The Information Age has provided independent creatives with a whole set of new possibilities to express themselves. Obviously, social media provides convenient ways of cutting out the middle man and publishing directly to an engaging audience. But artists like Jeff Cole also utilize the sheer limitless possibilities of digital tools to cross the natural boundaries of the physical world. Taking inspiration from music, sports, movies and video games, the Chicago native combines pop cultural influences with sneaker designs on his critically acclaimed account @cole. We reached out to Jeff to find out more about his creative process.
Jeff, your sneaker art is something really outside the box. Do you remember when you first experimented in that direction and what sparked this new approach?
Yes, I had a tradition that on Christmas I would experiment with an art medium I knew little about. So in 2013 I decided to think up a project on Photoshop since I didn’t really know how to use it; I mainly worked in Illustrator. The Red Octobers were re-releasing again right around that time, so I thought how cool would it be to try and use the materials of that shoe and transform it into Kanye’s face? I didn’t make another one of these until 2016.
Can you briefly describe the journey from your early art to what we see on @cole in 2018?
I grew up doing studio art. I had been taking private art classes since the age of 7. So my whole childhood was illustrating, painting, sculpting, etc. It wasn’t until college I self-taught myself digital art to earn some extra money.
What are some of your inspirations for you as an artist? What are the things that you are interested in?
I’m a big sci-fi/sports fan. I get a lot of ideas from movies and shows and games. Anything popular culture. Music has a huge impact in my work. It amplifies the sneaker culture for sure.
When did your interest in sneakers first start?
A lot of people think Jordan was the reason for my introduction into the sneaker culture. I was a little too young to appreciate the shoes. I was a very young kid when Jordan was dominating Chicago, so he himself was more of a superhero to me. I didn’t notice what he was wearing on his feet. I was fascinated by Benny the Bull and the players. It wasn’t until I was a little older and playing ball and getting into the culture when I started to appreciate the sneakers, so it really was Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson that got me into sneakers. Then of course hip hop had a big influence. My dad was a big shoe guy, so he would take me sneaker shopping a lot and we would buy matching pairs of Air Force 1s and Jordans. If he wasn’t so into it, I don’t think I would have the same love for it.
Do you have a personal top 3? Any specific models that are special to you?
So my first love were the Vince Carter Shox VC 2. I wore those every day in junior high. I wanted to be like Vince. My nostalgic favorite pair are the Jordan 6 “Carmine”. Those remind me of my childhood and growing up in Chicago. My newest favorite pair is the Futurecraft 4Ds. I just love the innovation in those. I love anything pioneering and foreshadowing the future. Plus the engineering team at adidas sent me those as a gift after I made the Black Panther design with Disney and Marvel. So they have a special place in my heart.
Most of your art is not commissioned by brands though, right? Have more brands reached out for campaigns or collaborations?
Yes. Some that don’t look commissioned sometimes are… shhhh. But it all depends. Ideally I would love all of them to be commissioned. It’s just legitimizing my craft more and tells a much richer story.
Where does a new idea start? With the sneaker or with the theme you work into the final images?
New ideas come up extremely randomly. I try and pair a hyped up sneaker with a hyped up character that’s relevant in the culture, a.k.a. a new show or movie. Timing is everything with my work. I love trying to create a perfect storm within the culture.
Does your art also reflect your own sneaker taste? And do you have separate criteria for what’s on your feet or in your art?
It does not! When I’m picking which shoes to create into, it’s more calculated on what materials the shoe has, the hype around its release, and the unique color/story it portrays. I do buy a ton of loud sneakers though. I want all the attention to be down by my feet when I go out.
Which are some of your personal favorites from your own artwork?
The Black Panther one is def my favorite. There were a ton of hoops we had to jump through in order to release that one with 3 different corporations’ legal teams. I love the challenge. I also really love working with the VaporMax silhouette. It provides me with a ton of different materials and contrasting surfaces to work with. Some notable ones were the White Walker from Game of Thrones and the dragons – those made a big impact.
Speaking about impact: What have you learned about your art and its appreciation and reception through your Instagram account?
I learned to take my emotion out of the work. Which is really hard for artists to do. That the market will decide its success. A lot of my favorite pieces didn’t resonate well, and some of my least favorite ones went viral. One thing that surprised me was the influence I had on kids. Not only to get into art but the desire to get into “sneaker art” specifically. When I started these designs it didn’t really have a label and was just me messing around.
We know that what’s visible on @cole is only a tiny fraction of your art. Can you fill us in on some of your other projects?
I own an art company with my business partner Mark Brazil called IKONICK. It takes up most of my time. I started it in 2016 and it has now developed into a beast of a business that I’m really proud of. All my sneaker art stuff I do at night or when I have some free time. It’s very therapeutic to me. Every design brings on new challenges.
Do you think it’s important to stay versatile as an artist?
Yes, it’s very important to me. I learned at a young age to try every art medium and create in many different styles. I’m more of a chameleon when it comes to art. I can mimic almost any art medium at a high level.
While you’re versatile in your art as a whole, each of your Instagram accounts is rather specialized. Is that an important factor for your success?
I think you definitely need consistency. But I found a large part of my early success came from the ability to wear all different hats and the ability to cover a wide range of creative needs. It’s more of a business tactic diversifying your skill set. With my sneaker art, it’s only a tiny portion of my work and style. It may be what people associate me with, but it’s not what I’m defined by.
You have recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. Can you tell us a few things that make the city attractive for you and your work as an artist?
I live downtown so it really reminds me of the Chicago grind. I need the chaos to drive my work ethic. It’s much different though. Here in LA I get the chance to meet with all the creatives from around the country. Everyone is a short drive away so I’m constantly meeting with musicians, photographers, entrepreneurs and artists. We just started a web series called “Behind The Hustle” that documents a lot of the business aspects of my work. We interview a lot of big influencers and industry leaders.
So you’re definitely staying busy! What’s next on your bucket list?
Taking my sneaker art and bringing it into the real world. Won’t say much, but expect different mediums soon!
We’re excited to see what you’ve got planned. Thanks a lot for the interview, Jeff!
This story first appeared in our October 2018 issue of Sneakers Magazine – available now!