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When Cassius was 14 he painted his first pair of AF1s as a Father's Day gift for his dad, acclaimed artist Damien Hirst. Prior to this, Cassius only wore skate shoes and had no interest in the sneaker, but after his father, an avid Air Force 1 lover, gave him an old pair of his Uptowns, he was swayed.
Nowadays, Cassius, who is 19 years old, is painting AF1s for people like ASAP Rocky, Offset, Samuel Ross of A Cold Wall*, and Playboi Carti. What started as a few pairs for himself and some of his closest friends has turned into a booming business for Cassius. But despite the fact that his father’s art has sold for millions at auctions, Cassius has his own ideas about what looks good.
“He didn't tell me to paint Air Forces ever or give me any other ideas,” says Cassius. “Sometimes he tells me to throw stuff in and I've got to say, ‘No, that's too much.’ But he's a good influence and is supportive about the whole thing.”
Since he began painting Air Force 1s last June, the son of the critically acclaimed artist has built up his own name within the sneaker world. He's also been co-signed by Virgil Abloh, who invited Cassius to host one of the inaugural workshops at Nikelab’s Chicago Re-creation Center this past May and sell his shoes out of the ‘Church & State’ pop-up at the Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago.
We spoke to Cassius about why the Air Force 1 is the best canvas, his process, meeting Virgil Abloh, and the $1,000 price tag for his painted sneakers.
So how did Virgil Abloh find out about you?
I'm pretty sure ASAP Bari told him. I met this guy, who is now known as White Vlone on Instagram, at a skateboard camp when I was 14. He was from San Jose, Calif., and I stayed in contact with him for years. He started working for Bari and that’s how we connected. It was really quite random. Last year, Bari DM’d me saying Virgil needed a pair of Air Forces in size 12 or something. So I put them together and sent them to him. Virgil followed me back on Instagram and we kind of formed a relationship slowly since then.
What shoes did Virgil want?
The first pair he wanted was the black on white pair. It was just a plain pair of white Air Forces with the black smudge on the side of it. I sent him the shoes last August and he sent me back a little package of Off-White stuff, like a pair of shoes and a hoodie. When he invited me to Chicago, I took another pair of shoes with me to give to him. I had them sitting on my shelf for so long waiting to give them to him. It kind of went back and forth like that for awhile and now it’s at this crazy point.
Virgil ended up inviting you to sell shoes out of his “Church & State” pop up in MCA. Can you describe what it was like meeting him in person for the first time?
It was pretty casual, as if we’d met before. He was super welcoming to be honest, especially seeing as I was in Chicago alone for the first time in my life. He helped organize the whole thing. The next day he showed me around the MCA and his “Figures of Speech” exhibition before it was fully finished. That was pretty amazing too.
How long were you out in Chicago for? I saw that you held one of those workshops at the Nikelab Re-Creation Center.
Virgil was leading this whole thing for Nikelab in Chicago and he basically invited me to go and do a workshop for all the students who visited the space. I couldn't say no. I was there for three days and it was pretty tight.
The workshop was basically an opportunity to show students from the area how I do what I do. I started with a demonstration of spraying a pair of shoes and talked about it in a little bit of depth. Then we moved on and they began painting these mini basketballs that had been supplied by the NikeLab. Unfortunately they weren’t able to use spray paint so we were using acrylic paint with a brush. I’m not a fan of brushes, but I showed them how to use the stencils I use and gave them some to mess around with. It was basically an opportunity to share, and show them, the potential of all of the tools they had with them there. It was also great fun to just chat with students about what they’re putting together and to hopefully inspire them in some way.
Has Nike or any other brand reached out pitching a collaboration? Would you do it?
Nike hasn’t reached out but I’d definitely be down. It would be a great opportunity to take ideas further. I do have a few exciting collaborations coming, but that’s all I’ll say about them for now.
When did you first start painting Air Force 1s? How many pairs do you think you've sold since starting?
I started last June so not that long ago. I painted a pair when I was 14 for my dad as a Father's Day gift. That's the first pair that I did. Then I did another pair while I was at school for the fun of it, which was a year and a half ago. It's so hard to say because all of my friends have pairs. I give them to my friends as birthday presents and all that. I've sold, around 40 pairs, but it’s been very random. Especially when I started doing it, it was really uncoordinated. I've forgotten if I even sold them. Now it's kind of getting a bit more consistent really. But I guess around 30-40 pairs.
Why the Air Force 1?
There's so many reasons really. I used to only wear skate shoes and wouldn't wear anything else. I didn't see the point because, between skating and walking around, I didn't feel any difference. I got a pair of Air Force 1s because my dad gave me his old pair. From there, I realized how comfortable they were and it became my favorite shoe. When I first thought of painting a pair of sneakers properly, it was just the perfect shoe for it really. I've done Air Max 90s, 97s, and 95s, and they are all such a nightmare really. There’re so many aspects about the Air Force 1 that just make it so versatile. It's got some strength to it and it’s just the best shoe to paint to be honest.
Did you make any other art before this? I guess since you're using spray paint, you were into graffiti?
It's a combination of things but I loved spray paint for a long time. It's almost like a problem solving thing. At art lessons in school, if you're trying to think of a way to create something visual, the first thing I would always go for was spray paint. It just worked. I've always loved graffiti, but wasn’t able to figure out how to do it well. I feel like the shoes are a great format for me to display endless ideas.
Has your father influenced your work in any way?
I talk to him all the time about it to be honest. I mean, he loves Air Forces. He always has for years. The best part about this is that I could do pairs of shoes and then just give them to him. He's just supportive about the whole thing. My father was always telling me that I need to do paintings and I was always saying that it's too empty. I can't just create something from nothing out of a big blank square. But then I started to do some paintings and he really liked them. So it's always nice to be able to ask someone what they think of stuff. He’ll let you know if he thinks something's wack to be honest.
ASAP Rocky, Playboi Carti, Samuel Ross, Rihanna, AJ Tracey and others have purchased your shoes. When did you first feel like you were starting to get some attention for what you were doing?
ASAP Bari was probably the first. That was kind of a weird coincidence when he wanted to meet me and hang out at my house [in London]. Before he came over with White Vlone, I thought of doing another two pairs of shoes for them. They were crap designs actually now that I remember it. But he loved them and put photos of them on his Instagram story. From there, the occasional person popped up and got into it. I sent some pairs to Bari that eventually ended up in the hands of Offset and Rich the Kid. Playboi Carti copped two pairs, which was super bizarre. Carti messaged me at one point and just said, "Yo, I need two pairs." I was just like, 'What the fuck's going on?' Now it's kind of a bit more chill and fun.
Aside from Virgil, do any of them request anything special?
People rarely ask for something special. Normally they look through my work and pick what they like. I did a pair for 24kgoldn that was based on an outfit he was going to wear at a show. He gave me an image of his outfit and I made the shoes to match. It was a lot of fun. Sometimes they’ll leave it all up to me, which I also enjoy. Plus I appreciate the trust that they have in my work.
Who else would you like to see wear a pair of your shoes?
To be honest, the one person that I would like to see them on is Billie Eilish. I think she'd love them. The time will come, I'm sure. Other than that, Skepta. I have been working on that one.
How did you get so many pairs of MCA AF1s?
The first pair of MCAs I did were sent to me by Virgil as a gift. He just sent them, signed the box and shoes, and wrote "Blank Canvas" on them. So I thought, "Geez, well I got to paint them." So I did. MCA saw the post on Virgil's story and they asked if I would want to do some more and have them displayed in the museum. I agreed and told them that I could make 20 pairs in two weeks. Then they just sent them through.
So will those just be exhibited in the museum?
Yes and will be sold at some point.
What's your process like when it comes to customizing your Air Forces? Do you draw it on paper?
I don't draw much. It's fun here and there, but I'm not a great drawer. I'm not great at painting or doing anything particularly figurative. Most of the time, I just came up with an idea in my head of what looks nice. And every idea that I've had always can lead to another one. My process is less visual and more like pieces of a puzzle that I'm putting together and then manipulating. It’s an endless idea. Even with all the shoes that I've done, there's still endless combinations and things I can take from one shoe and attach to a part of another shoe. It's all quite mental really, rather than playing about. I can come up with an idea and then let it sit in my mind for a month or two. When I get the chance to mess with a pair, I'll remember that idea I had weeks ago and try it.
I've also seen you play around with other materials like concrete, how did that idea come about?
I was trying to get these images of the shoes that I make, but I wanted to just see them and photograph them trashed. I always believed in buying your shoes and then fucking them up. Shoes are supposed to be worn and ruined. I think that's such a big part of shoes and clothes in general. But basically, a lot of people were asking questions like: How well does the paint stick? Does it crack? I wanted to post something to kind of show people that these shoes are not going to look perfect forever because nothing does. So I took a picture of one pair that a friend of mine wore to a festival and got them ruined. The other was a pair of mine that I accidentally stepped into some mud with and just let it dry.
Have you ever thought of experimenting or going outside of sneakers? Making garments or clothing?
I don't know much about textiles and making clothes but I'm interested in learning. At one point, I'd love to do a course. But I think for me, it's less about the clothes and more about painting.
I used to never like doing paintings. After doing a whole load of shoes, I started to realize that I could just do paintings with the same stuff that I've done with the shoes. So I ended up making like 20 paintings, little ones that are so much fun and sort of display the same concepts that the shoes do. I guess it's a simplified version where it's like flat on a canvas. For me it's about the paint.
You certainly have fans but I also see a lot of haters in the comments. How do you justify your $1,000 price tag?
Most of the time I don't. I don't really see the need to justify myself to people. I know a lot of people understand everything I'm doing. They talk to me a lot, I hear them, and I answer any questions they have. Then there are people who don't understand what I'm doing and they comment something to try and understand it a bit better. But they are just wasting time with that.