Shea Gribbon is a master at his craft. Imagine the amount of work it takes to overhaul a pair of beat-up, wellloved cycling shoes and bring them back to life without a hint or notice of repair. Or take someone’s graphical wish and shape, refine and translate it to plyable material with meticulous attention to detail. Gribbon can do just about anything under the sun to a shoe. Your wish is his command. It’s complicated and complex and he’s entrusted by the client to create wonders on something that is at the core a utilitarian tool.
Give us some background to where you grew up.
I’m from Maghera, a small town in Northern Ireland. I had a decent childhood—good fun and good family. My dad was a lorry driver and mum stayed home to raise us. I have three sisters.
Were you artistic as a child?
I’ve always been painting, making stuff and was known as the arty one all the way through my time at school—I was obsessed with Lego. Being the creative person I am, I can’t really remember ever building what was supposed to have been built. I just mixed up my Lego and built my own masterpieces.
When you were a boy were there design influences at school?
I don’t think I had any influences in school, but I had plenty outside. My uncle was a great artist and I put that down to where I get my love for art. He also could put his hand to anything, be it photography or the ability to play any instrument he picked up.
I was always into anything with four wheels growing up… tractors, cars, lorries. The older I got, the more into cars. I was watching “Pimp My Ride,” creating custom vehicles on “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” (best video game ever) and what was my biggest influence in pushing me into wanting to be a designer, specifically a car designer, the TV program “Overhaulin’”—watching Chip Foose create sketches, designing cars and trucks, then the team working to create that vision, was just something that I had never seen before. I knew I wanted to be a car designer from that moment. I bought the same pens he used, expensive Chartpak Markers from the U.S., and researched to find if any colleges had a degree on it. So, at age 15, I knew I wanted to be a designer and what university I wanted to go to. When I was 16, I managed to go on work experience to Morgan Motor Company and work alongside head designer Matthew Humphries; it was an amazing experience. I even got to meet the legendary Jay Leno when I was there. And I always loved the Woody repair scene from “Toy Story 2.” Now, years after having first watched that scene, I kind of feel just like that repair guy. I’m meticulously sewing up stuff and have these drawers of paints, paint brushes and spares.
You graduated from college with a degree in product design. Was it your intention to design shoes or something else entirely?
The genius that is Chip Foose was a massive influence. My initial intention was to go to Coventry University and study automotive design. I had interviewed for both the automotive and product design courses. Doing automotive design meant that for four years I would be designing cars (obviously); however, whilst in the interview for product design, I was told as well as being able to sketch and design cars I could literally be designing any object on this earth. That got me thinking…. I wasn’t really that into sneakers or shoes at that time. Though now, just looking back on it, I was getting real into cycling when I was at university, and for one of my projects I’d done some research into cycling shoes. Designed some and modeled them in 3D.
Do you recall the first pair of shoes you painted as a kid?
I literally have zero memory of ever painting on any shoes as a kid. I asked my mum, and she has no memory of it either. I drew over plenty of walls however!
As with a lot of us, after college we may end up doing something differently than what our degree was. What made you start painting shoes?
Firstly, I had no idea what industry I wanted to get into. The first job I applied to I got, initially as an intern designer with BLK BOX (a gym manufacturer), which grew into a full-time roll. How I started painting shoes was roughly four years prior, in my student accommodation. I was living on my own for the first time and I stumbled across the most random thing ever: painting…with coffee. It started from a coffee-cup stain on a piece of paper, which I turned into a bike. Like a freestyle rap battle, I had no idea what it was or how good it might be before I started. It kind of snowballed and to this point I’ve created coffee portraits, multiple commissions. I was featured in books, my work shared on GCN a few times and even got Peter Sagan’s autograph.
Now I needed something else to do. I found it hard coming home and just doing nothing. Around the same time I came across VeloKicks; I remember one of my friends tagging me under one of their posts telling me I should do this. This was when I was at university and from what I remember it was a pair of shoes customized by Artful Kicks (an already established custom kicks painter). I never really thought much into doing it myself until I was coming home from work and doing nothing. I started thinking more about painting a pair of my cycling shoes. I mentioned it to my friend; he said, “Just do it.” (Not a Nike pun!) Never was it my intention to make a career out of it….
I made an Instagram page simply to share the pictures of what I was doing. The name, well it was a bit of a joke. The first pair I painted was my own; they needed repairing before I painted them and thus The Shoe Dr. was born. My mate was in Belgium racing at the time and had a few spare pairs of shoes at home he told me I could practice on.
Covid changed things for a lot of people, and it pushed you into the direction of what you call your “life’s purpose.”
Six months into painting shoes, the thought was entering my head of possibly making a business out of it. I wasn’t enjoying my job and every ounce of spare time was being put into The Shoe Dr. I was working two jobs, trying to have a social life and start a business all at once. Juggling everything was having an adverse effect on my mental health. Something had to change.
I was brought up with the view that you went to university, got a good job and had a good life. However here was me with a master’s degree in product design…employed…and I wasn’t in the slightest way happy. I was happiest coming home from work and painting shoes to 3 a.m. Skip forward three months. By now (like many, I suspect) I realized how serious the pandemic was. I had quit my job as a designer at BLK BOX, telling my family it was because I was sick of the daily two-hour commute. Which to be fair, I was, but really it was to give me more time working on the shoes. It didn’t. I was into my third month in a new job and I was still very much in the same situation. I wanted to quit. I wanted to work fulltime as a shoe customizer. Then the world locked down and I was put on furlough.
I put my full focus on what was clearly my passion, customizing shoes. Not to sound insensitive, but I never really thought much about the pandemic throughout the worst of it. I was living in the countryside, not watching the news, staying positive and for the first time I had one single job and the chance to put all my time into that and myself. That said, if the pandemic didn’t happen, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today.
When you first started this fulltime, were there moments where you thought, “Oh shit, I am not sure if this is going to work!”?
When I quit my job, I had worked out I had enough money to get me by for about five to six months. I had been customizing shoes for over a year and never went a single week from when I started without shoes to work on. I had this gut feeling that, yeah, it was life’s purpose and it was going to work out.
What were the first pair of shoes and first pair of cycling shoes you painted for someone for money?
My first pair for money was for one of my friends: “Rick and Morty”-themed Giro Empires. These were also the first pair to be featured on VeloKicks, which was massive for me. The shoes were in such a state having been “customized” by the owner with markers that he then tried to remove but it was stained on. They looked like shit. He asked could I do something with them. Firstly, I got them repaired, repainted black then set out sketching and painting Rick on one side and Morty on the other. They looked like a completely different shoe and the reaction to them was class.
There is a fair amount of vanity in cycling with kits, socks, the bike, whatever…. Shoes are a big part of it. What do you think drives a person to get a pair of $400 cycling shoes custom painted?
I think it’s wanting to be different. To have something unique in a world where everything is so available to anyone. Even the smallest bit of customization is something no-one else will have. For a pro it’s pretty much the only thing, if even, that they can have custom and personal to them.
Explain the type of paint and product you use.
I use an American brand of paint, Angelus, which is a flexible acrylic paint. It’s protected with layers of Liquid Kicks Topcoat.
If I am a customer with a plain pair of cycling shoes, what is the process for someone?
For repairs, I will assess the shoes to how severe the damage is and whether it will need to be sewn, glued or filled. Sometimes it’s all three. Once that’s done, I’ll put down a primer coat, mix up paint to match the original color and layer it up using a paint brush or air brush. I’ll put on the topcoats for protection. With just custom painting I’ll agree on a design with the customer. To prep the shoes, I remove the factory finish and logos then give the shoes a light sand all over, mask them up and add a coat of primer. Next up is to start painting, be it freehand drawing, then painting or using stencils—this is the timeconsuming part. Once the design is complete, I’ll add the layers of protective topcoat, allow to set and the next day they are posted off to the customer.
You see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
I have no idea. However, what I would love to do is continue growing The Shoe Dr. brand and see where I can take it. The goal I am working towards is employing someone. I would get a huge amount of joy in giving someone else the chance to have a career in doing something they love.
Finally, personally, what’s your favorite sneaker?
My favorite sneaker must be the Vans Old Skool, simply because they are so durable and versatile. Perfect for the gym, comfortable for walking around in, working in the studio…and they look cool.