Have you ever seen a pair of shoes dangling from utility lines?
I’ve seen a lot of them. It’s not a rare sight if you focus your attention on finding one. There’s a pair hanging from the power lines near where I live (see the cover picture). I’ve also seen the same thing in my own country. It’s curious since the very nature of what humans call “shoe” is dependant on it touching the ground, yet we twist its nature and somehow find a meaning for it dangling from the wires, way over our heads.
In “Indigenous Transformation in STS”, we discussed Zoe Todd’s “Fish Pluralities”; that the definition of fish is dependant on its relationship with the people who are in the same context with it; and of course their definition changes throughout time specifically in cross-cultural contexts known as “active points of engagement” (Todd, 2014). The same notion of plurality can be seen in dangling shoes. They are no longer defined as footwear and their significance is no longer seen in their ability to protect feet. So, I wondered, how should I look at a pair of shoes hanging from the power line which I see almost every morning, to be able to understand its significance when it’s not worn by a human?
I list a few reasons I found explaining why people practice shoe tossing. Not all of the reasons are supported by evidence. Some of them are believed to be myths. But all in all, it seems nobody has a clear explanation for this phenomenon which is often called “Shoefiti”. It’s simply a meme populating internationally (Bate, 2010) (by meme, its meaning in Richard Dawkins’s Memetics is targeted; a cultural idea which spreads in its context similar to how genes populate based on natural selection and evolution (Dawkins, 2016)). If you do a quick search, you’ll see this phenomenon is common all across the world!
- territorial marker for gangs (Adams, 1996)
- criminal activity/ drug dealers nearby (Adams, 1996)
- a form of celebration for finishing military service or school (Adams, 1996)
- bullying other people/ prank (Adams, 1996)
- celebrating that special “happy experience” of losing virginity for the first time in life (teens especially) (Adams, 1996)
- commemorating a dead person/ murder/ dead gang member (Adams, 1996)
- just for fun as a game (especially after buying a new pair of shoes) (Adams, 1996)
- a physical challenge (Adams, 1996)
- as a form of “communal memory” in the words of Professor Marcel Danesi, as a proof that you exist (Bate, 2010). Also, James Peterson believes shoefiti might be a form of communal memory in African American communities, to show their desire to leave a mark and prove they are actually there (Peterson, 2014). You never know how long you’ll see your pair of shoes dangling from the wires considering how much of a hassle it is to remove them for example in a city like Los Angeles (Barboza, 2010). It could be years! In some other cities like Miami, they just let them rot unless the shoes cause an outage (Clary, 1997).
- as a form of art (e.g. showing urban desolation and decay (Bate,2010)).
- lost bet (Knight,2015)
All these different meanings probably have underlying connections to the common meaning of shoe. In a sense, these are all “slang” meanings for the formal meaning of shoe we all know (if we can agree on one definition). To me, it’s very interesting to think how cultural context has created and injected its own slang meaning to the concept of a shoe, converting it to another artifact which has a more significant meaning compared to an ordinary shoe in the eyes of that specific culture. There’s no theoretical or intellectual philosophy behind the act of shoe tossing. These new meanings have been created through an instant experience, an urgent sense of expressing oneself as in the loss of a friend, arrogance and power in the act of bullying or a sense of curiosity to know whether we simply can or not. As Marshall McLuhan says, “Slang offers an immediate index to changing perception. Slang is based not on theories but on immediate experience” (McLuhan,1964). Shoefiti as a meme or a slang language of footwear offers a very rich insight into how people in a certain community try to express themselves through their environment (even though this expression might happen unconsciously).
There are lots of interesting videos on Youtube interviewing people about these reasons. However, I put the link for a few of them which sounded more interesting to me + 2 very interesting short documentaries about this phenomenon.
The Mystery of Flying Kicks, a documentary about shoefiti. This video is referenced in almost every single article you can find about shoefiti. Very interesting ideas especially in the second half of the video:
A short video, interviewing people in Cardiff, Wales about this phenomenon:
Another interview in the form of a short film. This one from Australia:
“On My Block” a music video by Scarface. Shoefiti as a mark for communal memory (Peterson, 2014):
And finally, “Hunt and Gather” by an artist named William Lamson. He rides around on a bike looking for dangling shoes, shoots them down. Throws his own shoes over the wires, wears the shoes that he shot down (ewww!) and reclaims the meaning hidden in the shoe. Then continues his exploration to find more dangling shoes and repeats the same process (Kalin & Barney, 2014):
If you knew how hard it is to toss a shoe over the wires, you would be shocked how casually he succeeds in his first attempt. Not to mention his cute little bow and his professional aiming. Here’s his website. This guy has very interesting ideas:
Adams, C. (1996, August 2). Why do you see pairs of shoes hanging by the laces from power lines? Retrieved March 23, 2018, from https://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/1177/why-do-you-see-pairs-of-shoes-hanging-by-the-laces-from-power-lines/
Barboza, T. (2010, February 06). Long Beach is tired of waiting for shoes to drop. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/06/local/la-me-shoes-on-a-wire6-2010feb06
Bate, M. (2010). The Mystery of Flying Kicks. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from https://vimeo.com/71867019
CLARY, M. (1997, January 30). Answer to shoe mystery is up in the air : Cultural anthropologists and folklorists are at loss to explain why sneakers are left hanging on utility lines. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from http://articles.latimes.com/1997-01-30/news/mn-23674_1_utility-lines
Dawkins, R. (2016). The selfish gene. Oxford university press.
Kalin, N. M., & Barney, D. T. (2014). Hunting for Monsters: Visual Arts Curriculum as Agonistic Inquiry. International Journal of Art & Design Education, 33(1), 19–31. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1476-8070.2014.01774.x
Knight, M. (2015, August 5). Shoes on a Wire: Untangling an Urban Myth. Retrieved March 23, 2018, from https://www.wbez.org/shows/curious-city/shoes-on-a-wire-untangling-an-urban-myth/f46d882f-dd38-452b-98dc-be406135429a
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Peterson, J. B. (2014). The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan US. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137305251
Todd, Z. (2014). Fish pluralities: Human-animal relations and sites of engagement in Paulatuuq, Arctic Canada. Études/Inuit/Studies, 38(1–2), 217. https://doi.org/10.7202/1028861ar