Let’s think about shoes for a minute.
Most of my thoughts around footwear involve the question of why my kids outgrow/wear out/lose theirs so fast, and also why their laces are constantly and inexplicably coming untied. I don’t own many pairs myself, and I can’t relate to those people who adore shoe-shopping or need an extra closet for their pumps.
So the subject of shoes is not necessarily taking up space in my brain on a regular basis. But today I saw this pair of beat-up sneakers dangling from a tree at the skatepark, which is located next to a community centre and children’s playground. I’d seen this a handful of times before, and remembered hearing that it had something to do with marking gang turf. It got me wondering. At home, I inquired via Google.
This – tossing a pair of shoes so they hang from power lines or trees – is a thing. A widespread and mysterious thing.
The internet’s full of theories about “shoefiti,” as it’s sometimes called. Is it the work of bullies who fling their victims’ footwear out of reach? Some suggest the shoes are left behind intentionally as a rite of passage (after graduation, or losing one’s virginity, for example) or as a kind of memorial. The darker and most common explanations, especially in urban areas, involve the marking of territory by gangs or drug dealers, or even representation of a kill.
Oh. Are any of these theories truth – or rooted in truth? Are the most sinister theories purely urban myths? The sources I skimmed didn’t identify any direct correlation between dangling shoes and criminal activity. My fervent hope is that the former owner of the shoes pictured here is well and good and perhaps happily enrolled in university or at least enjoying a pleasurable love life.
Why shoes, though? Not a shirt or a belt? I Googled again to get a sense of the symbolic aspect of shoes.
The author of this compelling article, Nicolette Jones, outlines symbolism of footwear found in fairy tales. It’s only a short jump to the connotations in real life, both past and present.
Practically speaking, shoes are protection from potential injury and help keep feet clean. Those with sturdy shoes can physically work harder, travel further. Lose the shoes and you’re instantly more vulnerable.
Metaphorically, shoes can represent escape, opportunity, hope (think Dorothy in Oz). They imply movement, progress, and experience. But they can also signify constraint, authority, or punishment – most of us can identify with the relief of kicking off our shoes to free our aching feet at the end of a long day at work. And then there’s the status issue – generations in the making – that the quality or style (or brand) of one’s shoes dictate social acceptance. Empty shoes can symbolize loss, because their occupant is absent.
So whether the modern shoe-toss is meant to be a liberating thing or a limiting one, I don’t know. Whether it’s meant as a celebration, a prank, a code, or a warning, I don’t know. Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe it’s just fun for people to keep an urban legend going.
In any case, my brain is now full of shoes.
If your brain still has some room, here are a few links about “shoefiti”: