Volume 74, Number 13 | July 28 - August 03 , 2004

Air Jordans in the air and throwing up Red Bull

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager photo by Ad DeVille
Sneakers hanging on a lamppost at Chrystie and Rivington Sts., including a pair of flat ones made from wood
Although it’s unclear exactly what they are supposed to signify — if anything at all — pairs of old sneakers dangling by their laces from lampposts are a common sight in New York City, whether it be in the inner city or now the Village and Soho.

If the sneakers aren’t puzzling enough, now pairs of hanging cans of Red Bull, the Austrian energy beverage, have begun appearing Downtown. Tied together with a string, the cans can be seen suspended from one of the new, highway-style, street signs at 14th St. and Eighth Ave., on a wire at Broadway and Houston St., even by the Washington Sq. Arch — daringly tossed on a lamppost with one of the park’s police surveillance cameras on it, no less — though, this time, one of the cans is a sugar-free Red Bull.

What does it all mean? Is this the work of some caffeine-crazed cabal? Is it a sign that Flugtag is coming back to Hudson River Park? And what about all those Jordans and jogging shoes up there in the first place?

Urban lore has it the hanging high-tops mean “Drugs sold here.” Others say they appear where a child has died or when someone’s virginity has been lost.

But Detective Jaime Hernandez, Ninth Precinct community affairs officer, said, as far as he knows, those are myths.

“That’s a tradition,” he said of chucking old sneakers onto lampposts. “When I lived in Brooklyn, we used to do that. It didn’t mean anything. I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant — so I would know.”

Clayton Patterson, a documentary photographer and gallery owner on Essex St., said if the suspended sneaks stand for anything, it’s a mystery to him.

“That’s gone on on the Lower East Side for a long time,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s a symbolism.

“People have done it with different things over the last few years,” he added, mentioning how someone threw up pairs of linked alligators on Lower East Side lampposts two years ago to promote a play in the Fringe Festival. And he said he knows of a group on Orchard St. that flings “wooden shoes” up on poles and wires, not just on the Lower East Side, but around the world.

The Orchard St. group, named Skewville, which likes to keep a low profile, is actually two twin brothers. They handmake and silkscreen the wooden sneakers — usually resembling Chuck Connors low-tops — and have thrown up 3,000 pairs around the world. They “shoed” the area around the Long Island City MoMA when it opened, and plan to hit Australia and Japan next.

“We’ve been doing it just to represent,” said Skewville’s Ad DeVille, 32.

They chose sneaker tossing, he said, because graffiti and stickers had been done.

When graffitists say they’re going to “throw up” it means to make a painting on a wall. But when urban shoe — or can or alligator — tossers say “throw up” they really mean it. The toss technique is easily explained, hard to master.

“You gotta be perpendicular underneath — and get it to wrap around. Hit it in the middle,” DeVille said.

Just as with graffitists who aggressively paint over rivals’ work on walls, shoe tossers battle for bragging rights to lamppost crossbars, shooting up old Addidases and And 1’s once a virgin pole is first “tagged.”

“Once we throw up, people start tagging,” said DeVille. “St. Mark’s and Second — I threw up a pair like two years ago. Before long, there were 15 pairs of sneakers.”

The shoes’ shelf life is short, DeVille noted, due to laces breaking, the city taking them down and the wind.

DeVille and his brother used to bola their basketball shoes brazenly.

“I hit five pairs in Washington Sq. Park in broad daylight with hundreds of people around,” DeVille recalled. “I guess that’s when I was younger and stupider. I guess we already got the money shots, so we have nothing else to prove.”

Although they don’t exactly know the law on shoe tossing, DeVille said, “We know there’s a Vandal Squad and they’re tracking us.”

They had heard about the Red Bull cans. “Ah, it’s killing me!” he said. Whether Red Bull is responsible or not — “I think someone is getting paid to do that,” DeVille offered — he said they couldn’t let it stand unchallenged.

“It’s like it’s a compliment, but it’s also a slap in the face. I think we probably should respond.”

A few days later, hanging on the wire next to the Red Bull cans at Broadway and Houston St. were a pair of flat, wooden sneakers.

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