A fresh white canvas sits prepped and ready. With the simple pull of a trigger, paint sprays from the airbrush. The nearly invisible mist covers both fabric and tape, bringing life and vibrance to the new piece.
But it won’t be hung in a gallery or a home. In fact, this work of art will spend most of the time below eye level.
Troy Cole, known in the sneaker, fashion and art worlds as Kickasso (like Picasso), is a member of a growing community that combines all three of those worlds — sneaker customizers.
According to Cole, he has been customizing sneakers since 2011, drawing on his shoes with a ballpoint pen in the years prior to that. And while he may now be one of the most recognizable names in the industry, Cole didn’t start off making masterpieces.
“I was using the wrong paint and it just wasn’t going to work,” Cole said. “But it was a step in the right direction and it allowed me to be artistic on shoes.”
That love for art and shoes has been a part of Cole for years.
“My first foray into art was just basically drawing in the margins like on my notebook in grade school,” Cole said. “From there the love of drawing and art just grew.”
Cole said that when he was in second grade, he won a contest he didn’t know he was a part of.
“Somehow through the art class that we were in just regular art class, it won the prize of being displayed at the University of Texas,” Cole said. “That was my first taste of ‘Oh this is cool, and I’m good at it.”
His introduction to the world of sneakers wasn’t a positive one like it was in the art world for Cole. He said that, while in fourth grade, some of kids made fun of his shoes.
“I never had really nice shoes. My family couldn’t really afford nice things,” Cole said. “I think I had a pair of black Keds on at the time. You know, something that you could buy at Payless or Penney’s for probably nine bucks.”
Cole took the ridicule of his classmates and made a pledge to himself.
“From that point on I just kind of made it a point to make extra money and stuff to to help my parents buy nicer shoes for me just because I didn’t want to get ridiculed,” Cole said.
Cole’s first big break came when NBA player Al Harrington contacted him through instagram to do a pair. However, it is in the NFL that Cole has made his mark.
Cole has outfitted numerous players including Jalen Ramsey, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. While cleats may be the most common item he customizes for players, it was a pair of gloves for Beckham Jr. that really caught fire with the public.
“I mean that’s why we do what we do,” Cole said. “Just being appreciated for what you do in the art world is a rare thing for artists while they’re living and to be able to do what I do for a living and see my stuff on the big screen, that’s the payoff for the time and the effort that I put into building this brand.”
Cole was invited to speak at the NFL Creative Conference 2018.
“It’s pretty funny to see kind of the impact that Odell and I had on everyone, including other players, but also in the front office people. At the creative summit people treated me like a rock star, like a celebrity,” Cole said.
Jordy Geller, curator of the Shoezeum, considers Cole to be one of the top customizers around along with Mache.
“Those guys have been getting their custom shoes on the feet of NFL players and other professional athletes and it’s super cool to see how creative these guys are and they’re able to execute their inspirations so well,” Geller said.
Cole has grown from just customizing sneakers. He designed and produced his own line of shoes, the K_O 1.
“When I draw in my free time it’s always been shoes or cars,” Cole said. “I got serious about it at the beginning of last year when my designs were getting a little bit of attention from certain people.”
According to Cole, he was approached by a man whose family owns factories in China that produce shoes for Nike and Adidas.
“He liked my design so much, he was like, ‘I mean we can make these,’” Cole said. “For about six months we were just throwing ideas back and forth.”
Producing his own sneaker has also allowed Cole to create his own canvas.
“Instead of using Nike, instead of Adidas and Jordans, why not promote your own brand with your own artwork?” Cole said.
The K_O 1 and future models are not the only movement Cole is making in the business world. He recently opened a shop in the Fashion District of Downtown Los Angeles that features his customs as well as the K_O 1 and other clothing he makes.
Cole plans on expanding the shop, adding a barber and tattoo artist in the near future.
The custom workshop is in the basement, where he employs interns to help and learn at his side. One of these employees is Marco Aguilar.
“Everything I’ve learned, everything I know I owe to him,” Aguilar said. “Him allowing me to watch him work and see how the process goes, I’m grateful for that.”
With the opportunities that have been afforded Cole in recent years, he knows what the greatest part of his job has been.
“Just being able to do what I love and create is the biggest thing for me. Being able to work with top athletes in the world is awesome,” Cole said. “Top brands in the world are great to work on but it’s just freedom to be able to create.”