touch with owner Ado. Ado gave me absolutely loads of ancient unsold stock, the glue wasn’t holding and one of each pair was faded. He got behind it straight away, and he is the only person who owns a Shoe Crew head, he’s got Doppalardo (from Anthony Poppalardo) as a show of gratitude. Also my friend Will ‘Slayer’ Sayer had been out in Aus skating before, and I’d met some of the Aus friends he made as they came to England to skate with us. They helped me out too (Ricky Watt and Ders).
I’ve asked people for shoes and they’ve given me ‘old pairs’ which weren’t quite gone. I would take the shoes that were still useable to the skatepark and offer them to people.
Have you thought about maybe making characters of pros from their own pro shoes?
I have thought about that. I’d have to seek out maybe 2/3 pairs of that pro’s shoe and that hasn’t come about yet. I’d probably want the shoes to be from them as well for authenticity.
What aspects of the materials that you’re using are particularly well suited to this kind of appropriation?
The differing fabrics, colours, textures and abrasions as well as the ways you can use the hardware and boards give a great range of material qualities. It’s always fun to try and put them together in a different way. When you’re taking the shoe apart and you turn over the insole and it’s really colorful then it’s like I have a new can of spray paint, or a new marker. I also try and use the wear and tear already there.
A good example of this is the character ‘Shemmy’; one of his eyes is just where the ball of the toe was coming through the shoe from the abrasion of the grip tape. The great thing about the materials is they’re already completely ruined, so I take the characters out and about and they break and I fix them again. It’s good though as I don’t want them to be static, pouring beer on them is fine. That’s part of the reason for the Taipei show, on the street from spot-to-spot, people can touch them and hold them. The static gallery show isn’t appealing for The Shoe Crew…
Do you have to prepare the shoes before you use them – or is it a case of just cutting them up and re-arranging them?
I’ve developed a system. I try to work with the abrasions if possible. I like to try and alter the material as little as possible – Baws Homokio’s head is an example of this being a completely uncut shoe, Shemmy just the sole. After selecting the prime cuts, if you do cut, you’re left with lots of off-cuts, which I’ll sort into texture and or colour, as well as cuts of boards and hardware. I take a long time moving pieces in and out yeah; the possibilities are limitless. Then the angles of the eyes and brows, the distance of the nose from the eyes will drive me mad. These all change the character a lot, sometimes it’ll take a day or two before I’m sure and sew/glue it together, then I might rip it up and start again.
Have you discovered any properties specific to particular shoe brands through doing this?
Some shoes are so shit that I can pull them apart by hand, though most shoes are pretty flimsy and terrible when I get my hands on them. I have realized some things, like the phantom heel gel pad for instance. Some shoe brands, when they vacuum form the insole just make grooves to give the impression of a heel pad, it’s just a normal insole, you probably get less insole with this method. I’ve thought about doing shoe reviews and so on from the perspective of The Shoe Crew, maybe even a shoe review from a character made of the ruined shoe it’s reviewing.
You had an exhibition in MCR last year and then subsequently took The Shoe Crew on a tour of Australia, Japan and Taiwan – where did you exhibit them and how did you develop the connections in each place you showed them?
Australia and travelling preceded the shows in the UK. I left the UK in December of 2013, stayed out of the UK until Summer 2016. My first exhibition was the rolling wall in Taipei. I made the contacts in Taipei as I lived and worked there with a part-time English Teacher. I met a guy called Frank who organizes art shows and showed him one of my characters (ZimZim), and he kept asking me to do a show.
I then left to travel Taiwan to S.E. Asia and Australia for 16 months and then decided to do a show when I returned to Taipei in July of 2016. After I’d finished the Taipei show on the Sunday I pushed the wall to where we were crashing, then I went to meet my girlfriend at a party. There I met a guy who runs a place called ACID LAB in Taipei, he is a shoemaker who learned from a Japanese master and likes to recycle material, so we got on. I had a bag full of characters so I showed him, and he was keen to have an event so I had a show at the ACID LAB the weekend after. Then I flew to the UK and had already been in contact with James Brightmore at Glazed coffee shop through Jesse James and did a show there. Later on it was Manchester at the pump cage thanks to Lewis Threadgold.
How did the reactions to your stuff vary from place to place?
In Taiwan there was a lot of curiosity, my mode of transport being similar to a traditional street seller, except I was skating with it. People are more willing to get involved in Taiwan, they wanted to take pictures and take time to know what’s going on. Taipei is one of the safest cities in the world too, so that reflects in the nature of the people there too in their openness.
In Australia I was a “mad cunt”. People were open too, but I think saw it as a bit too weird most of the time. Also I noticed very few skaters wear colourful shoes over there, just black brown or blue. I made a lot of new characters while there, I really got to the point of feeling ready for a show when I was in my last month. I had been building the characters and their world for some time. I took Shemmy to gigs and a few after parties and McKranky went on a tour of being unimpressed by everything, ZimZim was bringing inanimate objects to life. I did a market stall in Perth with illustration prints and tees, and the Shoe Crew were there as selling staff. Art locals started to share my work and asked for an interview after I’d left. This year will be more for making connections and shows.
Japan: being on the street in Japan where people love their characters meant that I got some good interactions. I wasn’t there long enough and didn’t have a shoe contact though. I want to go back and do a full show there, as I have a few friends there now too.
Brighton was the most laid back show. The guys at Level straight away wanted to support and posted on social media. But I’d been away from England for so long and the skate crew assembled at Jesse James’s house for 5 days of skating, partying and buying 1 pound swimming inflatables from Poundland and nearly drowning in the sea.
I took The Shoe Crew in to Brum and went to Ideal, Bench 504, RopePress printing house and a few bars and met loads of people. The local photogprapher Ines Else Dalal took me around, I’d never moved in art circles in Brum so I needed an introduction. Birmingham’s got a really supportive atmosphere, I’m not biased at all…
Manchester had lots of advice on how to hustle and make it profitable! I tried to do a ‘best trick in a mask’ in the skatepark but no one was in it, it’s a learning curve trying to create participation. I’d lived there for 4 years and I like the city. The guys in Note were supportive – I went in and asked and they checked the back rooms for skate junk. I left a print with them.
You mentioned building a rolling wall of junk that you pushed around on your board whilst you were in Taipei – can you elaborate please? Was the wall itself a piece of art work?
The rolling wall was made of scrap wood, bamboo, electrical wire and trolley wheels. I didn’t want the art that was born of all this energy to sit in a gallery space. I wanted The Shoe Crew to be displayed as it was created, going from spot to spot with beers and boards. I didn’t want it do just be an art crowd who saw the work either; I wanted anyone and everyone to see it. I’m really happy about that, I met people who related to the characters, and got those good photos of the security guard (who I’m pretty sure removed the posters I put up for the event) enjoying the work. I didn’t bring them back to life so they could live a sedentary wall hanging lifestyle. I hope to repeat it, but make it better. It was an idea to try and make the wall so it can stop and be skated in some way…
Anyway, so, I pushed it through the streets stopping at certain places in Taipei. Saturday I built the wall and pushed it to the skate park and stopped there for hours. Then I skated the wall back to where I was crashing and took the art off, chatting with people from the laundromat and taxi drivers (been studying Chinese in spare time), then Sunday I skated it all the way to a place called Ximen and pushed it through probably the most busy shopping district in Taipei to a place where people skate behind the cinemas. In each spot we broke out the free beers, and talked to anyone who showed an interest. I have good friends there; I was back in Taiwan about 4 weeks ago. A guy called Lorenzo from the simply named ‘Skateboarding’ skateshop and his girlfriend put us up for a few weeks, like family already.
With you travelling so much you must get some odd responses at customs when people ask what’s in your baggage – do you have any good stories related to that?
The best reaction was going into Japan. I’d gone through the whole ‘airline losing your baggage’ before. So when travelling with The Shoe Crew, they get as close to having their own seats as is possible… which is in my hand luggage. Going in to Japan I’m looking pretty disheveled having been a farmhand for the last few months in Australia. I’m wearing a very questionable Hawaiian shirt, over grown facial hair with mop head complement, finishing off with a navy blue no-brand self-repaired sports/gym bag I got from a second hand shop in Kuala Lumpur.
I’m basically screaming junkie smuggler.
As I’m waiting in line for the bag check I’m thinking, ‘how the fuck am I going to explain this?’ My body language was probably sending out signals of discomfort and a security guard moved in close for the inspection. So there was the baggage inspector on one side of the inspection table, the security guard at the head of the table with me facing the inspector. The inspector gently unzipped my bag, and pulled the bag open like he was drawing curtains with an urgency that I would’ve accompanied with a loud A-HA, but he was silent. What greeted him were 4 monstrous faces, he reeled back and looked at me like in surprise, the security guard moved in and they both just looked into the bag and whispered a few things looking at me in between exchanges.
Then the inspector pulled one out; I think it was Shemmy that did it, (Shemmy has real human hair). They both looked at each other then looked at me, I was kind of uncomfortable wondering if they would want to do a cavity search of my brain before letting me in to the country. But the tension melted when the investigator said, “made of shoes?”.
I explained yeah, skate shoes. Then the security guard said, “oh! Very cool!” then he called another security guard over to have a look, they were hyped.
Then they started going through the rest of my stuff, another 18 or so characters. Then they pulled out 6 sachets of coloured powder like, “nice try with the puppet decoy smart guy, but we’ve got you now” and at this point I could feel the eyes of other people in the line looking on.
Then they pulled out a wig and a tiara and I thought ‘this looks pretty bad’. But that made me feel like I had to own it, the lights, the crowd, I had to step up or potentially be subjected to a long delay as they sampled the dust. So, I started to have fun, I’d adjusted to the surreal nature of doing an impromptu art show at customs. I just said, “I’m an international artist doing a big show in Japan, kind of really famous, yep tell your friends” and that made them happy. They started pulling out all kinds of weird stuff and asking me, “is this for art too?” I’d say yep, and they’d go on to the next thing. I like to think the enjoyed the experience of going through my bag. After they’d got to know all the characters they said, ‘OK, you can go’. So I can’t help but wonder if the whole, “I’m an international artist” thing might be helping smugglers around the world. It certainly seemed to explain away some pretty suspect items without further inspection. The dust was just powder dye for t-shirts.
Are the pieces available to buy or is this something that you do for personal fulfilment?
I don’t want to sell them. I sold one and gave one to a friend before I left the UK. But, I got them both back. There are 4 people who had skate hunt trophies, and one person has Doppalardo for contributions to the Skate Shoe Crew political party. I had some prints and tees made with the characters in the past, but I’m leaning more towards the idea of a critical mass of characters…hoping to meet people to collaborate with for an animation or short edit.
How many of these shoe-based creatures are there?
At the moment there are 19. Some of them don’t have bodies yet. Sometimes I rip them apart again like Bastard Salalami and Basquet Salalami.
Do you ascribe particular personalities to any of the Shoe Crew?
Yes, they all have a slightly different personality/carry a theme. I take names from friends, shoe givers, pro’s, cultural icons and mix them up. I use the pronouns hu, hus and hum to make them a-sexual instead of he, his, him/she, hers, her.
Shemmy: Shemmy comes from the Chinese ‘shēngbìng’, which means ‘sick’ and Lemmy from Motorhead. I’d been wanting to make a character who represented those great minds that just party and talk about all the things they are going to do. Shemmy represents those truly gifted, insightful and original characters that get waylaid by the lure of partying, those that are lost and looking for a way out, or say they are looking for a way out. Some people flourish in it, some flounder.
Hu (Huf minus the f) Hu (pr. Who) asks Hu are You?: Hu believes in the power of the word and the symbol. The same staple goods with different ‘’value added’’ lifestyle stamps and suggested use recommendations have flooded every cultural space. Guaranteed personality fresh from the printers. Hu however is wondering Hu you actually are beneath this branded cosplay? In general terms Brands are the culture creators, they set the rules and the trends, there’s something deeply gratifying in defacing anything seen to be infallible (nothing against Huf). This act changes the wearing of a symbol as a show of identity in to a question of identity. Hu Are You?
Baws Homokio – Looks like a Shark or Whale, so JAWS fit, changed to Baws, and Homkio from Pinocchio. Baws, like Pinocchio is seeking actualization to be a real… rapper/MC, but failing: Baws is soon to release his debut album “Mr Ogynist”, an album that can be barely called an album. Baws is less a warrior poet, more of an irritated postman, delivering letters and lines to their expected locations on the same beat, everyday, whilst whistling the same tune angrily.
G.G. Darryn – after GG Allin and my friend Darryn Williams who’s a great human (Don’t Rain Skateboards): If anything is shocking or offensive, hu will do it. Hu cares for nothing, no fucks given. Hu wants to shock the world out of cultural norms. “ It’s better to go too far than not far enough; if you never go far enough you’ll never know where far is” hu says. Hu has become confused as lately hu heard the most rebellious thing to do now is to “FUCK IT, AND REVIEW YOUR ACTIONS TO ENSURE YOUR NOT SUPPORTING THE ANTITHESIS OF WHAT YOU BELIEVE IN!” and that is dangerously close to ‘giving a fuck’.
Delphi is named for people who find skateboarding the centre of their world. Delphi is from Greek Myth, Zeus wanted to find the centre of the world, and it was Delphi. An oracle set up shop there and would answer questions and give advice, and so Delphi is the oracle.
“’Fitting In’ is the scariest story ever told, because all the best characters die in that story”
“The 4 horsemen of the apocalypse have changed their mode of transport, by unanimous decision they will all ride microscooters”
P-Shod Weird – those mutant like skaters for whom it seems everything is first try effortless. Made after seeing Ishod skate in Australia.
Do you have a favourite so far?
ZimZim: Was the first full character I made. I thought it’d be interesting to have a character make their own art. So created a story line that ZimZim was bestowed with a gift by the Shoe Crew God, (Gorf the Slopper ha ha). He can bring the seemingly inanimate to life. So ZimZim uses trash to create characters on the street and has dialogue with them. The idea came from brining ZimZim back from the waste pile, then thinking hu had to be active. The idea of art creating art was appealing.
Ricky McKranky – A guy called Ricky Watt gave me the shoes, and obviously Rick McKrank (though their characters aren’t like McKranky’s). Ricky McKranky shuns new experiences in favour of lamenting and revelling in old ones, and fabricating and embellishing stories. McKranky is another one who’s interacting with the real world through a sticker campaign with “I hate my style” (insert written piece).
Shemmy – For the session
-Where can people go to see more of your work and find out more about what you do?
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