There’s something incredibly ritualistic about buying a piece of footwear: the approach to the store, browsing through the various silhouettes on offer, touching and inspecting them as you weigh up whether to try a pair on, the opening of the box, which unleashes a waft of fresh rubber or leather that crawls through your nostrils, wrapping itself around the sensory receptors of your brain. There’s the almost-sensual intricacy and concentration that comes with weaving laces through the eyelets for the first time, or the sensation of your foot sliding against a sneaker’s lining as you try it on; the satisfying strain of breaking a pair in with each individual step, wrestling with their stiff freshness.
It’s a process that stimulates your sight, smell and touch. There’s a delicate intimacy with which people that truly care about shoes treat their latest pair, one that can be seen in the way they try to shield them from scuffing too soon, or the infrequency that they wear them in an attempt to preserve that box-fresh glow. It’s a devotion that sometimes borders on the erotic, and gives some clue as to why boots, shoes and sneakers are so commonly fetishized. But what about the inverse, the process of intentionally mutilating brand new sneakers? Yes, in addition to all the other twisted oddities served up by the internet, that too is a thing.
Across the internet there are people who dream up viciously inventive methods to destroy a brand new pair of sneakers, and many of them film their destructive experimentations, later uploading them to YouTube and other video-hosting sites for the many perplexingly strange individuals who are into that sort of thing to watch, and probably even masturbate to, in some cases. The methods that they use are varied: from ones as simple as setting revered silhouettes on fire or popping Air Max bubbles with knives, to more bizarre processes such as filling a pair with pudding then squelching around in them as pudding seeps out of every orifice and opening.
The damage inflicted tends to fall into one of two camps: the permanent and the impermanent. The former involves processes such as drilling holes into a sole, or slicing away at a sneakers’ uppers with a saw, while the latter tends to involve mess: slushing around in mud, scribbling on them with markers, lathering footwear in liquid-y foodstuffs like pasta sauce or the aforementioned pudding. The list really is endless – one enthusiast of this strange kink has ruined enough pairs to even compile a video of his 100 favorite annihilations.
It’s interesting to note that, after studying the various websites and YouTube channels devoted to this particular fetish across the web, it quickly becomes apparent that sneaker mutilators aren’t content with simply trashing cheap, no-brand pairs. Instead, videos are dominated by silhouettes and brands coveted within the sneakerhead community: various Air Max and Air Jordan models; Nike dominates throughout, but adidas appears regularly too, as well as Converse and Doc Martens; Air Max 90s and Air Force 1s appear to be the undisputed favorites, as far as I can see. For such a narrowly niche interest, there’s a sizable amount of overlap with fairly mainstream tastes.
The viciousness with which these sneaker vandals ruin pieces of footwear might come across as a sign of underlying violent tendencies, maybe even a cause for concern in the way that violence towards animals is usually a sign that your kid is going to grow up to be a sociopath, but the overarching mood is a sexual one. There a titillative quality to the videos, as they build in intensity like a striptease, which is reflected in the comments section by suggestive remarks and winking smileys like “Love to watch you play with them ;-),” “Would love to meet to trash each others nikes” and “nice vid (and nice legs ;-).”
When VICE first covered this phenomenon two years ago, their writer interviewed a prominent trasher of sneakers that goes by the name of Ginnasio, whose replies definitely reveal an erotic undercurrent to the activity. Unfortunately, for all his talents in cooking up inventive new ways to annihilate a pair of sneakers, he lacks articulacy and offered little insight into where, exactly, the sexual appeal stems from.
In fact, none of the numerous publications that have written about this phenomenon have done much to explain it, with blame falling either on writers that prefer to describe it rather than analyze it, or inarticulate interviewees that struggle to form coherent sentences. But I can’t help but draw parallels with “scally” fetishism – a fringe interest in the gay community fixated on working class, English guys who wear tracksuits and Air Max sneakers.
Scally fetishists like to lick and sniff sneakers, and have sex with other men wearing a particular strain of casual sportswear that’s popular in England. They’re attracted to sportswear because of its masculine qualities, the fact that it embodies a very macho, very heteronormative vision of what a man is supposed to be, qualities that are innately attractive to some gay men. Sneakers are a cornerstone of both fetishes, but that appears to be where the similarity ends.
While scally fetishists are very much focused upon the men in the sportswear and their characteristics which rub off onto the garms themselves, videos of sneaker mutilation have a much more abstract eroticism. The focus is very much on the sneakers, the men destroying them are on the periphery. Maybe their attraction to sneakers is intertwined with homoerotic urges for the sort of men that wear them, but that’s pure speculation.
What I find more likely is that there’s a certain taboo attraction in ruining a much-hyped silhouette. While conducting interviews for an article that I was write on scally fetishism a couple of years ago, one of my interviewees explained that his sexual fixation on sportswear is partially rooted in the fact that his prim and proper parents wouldn’t let him wear it as a kid. Much like drugs, when something is banned it becomes mystified and imbued with a contrarian appeal. It attracts us like the forbidden fruit did Adam and Eve.
Think about it: growing up, we’re taught to take care of our belongings. If you go jumping in muddy puddles as a child, you’ll usually be subjected to a telling off by your parents. If an item of clothing tears, you’re bought a replacement, one that you’re expected to keep clean and presentable. Not only that, but advertising and consumerist mantra teaches us to lust for and adore clothes (and other consumer products in general). Resultantly, intentionally destroying them adds another layer of subversion.
How, exactly, this becomes sexualized is beyond my own capabilities of explanation. Human sexuality is perplexing and often utterly irrational – how else would you explain the fact that some people are sexually attracted to balloons, and derive pleasure from squeaking and popping them? But in regards to sneaker mutilation, I do have a theory: power. Oscar Wilde once said that “everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”
Ritualistically ruining footwear or violating taboos in general can be viewed as a form of power play because it steals away some of the power that societal expectation holds over us. And that can be a real turn on for some people.
- Lead Image: Dominik Schulte / Highsnobiety.com