When University of Kentucky men’s basketball Coach John Calipari wanted a special pair of sneakers that bore the names of all the UK players he has coached who have gone on to the NBA, he knew where to go.
So did UK women’s coach Matthew Mitchell, when he wanted some dancing kicks for Big Blue Madness.
Former Wildcats Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Tyler Ulis, who now play in the NBA, like their custom-painted shoes too, as do some National Football League and major league baseball players.
Billy Hobbs is their man.
Hobbs, owner of True Blue Customs, makes a living by custom-painting athletic shoes.
About two years ago, Hobbs said, he made the difficult decision to leave a good job in the service department at Lexington’s Pepsi bottling plant to go full-time with his shoe business.
It has worked out well. He works from his home in Lexington; his wife provides help on the administrative side.
There are many hobbyists who decorate shoes, but Hobbs estimated that there are only a handful of people in the country who work full-time as custom sneaker painters.
“It’s how I feed my family.”
It’salso the most stressful job he has ever had. There are deadlines to meet and high-profile customers, who trust him with shoes that can cost $500 or more — before they’re painted.
Many of his customers come from outside the United States. He recently has worked for clients in Dubai and Switzerland.
He has local customers too: kids who want superhero-themed shoes and a horse farm owner who wants a pair of equine-themed sneakers. Sometimes people want a pair to help them remember a lost loved one or to celebrate their participation in an event such as UK’s DanceBlue.
Hobbs painted a pair for Tennessee Titans linebacker Avery Williamson that caused a stir last season. When the NFL got wind of Williamson’s plans to wear the star-spangled shoes in remembrance of 9/11, it threatened a fine, and the story was picked up by the national media.
The shoes, which Williamson chose to wear anyway, were auctioned as part of a package that included Titans tickets, and the proceeds were donated to Operation Warrior Wishes, which provides trips to sporting events for veterans.
Hobbs’ custom work starts at $150, and customers provide the shoes. He said it takes at least five hours, and often much longer, to paint a pair. He said he spent 25 hours on one pair.
His typical turnaround time is about six weeks.
“There is a lot of hours in it,” he said. “You’re paying for the stuff I’ve learned.”
He begins by using acetone to remove the finish on the shoes. Later, he covers most of the shoe with masking tape, allowing him to work on one small area at a time.
Hobbs does hand-painting and airbrush work, a skill he learned while painting motorcycles in a custom body shop.
“A lot of it’s experimenting,” he said. “Trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”
He said inspiration for his designs comes from all around him, including street graffiti and soda cans.
Besides sneakers, he has painted basketballs for coaches to commemorate special occasions. He painted a Yeti cooler for a UK women’s basketball team giveaway. He painted the walls in the barber shop in the new UK football practice center. A friend who works at Toyota had him paint his hardhat.
Hobbs said the most valuable item he has painted was a $2,500 Louis Vuitton backpack.
“I’ll paint pretty much whatever.”