Like most sneakerheads, Gary Lockwood, the Los Angeles-based artist behind the handle, Freehand Profit, sees classic kicks like the Jordan 1s as sacred. First released by Nike in 1984, only to be banned — and martyred — by the NBA for being too colorful, these shoes are deemed by many as the granddaddy of modern-day sneakers. But, worship comes in many forms, which explains why, in 2010, Lockwood committed an act that would stun most footwear enthusiasts: He cut the sneakers up and scavenged them for parts.
What started as an experiment nine years ago is now Lockwood’s sigil: he’s the guy who transforms the culture’s most cherished shoes into gas masks so colorful, they’d make a peacock blush. Call his work sculpture; call it mixed media. Whatever you call it, by remixing the role sneakers play in culture over the past ten years, he's had the opportunity to create art for the likes of Wu Tang's Method Man, Kevin Durant, and the rapper/singer-songwriter, Everlast.
The gas mask is an important symbol in graffiti culture, protecting street artists from the chemicals in spray paint. Lockwood’s masks are an homage to his roots as a graffiti artist, a skill he claims he never mastered (“My blackbook work was always better than my can control”): “I didn't know any other writers, so I didn't have anybody to show me the ropes. It was something that I just went out and did on my own, and it wasn't necessarily to get noticed...for me, it was participation — considering that as the fifth element of hip-hop. I can't rap, so, I'm an artist...I want to make art that other hip-hop heads will appreciate.”
Lockwood stashed away his spray cans and, instead, got a bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in Washington D.C. Not a big fan of art school — “They kind of did everything they could to convince me not to make the work that I was passionate about” — and dying to express his own artistic ideas, Lockwood set a goal for himself: every day in 2010, he’d create a mask and publish the results on his blog.
At first, his masks only manifested in sketches and drawings. But inspiration struck when he caught his friend’s mom tossing out a Gucci handbag, which later became the prototype that started it all:
“I was experimenting with a lot of different materials and (was) looking for something that meant something to me — I had painted most of my life and I wasn't crazy about paint,” says Lockwood. “I know some painters...like they drool over it, and I didn't have that same connection with it. So I thought, ‘what precious material could I use to make my art?”
Not long after, Lockwood realized that the perfect material for his masks was, literally, right under his nose. His first sneaker masks were made out of pedestrian wears, like some black Chuck Taylors and a pair of SB blazers he bought for $20 at a Nike outlet. But in 2011, when he carved a Stormtrooper mask out of two pairs of Adidas Super Skate Mids and auctioned them on eBay, that’s when the sneaker community went nuts. Playboy and a slew of footwear blogs picked up the story, and when he bought an iPhone to document his masks on Instagram, it didn’t take long for brands to take notice.
“Now, there are a lot of other creatives who deconstruct streetwear or sneakers to whatever they do. And it seems to be more acceptable,” says Lockwood who’s made masks for brands like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok. “There's still some holdout folks that are like, ‘Oh, that's a waste of shoes.’ But I think that holdout crowd actually adds validity to the work. So much of what I do is about that sacrifice, and if you can't sacrifice something that is mass-produced for something one-of-a-kind — you're already missing the point.”
While he’s being celebrated inside and outside sneaker culture — he’s featured in Complex, Vice, and Hypebeast — the road to monetizing his work has been full of ups and downs. From a change in the business model for sneaker blogs, which were providing valuable traffic to his online store, to an ever-shifting Instagram algorithm that was making it difficult to reach his fans, Lockwood has learned to adapt to keep up with a digital landscape that’s constantly changing:
“With the algorithms that they put in place for Instagram, it's like, folks aren't even seeing (my work),” says Lockwood. “So you know...you can have the audience, but unless you're paying for those ads, you're not actually reaching your audience. And so, the importance of being able to monetize that audience, I think that's what really drew me to Patreon. For years, I was like, man — if I could just figure out how to get $1 from every one of my followers (per) year, I would be alright.”