When I see a brand new, fresh pair of white sneakers, I see endless potential for disaster — a misstep into a mud puddle, a blob of ketchup falling off a French fry, a splash of caramel macchiato, an accidental scuff from a passerby. Destiny Wilson, also known as The Artvst, sees a blank canvas begging for color.
The 20-year-old UNC Charlotte grad has been creating from a young age, trying her hand at the electric piano, photography and cooking before gravitating toward the versatility of visual art through painting and drawing. However, it wasn’t until she took her paintbrush off the paper and onto a sneaker that she really began to see the possibilities.
“You don’t have to just draw on paper,” The Artvst told Queen City Nerve. “You can draw on canvas, you can draw on a sneaker, you can really make anything your canvas as long as it can be painted on.”
Over the past five years, The Artvst has connected with hundreds of clients looking for colorful, standout sneakers not sold in stores. Her hand-painted shoes have paid homage to history, social justice movements and breast cancer awareness, among other things, amassing her nearly 11,000 followers on Instagram.
It all started with her customizing her own pair of Nike Roche Runs at 15 years old.
No sneakers left behind
Tired of the white midsole on her black and pink Roshe Runs, The Artvst decided it was in her power to change them. Luckily, her older brother was once into custom-painting shoes and he had kept all the supplies despite moving onto another hobby. She grabbed a brush and some paint and created a black-and-pink splatter design.
The end result inspired The Artvst to revamp some of her other sneakers. By the time she was finished ransacking her own closet, she went looking for any pair of shoes she could get her hands on.
“I would go to the thrift store, find a pair of Air Forces for $30, clean them up, tape them up, paint them and make them look completely new,” she said.
She also custom-painted sneakers for friends, painting over used and worn shoes, learning as she went and sometimes turning to YouTube for instruction. Once she felt comfortable enough in her own skill, she was ready to take on paying customers.
Now The Artvst only works on new sneakers, and even then, a custom pair can take up to 10 hours to paint depending on the design. For canvas sneakers like Vans and Converse, she mixes a dye additive to the paint to permanently dye the fabric, then builds the coats layer by layer, finishing with a heat gun so it won’t stiffen as it dries.
Leather shoes like Nike Air Force 1s and Air Jordans are a bit more labor intensive. Before The Artvst can even make her first brush stroke, she has to prep each sneaker — removing the factory finish with acetone and sanding it down — to allow her specialized paint to bond with the material.
She then tapes off where she doesn’t want paint and begins laying down light, buildable layers with a protective sealant in between. She completes the work with either a satin or matte finish.
“I love that I get to create colorways that don’t yet exist with inspirations drawn from my everyday life experiences, or the most ordinary thing that I can turn into a nice looking color block,” The Artvst said, adding that although painting shoes is tedious, she enjoys watching the transformation. “The finished sneakers tend to be rewarding because an initial idea from my mind to a mockup was transformed into wearable art.”
The Artvst said her customers can wear her custom-painted sneakers for a few years before they’ll start to notice minor cracks and tiny chips. After all, “paint is paint,” she explained. That’s why she tries to avoid painting the toe box whenever possible, as the creases that naturally occur when we take each step can quickly crack and affect the paint.
The Artvst sneakers make statements
Sneakers made by The Artvst have caught the attention of corporations like Taco Bell, Subway, Converse and the Carolina Panthers. Her first international sale was a pair of Taco Bell-inspired shoes she made for a customer in Japan. The brand reposted a picture of the sneakers on its social media.
She also painted a pair in Subway colors, which caught the attention of Subway France, and a collection she calls the Nostalgic Pack, with shoes inspired by old Nintendo game systems.
“Each collection, I create something that maybe relates to an event that’s going on in the world or just something from the past that I remember that I want to portray through art,” The Artvst said. “The Nostalgic Pack is about remembering the simpler times in life.”
But some of her work has a deeper message, like the red, white and blue Nike Cortez she created in June 2020 in honor of George Floyd, who died that May at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
She cut out words from archived newspaper articles about race and equality and layered them on the Nike swoosh to highlight the way that history had repeated itself. On the back of the shoe, she painted Floyd’s infamous final words, “I can’t breathe.”
“That’s that statement that kind of sparked throughout the world that made us pay attention to what was going on,” The Artvst said. “Those shoes are still sitting in a display case in my studio. I’ve had offers to buy them, but I won’t give them up.”
In late 2020, she created custom cleats for Carolina Panthers player Colin Thompson as part of the NFL’s My Cause, My Cleats campaign. The tight end wore the cleats against the Broncos to raise awareness for Athletes Helping Athletes, an organization that connects special needs athletes with mainstream student-athletes in a spirit of friendship.
With her Seasons of Blackness collection, released in February to coincide with Black History Month, The Artvst aimed to recognize fellow Black creatives by producing a promotional video about what it means to be Black. The collection included a sweatshirt and a custom-painted sneaker.
Her work was most recently displayed publicly at The Underground in August for Lemonade – an exhibit designed to spotlight women of color in art, music and technology. The Artvst showed off her “Chunky Dunky” Nike Air Max 1 and an acrylic painting inspired by the TV show Bob’s Burgers called “Everybody Eats.” She described the piece as “a depiction of everyone who’s around me pursuing their dreams, uplifting one another, sharing opportunities that align with their dreams, and being a solid support system.”
Despite her tendency to speak out on social issues, The Artvst doesn’t think of herself as an activist. While her name could be read as “The Artivist,” she actually pronounces it as “The Artist.”
“I don’t want everything to be so message-centric where you kind of get wrapped up or on a debate side,” she said. “I just create what I’m feeling and then most of the time it has some type of underlying message that I’ll put in a caption or explain about what I was thinking or how I was feeling during that creative process and then just let the people view it.”
The Artvst expects to roll out her latest project, called Good Deeds, in early November. The collection focuses on bringing light into the world, which she says we all need after nearly two years in the pandemic. She wants Good Deeds to serve as a reminder to treat others and yourself well.
Shine a little light in someone’s life, she said, because we could all use a bit more “good” in the world.
Growth by brushstroke
When The Artvst started her Instagram at 15 years old, she was posting pictures of her digital drawings and not seeing much engagement. Once she switched to custom-painted sneakers, her work began to garner more attention. As larger accounts reposted her designs, her social presence grew.
She was also a walking billboard for her own art, wearing her own custom-painted sneakers around the UNC Charlotte campus and constantly fielding questions from onlookers about where she bought them.
But what is it about custom-painted sneakers that turns so many heads? It’s about exclusivity, The Artvst explained.
“If you were to go into a Foot Locker, of course, you have your selection and the hundreds of people that are going to that store can pick that selection,” she said. “With a custom sneaker, you can work one-on-one to say, ‘I want this design, I want this color that no one else has,’ and then get that made.”
The Artvst’s work then caters to the those who crave uniqueness. With each sneaker, she helps people reach that feeling by creating something that’s just for them.
So, no. When The Artvst sees a brand new, fresh pair of white sneakers, she doesn’t have premonitions of future disasters — she sees a blank canvas and an opportunity to stand out through color.