For a lot of sneakerheads, uniqueness is the name of the game. A fixation on exclusivity drives enthusiasts to collect rare colorways and hunt down coveted pairs, and for most, it ends there. But some take their pursuit of uniqueness even further. Some seek out true one-of-one sneakers: customs, or colorways made especially for you and available nowhere else.
This is why there’s a space carved out in sneaker culture for artists who can take a pair of shoes and make it their canvas, using paint and other materials to turn it into something truly unique. Such is the space where custom sneaker artist James John Dycoco operates as founder of Innovated Elemental Designs or IED Customs. It's one of the more renowned customizers in the local scene, whose works have been recognized by international sneaker publications Modern Notoriety and Kicks On Fire; and who has taken on commissioned projects from clients from as far as the US, Dubai, and Hong Kong.
It all started, for James, with a competition. He was based in Singapore and was a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 2014 when he entered the Prudential Eye Awards as a photographer. His photos won him the Young Artist Award, which came with a trophy and a handsome cash prize. The competition itself had nothing to do with sneakers, though—it was what he did with that cash prize that led him to where he is today.
He went sneaker shopping.
“Kung tutuusin, I could’ve used the money better,” he says now, in retrospect. “But if I did, wala sanang IED ngayon.”
Love at first binge
“I had this friend, Emman, ‘yung nag-iisang sneakerhead sa tropa ko sa Singapore,” he says. “I wouldn’t have bought as [many] pairs with the prize money siguro kung wala ‘yung mga, ‘cop na ‘yan pre!’ banat ni Emman.”
This first spree, influenced by the kind of friend we all have, would get James started on a deeper appreciation for sneakers and sneaker culture, which he calls an addiction today.
By the tail end of 2014, still hooked on shoes, James had began to amass a sizeable collection. But he also had started to crave something more unique. “I think being an art student and being surrounded by creativity on a daily basis made me want more," he says. "Hindi naman sa I wanted to be better than other sneakerheads. I just wanted something different. ‘Yung talagang ako lang [ang] meron, ‘yung hindi mo mabibili sa mga store. That’s when I started researching [about] how I can draw or paint on sneakers.”
Then, when the admin of a Singaporean Facebook community announced a batch order of Angelus paint (a famously effective paint brand for sneaker artists), James went in.
He started by watching YouTube videos and learning about sneaker customization from more established American sneaker artists. Then, after his paint had arrived, James took a brush to a pair of Fire Red Air Jordan 4s, which he had wanted to work on for practical reasons at first. “N’ung una, midsole repaint lang dapat," he says. "But I thought madumihin masyado ang white. I painted it black.”
When the paint dried, James found he was still unsatisfied, so he decided to get creative and paint a Sin City-inspired graphic on it.
From there, James further honed his skills, relying on YouTube tutorials for the most part and seeking advice from experienced sneaker artists in Facebook communities, and practicing on different shoes. Over time, he would learn to also paint on various leathers: full-grain, tumbled, suede, and nubuck.
Inspiration takes flight
What really got James on the fast-track to learning the art was a workshop with Singapore-based sneaker artist Mark Ong, who’s best known as the legendary SBTG—arguably the biggest name in custom sneakers, and one of the artists who pioneered sneaker customization as we know it today. SBTG has transcended customization several times, collaborating with Nike for official colorways; and also with international boutiques, including Titan 22 and the now-defunct Filipino sneaker shop Crate.
“SBTG was something else. Iba talaga pag close up and step-by-step [ang] pagtuturo sa‘yo,” James says. “Napaka-cool ng workshop niya. [He had] 1985 Air Jordan 1s hanging from the ceiling, tapos ‘yung mga collabs niya with Nike and other brands naka-display palibot sa workshop. SBTG’s level of work and dedication to his particular style is something I hope to achieve in the future.”
Eventually, after first taking on a few sneaker restoration jobs (midsole repaints, reglues, and sole swaps, like our good friend RG Conopio), the inspired James grew a network of clients in Singapore, including Filipino sneakerheads who were based there. Then, when he felt ready to showcase his custom works, he put up a Facebook page and an Instagram account named IED Customs. “That’s when I started getting commissions from the USA, the Philippines, Dubai, and more recently Hong Kong.”
Since then, the number of custom sneakers that James worked on has grown beyond count, and he’s only gotten better at the craft.
Among the top sneakers that you’ll see on his page are a pair of Air Jordan 3s in a colorway inspired by the “atmos” Air Max 1s (which, we would argue, are actually better than the real ”atmos” Air Jordan 3s released earlier this year), two pairs of Star Wars-inspired adidas NMDs, and an original silver colorway of adidas Ultra Boost 3.0s.
He also does a few “dream collabs” between brands—imagining what a Louis Vuitton x fragment design shoe would look like, or what color a Mastermind Japan x Bape shoe should be based on their previous sneaker collaborations. But among his most significant works are a pair of adidas NMD R1s in a simple but elegant black and white color-blocking, which were picked up on by several sneaker publications and were particularly well-received on social media.
James also counts his recent “Ode to Art” Air Jordan 4s—which feature a hodge-podge of graphics inspired by eight fine artists including Keith Haring and Piet Mondrian—among his favorites; along with his “Saludo” Air Jordan 4s, which are a tribute to the fallen soldiers of the Mamasapano encounter.
Work from home
Today, James is based here in the Philippines, and continues to work on customs and commissioned works. While he was once able to work at a pace of 10 restorations plus 10 customizations a month, he has since eased his stride to allow him to focus more on each project, and on other work.
James also limits the number of open slots for customs per month, charging a basic rate of US$100 for simple color-blocking and recoloring, and US$200 for graphics. If that seems a little steep, consider that at his peak, popular American sneaker artist Mache Custom Kicks charged as much as US$1,000 for custom works.
Mostly, James’ commissioned sneaker customs are NMDs. “[They’re] are all the rage now, pero halos lahat naka-NMD na kung pupunta ka sa mall.” He laments the NMD’s oversaturation, but acknowledges they also have helped to bring the art of sneaker customization forward. “[But] I think [it’s] the reason that people have become more accepting of custom sneakers. Dati kasi, when I started customizing, Jordans kadalasan pinapagawa sa ’kin, and I’d receive hate for it. ‘Yung tipong, ‘Jordan yan pre, eh. Tsk, sayang.’”
He currently has custom NMDs that are still in the works, and a few other pairs bound for Singapore, including a “Fourth of July” Air Jordan 4 and a “Tokyo Ghoul Season 2” Asics Gel Lyte III. “I can’t wait to finish those and see the looks of my SG crew when I send them back,” he says.
In the long run, James hopes to continue customizing sneakers and bring more of the practice here to the Philippines, where it isn’t quite as common yet. He believes there’s a place for custom sneaker art in the local scene, and wants to be among the ones to move it along. “Recently I’ve been seeing many trying to experiment on their old Vans using paint from National Bookstore. Nakakatuwa lang kasi I was like them when I was just starting out, kaya I want to share my knowledge sa mga interesadong i-customize [ang] sneakers nila.”
James adds he hopes high for the future of IED Customs, and would love to collaborate with local brands, boutiques, and even causes. “I also pray that I can create customized sneakers for charity auctions, so I will be able to give back to the community.”
At the end of the day, James just revels in his love of the craft—because it is indeed a craft—and in being able to bring a unique design into the world. Uniqueness, after all, is the end goal for sneakerheads, and through his creative process, James is able to give that to others who share in his passion.
“The best thing about customizing sneakers is not the money, nor the attention,” he says. “The best reward is the fulfilment I get when I’m able to make my client’s dream sneakers come into reality.”