Like graffiti, sneakers have always been a part of the hip-hop culture and is in constant development. From Air Jordans to Yeezy’s, sneakers are changing shapes, designs, styles and functions to compete with each other for being the lead brand in footwear. While some people enjoy the sight of the fabricated shoe in general, others go the extra mile to customize them even more. Justin Fenwick a.k.a Donk’e Punch, a Peoria local is one of these customizers who not only creates awesome one of a kind sneakers for himself but also for people like Kanye West, Floyd Mayweather and rapper Consequence. Donk’e Punch, who is still very humble about his succes, talks us through his journey of customizing shoes, being an artist and shooting dice.
– written by Ardoko
– Hi Donk’e Punch, thank you for doing this interview with ASA. Can u tell our readers how u got into customizing sneakers?
It must have been ’03 I was 26 and had a shitty job making minimum wage doing nothing, not really know where life would go. I saw a magazine called The Source who wrote about these guys from New York customizing sneakers, I thought that was the coolest shit I’ve ever seen. Like, u could take a plain white shoe and throw colour on it and create something cool out of it not only for yourself but also for others. So when I started customizing I didn’t know what stuff to get, for example a lot of the paint would crack or peel off. I went through a lot of duds before making the studs . The first real sneakers I did were for a buddy of mine who was an Atlanta Hawks fan. I painted these white Nike’s in all red with yellow to match their jersey. My buddy was out of town, so he asked me to wear the shoes so they would fit him better when he’s back. I was walking through the mall and a lot of people commented on them and thought they were sick, something I never really experienced before. I didn’t know at that time where I was heading but I knew it could be something. An old highschool buddy saw my sneakers as well and wanted to buy them off me. I knew he was a hustler and made a lot of money on the streets, I was hesitant to sell them so I gave him my phone number if he was serious about it. Obviously it sparked in my mind to make them for other people so I connected with him and telling him that I weren’t going to sell those shoes, but I could make a pair for him to his likes. He was established in the scene, everyone was hustling back then so what started with one guy ended up with 5 guys wanting multiple sneakers and willing to spend a lot of money on them. In the 14 years I’m doing this now, I only took time off when my son was born just to put business into perspective.
-Like every artist, you start from the bottom and in your case u sold a lot to people from the streets. How did u get in contact with a name like Kanye West ?
In 2005 I got this voicemail from a guy named Malik Yusef. He told me that he was a spoken word poet that was signed with Sony Records and good friends with Kanye West. He wanted me to make shoe’s for everyone before they went on their European tour. He wanted like 10 pairs of shoes made in two weeks and I was like; “dude that ain’t gonna happen”.
-So you said “no” to Kanye?
Yeah, well I said no to their European Tour but I told them when they were done with that tour I would be working on something for them. In the long run it worked in my favor because Kanye just released the whole “Dropout bear” thing. I made these powdered blue sneakers with the bear on it and stuff and he wore them to the B.E.T awards which was really cool to see.
– Are there any other big names that u made sneakers for ?
After Kanye’s shoes I made some for Malik Yusef and rapper Consequence as well. Shaun Livingston (NBA Player and Peoria native) is also a guy that comes to mind. I did a pair for him when he was playing in Peoria and I did a set for Floyd Mayweather.
Could u tell us more about the Mayweather story, how did that happen?
I used to go to Vegas all the time because that is a city that, if u have a dream u could accomplish it. U can become a millionair there if u fucking want it bad enough because there is a lot of money and they like a lot of art so if you can find your niche-market you’re set. At one point in time that was where I was heading in life u know, I still love Vegas and hopefully I’ll retire there. There was a place called Laced where I try to get some commissioned stuff and that place was right next to his gym in Las Vegas. So I got connected with his people and before I knew the shoes were sold. I didn’t even meet him then because his people were my only connection. Later they invited me over but I couldn’t so I sent my cousin, he took pictures with Floyd and the shoes instead. The first one he liked so much I guess that he stuck them in a casing. I mean, the celebrity stuff is fun man but I’m not really hanging out with them. It’s not like he’s calling me up and saying hey Justin do u want to play pool or anything. It’s a really cool oppertunity and I feel humbled by it but in the end it’s just business. I could u tell u 10 other fucking art things that meant more to me than working with celebrities than again, I like to be level-headed.
Is that how u approach sneaker customizing as well or do you activly search for the latest trends?
You never really know who is going to like your new stuff. I think not limiting yourself to one group, for example just art on canvas, is a good thing. It’s the same with sneakers, u might have one group that is big into sports but other people like personalized shoes. You’re taking one thing and you’re splitting it into 5 different groups, from a business aspect that is something you need to do if u want to build a clientele u have to approach it like that. U could just go out I guess and do one thing and if that what brings you to the point that you want to be than that’s fine. As long as u are comfortable with it whether it’s regional, local or international, as long as u reach that comfortzone that is the best thing.
– How do you cope with all these orders?
Well the Cubs shoes for example, I did 10 of those last year and one of them went viral and got over 600.000 views. After that I got over a 1000 messages about the shoe on facebook, now I don’t know about you but I don’t have someone to reply all of these messages like where would I even start you know? As an artist you are the creator, your media person, your own manager and the one in touch with your customers. That’s a lot of shit for one person to do, it’s hard man. My wife is like a ghost helper, she might not get the glory that I get but she’s a big part of the business. She’s an intrical part of the process and how I keep my head in the game. I have some people I work with that help me make some specific things but I don’t have those materials and I find them to be just as important than me, the guy who get’s the recognition in the end. People don’t see little things like that u know? Not every project needs outsourcing but when it happens, it’s the gem that completes it. As an artist u have to figure out how to coordinate it all together. I used to look at artists in a way like, you are not the person who’s doing it, now I see it as a team working to an end goal.
– How do u view the local scene you’re in and what advice can you give young artists?
I think locally you’re kind of lucky when you’re chosen. There are so many underground artists around here, I hate to sound cliche but you hear sometimes that it’s about who u know and I’ll be thinking about it and think; oh shit it’s who you know. Then again, what’s stopping you from knowing these people? Get out there, show your art, connect with other artists and make an effort because that is how you move stuff around. If you look at oppertunites like a house, behind every door there is something new that you’ll only see when u open it. I’d say my career was build up like that, as you do more, you meet more people and get more oppertunities as opposed to staying at home. You have to work hard to achieve certain opportunites, you don’t get a chance to sit still. People always glamorize the artist life but it’s hard as hell, I’ll always tell people to walk a mile in my (custom) shoes and see if they still like it. It’s easier to make a living with a 9 to 5 job.
– Besides creating the art itself u have to brand it in a certain way, your advertising and branding game is pretty on point, how did you manage to do that?
By the time it was ’05 I thought I really needed to have something I was known for. Like you have to have something that sticks out of the ordinary and I was a really big Kanye fan back then. It’s cool like he had a mascotte bear and I wanted a mascotte as well you know? Not like a bear or anything but I need something. VH1 was playing a show at the time called something like I love the 90’s and one show they were talking about videogames. It had mike tyson’s punch-out and donkey kong and I remember my head was making it into Donkey Punch. So I wrote it out and I hated that Y at the end and then I looked it up in the dictionary and saw that you could spell donkey with an é . At that time Mark Eckó was pretty big and he had the ´ symbol in his name. And this is going to sound cheesy but at the time the é looked European to me and I know it sounds stupid but for an American it looked different. I liked the way how it looked and at that time I had a donkey mascotte but after a while I thought it was cheesy. I met Bun’ B of UGK and I remember I gave him a shirt and we took a picture and looking back at it it was so cheesy but that’s the whole process. You look back on your stuff and you super critisize the shit out of it but that’s how you evolve.
website: Donk’e Punch