A studio visit with sneaker customizer, painter, and muralist Andre Trenier is full of stories about his encounters with Fat Joe, Carmelo Anthony, and D’Angelo, just to name a few. Trenier has been creating made-to-order shoes and apparel for celebrities since the early 2000s, and although his primary focus is now on his burgeoning studio practice, celebrities still play a major role in Trenier’s subject matter. His paintings, which he refers to as “visual diaries” of his musical tastes, feature artists from Nina Simone to The Notorious B.I.G., and his most recently commissioned murals range from portraits of Heavy D & the Boyz, to A-Rod, to Pope Francis.
But that’s not to say that Trenier’s work is singularly focused on celebrity. Indeed, many of his paintings feature regular people, such as his son or his Instagram followers. In his most recent body of work, Trenier paints portraits of unknown women that he finds through Internet searches, rendering their skin in tonal blue and painting galaxies into their ethereal hair, thus elevating ordinary women to the otherworldly and transforming them into cosmic celebrities in their own right.
American Federation of Arts Curator Michelle Hargrave and Curatorial Assistant Lindsey O’Connor visited Trenier in his Bronx studio to discuss the intersections between sneaker customizing, music, and art.
I’ve definitely always been fascinated with fashion and sneakers were a big part of hip-hop fashion when I was growing up. Coming up, I had a friend that always had the newest sneakers. The first time I was able to buy a pair of sneakers before he had them, it was a pair of Diadoras, and I bought them probably two sizes too small. That was the last time my mom let me buy my own sneakers until high school.
On growing up in the Bronx:
I assumed everyone grew up like I did in the Bronx. It was only once I got older and started to travel that I realized how important hip-hop was to me growing up and how pervasive it was in the culture. I grew up immersed in it without even realizing that that was unusual. The New York City Breakers used to practice down the street, and the best graffiti artists, like Terrible T-Kid, lived a few blocks away from me. I took all that in at a young age, and it still affects me and my work.
On getting his start as a sneaker customizer:
The first time I attempted to customize sneakers was in high school—just to get a longer wear out of the sneakers that I had, I started drawing and painting on them. But I got really into it around 2002. I was living out in California and I was part of this group that Nike set up in LA called the Blue House Tribe. We were “tastemakers” who lived in a house on Venice Beach. We were there to interact with people, throw parties, and be brand ambassadors. There was another customizer in the house using leather dye; it was the first time I had seen anyone do that.
I moved back to New York before I really got into customizing. Nike was still sending me free sneakers, so I decided to paint a pair for myself, which ended up being my $100 bill sneakers. Then I made a pair of Scarface sneakers for a friend. He wore them to a party and a fashion editor at XXL saw them, so I started doing customs for XXL, King Magazine, and Slam.
On his process:
I use acetone or a paint stripper to take off the sneaker’s factory finish. Then I use leather dyes. A cobbler put me onto Fiebings leather dye, which soaks in more and absorbs into the material. It doesn’t have a nice finish, so I use that to dye the surface of a sneaker and then paint on top of it with an acrylic-based leather dye so that if the top coat cracks, it doesn’t appear white. It holds up a lot longer. I hand paint all of the detail or else I use waterproof micron pens. Sometimes the tips on the pens are still too wide, so I cut them down with a razor so I can get fine detail. I also draw on suede sneakers using a wood burner; it almost looks like laser-etching, but it’s all hand-done.
On West Coast versus East Coast sneaker culture:
I’ve never really liked Chuck Taylors or other sneakers that are more predominant on the West Coast. They didn’t wear a lot of Air Force 1s or Jordans back when I lived there, but everything is a lot more universal now. One difference is that they don’t walk a lot out there; they’re driving. When you’re walking, the comfort of your sneaker makes a difference. So wearing Chuck Taylors, my feet would hurt immediately. When you’re driving, comfort doesn’t matter as much. Shoes are an afterthought; in California they’re in and out of their cars in house slippers!
I got a call from a producer asking me to customize the sneakers given to celebrity guests on Bobbito’s show, It’s the Shoes. I would work under short deadlines; 24 hours, 48 hours. We were usually working with athletes, so I’d have to find a size 15, and if the athlete had an endorsement it was even more complicated. Then I had to paint something that I thought would be relevant to them, something that would get their attention. It got pretty crazy, but I think some of my best work came out of that time. I was always in a panic, but the pieces I was most nervous about were always the ones that people loved the most. There was a lot of lack of sleep.
I built up a lot of speed and intensity customizing shoes, which was helpful when I started doing Art Battles. I got into Art Battles right at the tail-end of my customizing career. I always feel like there’s a sense of competition—competing for grants or wall space—but in the Art Battles, the competition is out in the open. I also don’t like to work alone in my studio; I like to be around people, so it seemed like a good fit for me. Now I do a lot of live painting at events and parties.
On the jump from painting sneakers to murals:
I think that murals were my knee-jerk reaction to having to work so small. There’s something that feels good about putting your whole body into painting; it changes the dynamic of what you’re doing. Sitting hunched over and painting with skinny brushes started to wear on me. It made me want to get up and paint large-scale. I started painting murals when a friend of mine was killed; I struggled through it. Then I traveled to Europe and got the opportunity to paint consistently with spray paint, and I fell in love with it. I came home with “the bug,” so I continued painting like that.
On recurring themes in his work:
Between my sneakers, painting, and murals, each thing builds into the next. I’ve done a lot of butterflies, and I’m always revisiting space and nebulas. Certain color schemes are also always cropping up across my work.
On the role of music in his work:
Music has always been a big inspiration for me. I like a lot of energy when I’m painting. I like music and people around. I used to rhyme and make music, but I’ve always been a frustrated artist in that direction. The next best thing is to be able to embed music into my art. I have friends that are DJs, rappers, musicians, so I’ve always been around it, doing album covers and logos. Musicians are the people I like to pay homage to first. Tupac, Nina Simone, Kool Herc—the works I make are a visual diary of the music that I’m listening to at the time I’m painting.
On his dream client:
I’d like to customize a sneaker for Michael Jordan, just because of what that is. Or Tinker Hatfield, I’d like to customize a Jordan III for Tinker.