Mark Ward is a London-based graphic artist and art director whose work is an adoration of Americana filtered through a British perspective. We featured some of Mark’s early sneaker-related projects in the Art & Sole book, including some logo-design work for London-based sneaker store Foot Patrol, work on the London-inspired Foot Patrol Nike Air Epic, and design for the New Balance Super Team 33 three-shoe pack.
Mark is an artist that’s been on our wish list for the Art & Sole screenprint series from the very start - and so, to help celebrate the release of his Tongue Tied artwork, we thought we should ask him a few questions about our two favourite subjects: art and sneakers…
First off, are you a sneaker wearer/collector yourself?
I wouldn’t say I’m a collector – definitely more a wearer. I have an unhealthy interest in sneakers, and there are a few key pairs I’d like to have, but I wear all of my sneakers. I currently own about 30 pairs, but I’ve had a lot more than that in the past. I had to cut back because it was just taking up too much room and I was forgetting what I owned. Now I contain it to how many pairs I can ram under my bed. I do a cull about once a year and if I haven’t worn them then they get given away, with a few exceptions…
How did you first become involved in the sneaker industry? Was it a direction that you actively sought to follow?
I always liked sneakers as a kid, but my real passion was drawing. I would be more excited by T-shirts and BMX/skateboard graphics than sneakers. They were part of my world but not my main focus. They were still important to me growing up – my first proper sneakers were a pair of Bordeaux Jordan 7’s that I was fortunate enough to find on the sale rack, and begged my mum to buy. I was ten at the time, so they were probably size five, hence being in the sale. Taking them to school and wearing them for PE felt awesome! I really loved the colours on the tongue and the Jumpman logo. It felt more than just a shoe – they had that aesthetic quality to them that appealed to me like a T-shirt or skate deck. Eye catching! There were also certain skate shoes I got excited about later on, like DC Rick Howard’s, Plugs, Es Muskas, Koston 1’s etc.
I never actively pursued being involved in the sneaker industry specifically, how I got involved was just by luck. I wanted to get my artwork on T-shirts, so in my first year at St. Martins art college, I went into the Stussy store in Covent Garden and told them their posters were a bit tired and I’d design them some new ones for free. After getting laughed out of the store a couple of times, the third time I got the boss’s phone number. I then showed my portfolio to the boss (Michael Koppelman who owns Gimme Five - they distribute Stussy in the UK alongside other established labels) and fortunately it went well. My portfolio was terrible when I look back at it now, but I was given the opportunity to design Stussy T-shirts and I took it. I was delivering batches of new Stussy artwork every two weeks without fail. Eventually I was getting involved in other projects alongside Stussy, with things like Foot Patrol and Nike projects all connected to Gimme Five. After working with Nike a few times, they started to work with me on other projects outside of Gimme Five, and it’s grown from there.
Why do you think there is such a strong connection between art and sneakers?
I think the level of detail that goes into creating a new sneaker silhouette is an art form in itself. People who appreciate that in a pair of sneakers can naturally appreciate the aesthetics in the more traditional art forms.
The first time we saw your work was back in 2005 at an exclusive NIKEiD space in London. Can you tell us a little about the Rubik’s Cube-inspired artwork you created for that project, and how it came about?
I was asked by Nike to create a piece of artwork for the bespoke NIKEiD space. The connection was already there from working with Nike on past projects with Gimme Five. The Rubik’s Cube piece was one of the first projects I worked on with Nike by myself. The idea was very graphic based, and this was before I had really settled on my illustration style. The question was how do you show the multiple possibilities of colour combinations on sneakers from the NIKEiD palette? My answer was to make sneakers out of an ongoing maze of Rubik’s Cubes, twisting and turning into different colours.
Did you get to use the iD studio at that time – and if so, what did you create? (I remember creating some all-grey Air Rift’s with a bright orange translucent outsole.)
I did - I made a pair of Nike FC’s. They were mossy green with a bright orange swoosh and gum sole. I skated them!
Was the Dunk Be True installation a natural progression from the NIKEiD project? Can you explain when this happened, and what the aim of the project was?
That work was around the same time as the iD store - 2005/2006. I was asked to illustrate the connection between skate culture and the Nike Dunk – specifically the Be True colour pack that was launching. I looked back at skate culture and my personal heroes like Jim Phillips (designer of many classic skate graphics for Santa Cruz), who played a big role in skateboarding at the same time as the Dunk was being skated back in the 80s. The artwork was blending those elements together, with smashed buzzer beaters and zombie monster hoops.
The process looked quite complicated – how did you approach the project, and what was it like painting in NikeTown London?
I drew the whole thing out in ink first and then carried it across into the final artwork for NikeTown. I painted some of the work before it was installed, like the insanely heavy glass backboard. I must admit I’m not that comfortable painting live. Fortunately for me, I had a strict time slot because of health and safety issues with using spray paint indoors, so I had to focus and get stuff done, ignoring people watching my every move!
In the early days of your career, you were involved heavily in the design at the London sneaker boutique Foot Patrol. Can you explain how this partnership came about, and what you worked on at that time?
As I mentioned earlier, the Foot Patrol link came through working with Gimme Five. The branding was already in place. I was designing everything else that needed doing like T-shirts, stickers, collab projects, instore displays etc. It was fun and fast moving work. There was always some sneaker dropping that weekend that needed a FP T-shirt to go with your purchase!
Obviously we know you contributed to the highly coveted Foot Patrol Air Epic – how did that prepare you for your solo sneaker collaborations that followed. Did you learn anything important and/or get a good insight into how the art of the collaboration should work?
That project was great to work on. What I took away from it was trying to keep things wearable, and that the little details count. Bright and colourful looks great on the screen when you’re designing them, but somebody has to wear them!
What about your work with New Balance? Again, we know you had a relationship with NB (which culminated in the Super Team 33 pack), so can you explain a little about your role there? Did you work on any interesting projects aside from ST33?
I worked on a few projects with NB alongside Craig Ford (who owns A Number of Names - they distribute A Bathing Ape, BBC, Gourmet alongside others). Craig wanted me to contribute some ideas to projects he was connected with. We worked on a few things, from the ST33 to a more hiking boot-inspired 754 with anodized rainbow eyelets…
One of our favourite projects of yours is the 2009 St.Reatham Souls collaboration with Nike – can you explain a little about this project, how it came about and the thinking behind your designs? As far as we know you were living in Streatham at the time – so was the St.Reatham concept your own?
I was asked by Nike to create my own imaginary team. Nike would then make the varsity jacket and other apparel for the imagery to sit on. I chose St.Reatham Souls as I was living in Streatham at the time. Streatham is also known as St. Reatham to some locals as an in-joke to make it sound more appealing than it actually is! At the time of that collaboration, there was a wave of knifepoint muggings going through the area with a few people losing their lives. I decided to pay my respects to the lost ones by naming my team ‘Souls’. As the project developed, a devil mascot with dollar sign eyes came into play, referencing the crimes, and the slogan ‘Raising Hell’ embroidered across the jacket seemed fitting for a devil mascot.
How much input did you have on the shoe colourway itself? And, can you tell us a little about what’s happening on the insoles?!
I originally had the Blazers coloured up black and orange, but due to some clash in product development, I had to switch it to blue and grey. As far as insoles, I drew a crowd scene made up from a cross section of the people you would see on Streatham High Road at any given time of the day. They’re all cheering on the Souls!
Your next collaboration was in 2011 with skateboarding brand éS - how was that in comparison with working for Nike?
From the start it was a different outlook. I was asked if I wanted to do a collaboration shoe and how I would PR it. I grew up skating éS, so it was a really natural project to get involved with. I was creating a catalog of personal artwork at the time, so it was the perfect vehicle to PR my work alongside the product. I created a solo show at the Kemistry gallery entitled As Seen On TV, where my work sat directly next to the shoes and apparel.
The éS collaboration was inspired by the television you watched as a child – can you explain a little more about this concept, and how it translated onto the design of the actual shoe?
My illustrative style has been born out of looking at America as this imaginary wonderland. Growing up in the South London suburbs, it seemed very grey in comparison to what I saw on the TV. Everything I was into as a child came from America - Saturday morning cartoons, BMX, skateboarding, graffiti, hip-hop – it’s all been melted together, as the memories get tangled in my head. When I actually went to America for the first time it was raining and there were no bikini clad roller skating girls. It all was all a lie! Haha.
With my work I try to celebrate that excitement I had as a child. I entitled the show As Seen On TV as that was the place I saw all of this imagery that I connected with. I translated that onto the shoe by having a subtle wearable grey suede upper and a bright yellow and black static pattern on the inside. It’s a sort of representation of my head!
The design of an accompanying apparel range must have made this a great project to work on. How did you find a designing a complete (capsule) collection?
Yeah - that was really enjoyable. It took a little tweak here and there, but the final outcome was very rewarding. Danny and Seb at Soletech were great to work with and did an awesome job!
2012 saw you collaborate with Nike once more, helping to celebrate the London Marathon by creating a special London edition of the Nike LunarGlide+ 3. What was the inspiration behind your artwork for this project?
The inspiration was the London marathon, and running along the route. I drew a montage of elements that a runner would appreciate and connect with in my more established aesthetic.
What was the story behind the running banana skin featured on the insole?
Runners often eat bananas for the carbs and potassium levels. Bananas are also an object I identify with - they make me think of Andy Warhol, which links back to the Americana element in my work. I couldn’t resist drawing it!
Did you have any input on the colourway of the shoe – or what that down to the Nike design team, using your artwork as inspiration?
I didn’t know what shoe it was going onto at the time. It was all very top-secret stuff. I’m really happy with how the guys at Nike worked with my drawings, they’ve kept the shoe wearable by balancing all my bright colours with the black mesh upper…
What are you up to at the moment, are there any sneaker-related projects in the pipeline?
I’m fortunate enough to say there are, but I can’t say anything more!
All will be revealed in good time…
Finally, can you explain a little about the print you’ve produced for Art & Sole? What is the concept behind the piece?
I’ve called it Tongue Tied. It’s a play on the visual language of sneakers, and the amount of time we spend talking about them!
With thanks to Mark Ward.