“No Curator” focuses on the most important and cutting edge visual artists who create and draw inspiration from the interconnected cultures of StockX. In this installment of “No Curator,” digital artist Jeff Cole talks about his Chicago upbringing, his brand IKONICK, and much more.
Be sure to check out Jeff Cole’s Instagram and IKONICK for more!
The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
StockX: Jeff, it’s a pleasure talking with you. Would you please introduce yourself?
Jeff Cole: I’m Jeff Cole. I’m a digital artist, entrepreneur, and co-founder of the art brand IKONICK.
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Chicago.
What influences you?
Always trying to push the boundaries of human potential.
So you’re a Midwestern guy. How did growing up in Chicago influence your art?
I grew up in the Michael Jordan Era. He was my idol. Any chance I got, I would draw or paint anything Chicago Bulls related. It was how I got so attached to pop culture at a very young age.
What’s your most vivid memory from growing up in Chicago?
I was in elementary school, and my dad surprised me by picking me up and taking me to see a Bulls game. We had floor seats, and he got me a silver Bulls Starter jacket to wear. I’ll never forget how cold the hardwood floor was because the Chicago Blackhawks played hockey there as well. I was so close to MJ when they were warming up that I threw up because I was so nervous.
Let’s talk sneakers: Were any of your family or your friends interested in sneakers?
My dad was a huge sneaker guy. He had his sneaker closet. He would randomly take me out of school in junior high to go sneaker shopping. He was obsessed with Air Force 1s when Nelly dropped that song [“Air Force Ones”], and those shoes became popular again. He got me into them. We had every new popular shoe: the DaDa “Spinners,” the Reebok “G-Unit” sneakers, the adidas “T-Macs,” Vince Carter’s [Nike] “Shox,” and all the new Jordans. I was a size 12, and he was a 10, so we couldn’t share them. Things got a little heated if he’d forget to cop two pairs. Sometimes I’d sneak into his closet and try on all the ones I didn’t have even if they killed my feet.
Beyond something you were able to share with your dad, when did you realize sneakers were an essential part of your identity?
They were always an interest of mine, but after my dad left, material things didn’t matter to me. I was very focused on surviving and developing my new skills in the art world. It wasn’t until 2013 when Kanye dropped the “Red Octobers” that my love for sneakers came back. I used it as the subject in a project to teach myself Photoshop.
So your dad got you into sneakers; how did you get into art?
My first memories with art were when I started private classes when I was around seven. After school, my mom would drive me to art classes a couple of days a week. I was involved in all the local art shows growing up. By the time I was 11, I had started selling my art on shirts. Growing up, I would develop all these different ways my creativity could be consumed. From creating 20-foot chalk drawings on my driveway to painting on phone cases before they became accessories, I was always trying to push the boundaries.
Ok, so when did you decide to go all-in on becoming an artist?
In college, I became distracted and stopped prioritizing art. It took a back seat to my social life. During my sophomore year, my family lost our house and all of our money. My dad went away for a while, too. I was unprepared for all of this, and my back was against the wall. I dropped out of college to pursue my art career. I locked myself in my basement for a year and taught myself to be an illustrator, to build a portfolio, and find jobs.
So this is the moment when you decided to become a professional artist?
I always knew. It never became real, though, until one of my junior high art teachers wanted to set up a meeting with my parents to go over potential career paths. He gave me a book to take home about how to make art your career. That was reassurance for me.
Were you nervous about becoming a professional artist?
I was very nervous. Growing up, I never knew what it meant to be a professional artist. I couldn’t see it. Was it painting? Was it on the computer? I had no idea. I knew I was good enough to make a living off of it; I just never knew how I’d get there.
What did your friends and family think?
I was known as the art kid growing up. Everyone would always say, “He’s going to be a famous artist one day.” Whether or not that was a joke, I don’t think there was ever a doubt I wasn’t going to pursue art.
Was there a milestone moment when you realized that you were, in fact, a professional artist?
Not really. The big “milestone” was when I quit all my contracting jobs to go all-in on IKONICK. Up until then, I was taking on art jobs almost for survival. I was working for someone else. Once it was all on me, I became free, and my fate was entirely in my own hands.
Switching gears, talk to me about your creative process?
I like to create things that people will latch onto immediately. Whether it’s nostalgia or trending topics, I pay attention to what people are paying attention to. The market always comes first when I conceptualize ideas. One uncommon thing, though, is that I’ll never start a project unless I can visualize the final product before I start. I rarely sketch stuff out anymore. Almost 100% of the time, it ends up looking exactly how I conceptualized it beforehand.
At what point in the process do you choose the specific sneaker to spotlight?
I’m very conscious of the platforms through which I distribute my art. The sneaker has to have some demand. I never choose a random sneaker: the more buzz, the better chance it has to be seen and enjoyed by more people. I like the shoes that have unique storylines, and of course, the wilder the shoe, the easier it is to resonate with people visually and conceptually as an art piece. The more unique characteristics a sneaker has, the easier it is to pair with something else that’s recognizable.
What has been your favorite sneaker to incorporate into your art?
My sneaker art took off in the media when the Nike VaporMax was released. The heavy contrast in textures allowed me to get creative, and it was a great way to grab people’s attention because the shoe’s construction looked like something from science fiction.
The Vapormaxes are very cool. So what are some sneakers that you would like to incorporate into your art?
I have no restrictions when it comes to what sneakers with which I want to create. Now, it’s more about new ways the artform can be consumed. I want to start incorporating more 3D sculptures and transformational videos in my work.
Once you finish a piece, how are you able to get your art out to people?
Understanding all the distribution channels and reverse engineering that behavior. That way, I can create content that provides value and organically gains interest and has the opportunity to go viral. You have to be a practitioner on all these platforms. I spend hours studying what content is being shared and created. I utilize the free tools and hacks they have to widen my reach. I also have a gallery presence. We just opened an IKONICK art gallery in Las Vegas. I’m very excited to start some new interactive projects there.
Who is your audience, do you have a clear idea of who they are?
Not sure. But if I can pinpoint it, it’s the people who have a pulse on pop culture.
Do you think your audience is more a part of the art world, the sneaker world, or somewhere in between?
It’s definitely in between. I mix sneakers with different industries, so I’m cross-promoting different markets at all times. I try to hit as many different pockets of people as I can. Nostalgia and entertainment help bring people together.
How do you view your work in comparison with other contemporary artists?
I try not to think about other artists’ work. I’m a pretty unemotional artist. Over time I’ve become more interested in entrepreneurship and business. I believe emotion is a big weakness if you’re trying to make art your career. I see a lot of emotion in the art world. I try and stay away from that.
How do you represent yourself and your family through your art?
My owl logo represents my family, specifically my grandpa. When he passed, I created the owl emblem in his honor. He loved and collected owl figurines. When I was a kid, I’d visit his office and admire them. In many different shapes and forms, the owl serves as inspiration for me to reach my fullest potential. He was the symbol of our family, and I want to be the same for the next generation.
How would you describe the “sneaker community”?
This one is tough. I think when people think of the sneaker community, they think of the resellers, which I wanted to change. I want to make sure the community could still enjoy the high demand, no supply sneakers. I want everyone to be able to enjoy sneakers in some way, even if they can’t afford them.
Even though you said it’s “tough” to describe the sneaker community, how are you able to authentically represent them?
I think I give the community something unique to consume. One thing I noticed that wasn’t being appropriately represented was the storytelling for all the sneaker releases. My work makes the sneakers larger than life and represents something more than just a shoe that’s for sale.
So, how would you describe contemporary art?
I think it’s in a transitional stage. Today, social media allows anyone to create and distribute art. There are no barriers; it’s an open market. Before Instagram, contemporary art catered to the art galleries and the politics involved with galleries. Now it’s an open market where the price of entry is free.
Similar to the sneaker community question: How do you represent the contemporary art community?
By providing value any way I can. I think spreading positivity through my IKONICK work is a way to bring something more than just “cool” to people’s walls.
Let’s take a step back: What do sneakers mean to you?
Sneakers are the best medium with which to create. They can represent who you are and what you care about. They are a centerpiece to expression. The innovation sometimes seems like science fiction, and I think that is what’s most inspiring about the industry. They always surprise us with materials and functionality.
Same question but for art: What does it mean to you?
The ability to create is the most inspiring thing of which humans are capable. Art is the genesis of everything. Not everything you see will be art, but it could be to someone else. Who’s to say what is or isn’t art?
Now thinking about both communities, how are you able to combine them?
I combine them both by staying open to all opportunities and knowing that digital attention can shift at any time. I’m constantly diversifying and innovating, tasting and trying new things.
Your work exists somewhere between art and commerce. What’s the difference between art and consumer products?
What should people know about your work?
With IKONICK, my goal is to help people understand who they are and what makes them unique. I hope I can inspire people to follow their passion so they can reach their highest potential. I think that’s the best way to pursue happiness.
Do you have any plans to try new art forms and mediums?
Yes! I have work that is in development for collectibles, books, and toys.
Last question: What does success look like for you? How will you know when you’ve “made it”?
Success, to me, is pursuing happiness and living a purposeful life. I don’t think anyone truly “makes it” because happiness comes and goes. I think giving back more than we take from the world is a good formula for that.
See more from Jeff Cole and learn about more artists within the culture in “No Curator.”