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Right now, pairs of last December’s limited-edition retro Air Jordan release—-the coveted Air Jordan XI “Breds”—-are going for more than $300. But local artist and sneakerhead Sidney Thomas hasn’t put the pairs he bought on eBay. He destroyed them.
For a series of photographs now on display in two local gallery shows, Thomas captured a masked friend cutting a pair of Jordans in half with a chainsaw, torching another on a grill, and even threatening one with a handgun. “It’s a sneakerhead’s nightmare that these shoes are being destroyed,” he says.
The two group shows—-“EMANCIPATION: Meditations on Freedom” at the District of Columbia Arts Center and “The Art of Giving” at the Arlington Arts Gallery—-end soon, and their timing isn’t accidental. They both overlap with Saturday’s release of Nike’s retro Air Jordan XI Gamma Blues—-and come a year after violence disrupted a much-buzzed-about sneaker release on H Street NE.
On Dec. 21 last year, Thomas, who lives in Riggs Park, was one of the dozens of people who lined up outside the DTLR apparel store on H Street, hoping to buy a pair of the Air Jordan Breds. Around 7 a.m., gunshots echoed through the crowd. No one was struck, and, in the aftermath, no arrest was made. Police determined that the incident was an attempted robbery, although Thomas wonders if the shooters were just trying to clear the crowd so they could move up in line. “The action there shows the craziness, what people will go through to get the shoes,” he says.
Thomas—-a photographer, local art and hip-hop journalist, and, the rest of the time, Department of Justice employee—-wanted to create a work that commented on the excesses of sneaker culture: the noncollectors (Thomas calls them “hype beasts”) who buy hot sneakers just to flip them on the secondary market; the crooks who, according to Thomas, prey on minors in line because they’re likely carrying lots of cash. He says he was inspired by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei‘s photographic triptych “Destroying a Han Dynasty Urn,” which has been on view in two shows at the Hirshhorn Museum this year. (Thomas also saw the work in Miami this year, where the retrospective “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” is currently on view at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.) Just as Ai wrecked a supposedly sacred item of subjective worth, Thomas wants sneakerheads to give their values a once-over.
That includes himself. Thomas has about 70 pairs of sneakers in his collection, “which by sneakerhead standards is not a lot,” he says. (Wale, D.C.’s most famous sneakerhead, owns more than 3,000.) But he says he’s become dismayed by the frenzy surrounding the extremely limited rereleases. “It seems to me like every year it’s getting worse,” he says of the crowds. In the past, Thomas says, he’s seen pushing and shoving when sneakerheads have lined up to buy the latest retro Jordans, but last year was the first time he heard gunfire.
For the photos, Thomas had his friend Clayton Parker dress in a variety of horror-movie masks and a hoodie that reads “New Slaves” (Thomas made it himself before Kanye West‘s Yeezus tour came to town); they staged the scenes on basketball courts around town. When he put the images on Instagram and Facebook, “people couldn’t believe it,” he says. “That’s the response I wanted. It’s just a shoe. It doesn’t have any value to it.”
Another message Thomas wants to get across: High-profile sneaker releases need better security, since some sneakerheads, including very young ones, line up through the night. “The malls and the stores can do more,” he says. When I called the DTLR on H Street NE to ask about its security measures for tomorrow, an employee referred me to the company’s corporate office, whose spokesperson did not respond to several requests for comment. In Columbia Heights, meanwhile, sneakerheads are already queuing outside the SportsZone on 14th Street NW—-not to buy the shoes yet, but to get tickets that will allow them to pick up the shoes tomorrow.
Thomas, at any rate, won’t be lining up early. He’s not a fan of the Gamma Blues, so if he shows up, it’ll be later in the morning. “I don’t buy them to hold them and sell them,” Thomas says. “I just buy them to wear them.”
“EMANCIPATION: Meditations of Freedom” runs though Jan. 5 at the District of Columbia Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW.