The Charlotte Observer
Area artist teaching sneaker painting to inspire youths
Take a walk through Uptown Charlotte on a Friday night and you’re likely to see all manner of people wearing modern, trendy outfits, each with its own accent at the bottom — a fresh pair of sneakers.
Whether it’s a fashion house like Gucci or a common brand like Nike or Adidas, sneakers have become an in-vogue fashion statement for anybody trying to spice up their wardrobe. When artistic, trendy sneakers only get limited retail releases, though, their resale prices skyrocket, meaning you’ll probably have to shell out north of $200 for a pair that catches your eye.
At that level of price gouging, the coolest sneakers become unattainable for most people, removing them from the places that inspired their creation in the first place — Black communities across the country, where basketball and sneaker culture were born.
But with the help of a nationally renowned artist, Charlotte’s Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is trying to change that.
This past May, the Gantt Center hosted the first of its “Colorfully Custom” event, where participants of all ages and cultures could bring a pair of white leather shoes — sporty or sleek, old or new, worn or pristine — and learn how to paint them and give them a new life. The most recent iteration of the class was held last Thursday from 7-9 p.m.
To teach the class, the Gantt Center enlisted abstract painter, muralist and clothing designer Frankie Zombie out of Spartanburg, S.C. — and it was an idea he couldn’t pass up.
“Community is how I was able to be inspired to do what I do on a higher level,” said Zombie on the importance of teaching these classes. “We all are inspired at some point, and we have to be inspired to keep moving up within our journeys, in our careers. So I think it’s, you know, super important to stay in touch with the people that helped you be the person you are today.”
At first glance, Zombie doesn’t seem like the kind of artist who’d want to teach a community art class. His work sells for hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. He’s worked with stars like Pharrell, John Legend and Miley Cyrus. He’s done accessory lines with Urban Outfitters and Adidas.
Artists of that caliber often become celebrities themselves — Kaws, Murakami, Britto. But to hear Zombie tell it, focusing on community has always been the most important thing, as a means of keeping himself grounded while inspiring the next generation.
“Young, Black children see the pictures and they see the shoes and such on TV,” Zombie said. “But once they see me come in, they say, ‘Hey, he looks just like me. He’s from my city. If he can do this, I physically now know that I can do it because he’s here in the flesh. He’s doing this.’ ”
This isn’t the first time Zombie’s been involved in the Charlotte cultural scene.
The New York City native moved to Spartanburg when he was young and has family in the Charlotte area. During the pandemic, he came to Charlotte to visit them, during which time nationwide protests began over the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis.
As the unrest continued, Zombie said one of his friends, another local artist, asked him to help paint the large Black Lives Matter mural that covered Tryon Street in Uptown.
“What we painted there will fade, but the energy we created and what we did will last forever,” said Zombie on the impact of the mural. “People will never see that place and forget what we did there.”
Ever since then, Zombie — a lifelong sneakerhead — has remained in the Charlotte art scene, displaying his work in local galleries and selling to clients in the area. When the opportunity to collaborate with the Gantt Center arose, he saw it as just another way to pay his success forward to the communities he loved.
“Shoes are important,” said Zombie on the value of sneakers as an artistic medium. “It’s music, art and fashion, they all go hand-in-hand. One thing in my culture that was big growing up was sneakers. Like, if you had the flyest gear on, you would just be the head honcho.”
“I was doing that stuff as a kid, too — even though I couldn’t afford it.”
That’s the reality — most of that stuff is just not affordable. With his classes, Zombie hopes he can get young, Black kids a cool pair of shoes that they can wear with pride without breaking the bank.
“Community is always number one,” Zombie reiterated. “It’s just been a good feeling and journey to be able to use my voice through my art in different ways, such as activism and peace and equality.”