Photos: Joshua Cortes

Originally released in 1997, the Air Jordan 13 White/True Red/Black crossed over into popular culture a year later with its memorable appearance on the big screen. Of course, that coming-of-age basketball film took place on Coney Island, forever linking the shoe to New York City’s long-standing love of the game.

A few years after the film hit theaters, another coming-of-age story took place in Brooklyn. That’s when 12-year-old Akeel David (a.k.a. NamxKeel) moved to the city from Trinidad. Akeel, now an artist, would eventually settle in Miami, yet it was his brief time in New York City that first sparked his creativity.

Today, Akeel alternates between painting traditional canvas and sneakers. Despite having no formal art education (The “Nam” in NamxKeel stands for “no art major”), he’s created his own aesthetic informed by the experiences he had coming to the U.S. and serving in the military. Today, he’s best known for his unique sneaker-dipping technique.

This past weekend, Akeel returned to NYC to custom-dip an early release of the Air Jordan 13 White/True Red/Black on the Coney Island boardwalk.

What’s your first memory of the Air Jordan 13 White/True Red/Black?

I saw it in the movie five or six years ago. That’s when I first understood the value of the whole story.

The first pair of Air Jordans you ever bought was the 13, right? 

The 13s were the first pair I bought, and they were actually for my sister. The colorway matched our school colors. What a coincidence that I’m here on Coney Island to paint these 13s. It’s really come full circle.

How did growing up in Trinidad and moving to NYC and Miami influence your style as an artist?

Honestly, a lot of it came later as an adult. What I did learn from Trinidad is hard work. You have to be hard-working there. One of your first jobs there is manual labor, like construction. A lot of people don’t use the materials I work with, because they’ve never laid tiles or built a table before.

I started doing sneaker customization around six years ago. Being around hardware stores, I wanted to cross-reference materials and do things differently. I used to be more focused on canvas art, because that’s my money-maker, but I always had these ideas for sneakers. Today, doing wild things on sneakers is much more accepted than it was a few years ago, because there are no more rules.

Overall, I didn’t want to chase things that are tough to get. Instead, I wanted to make my own.

Your nickname stands for “no art major.” Why do you take so much pride in your self-taught education, and how has that nickname stuck with you?

I have friends who went to school for this particular craft, but I learned most of it by working with a wide range of materials. I’m not saying that I’m better than people who went to art school. I feel like an underdog, so I want to make sure that people know I didn’t go to school for this. I learned this from working with these materials every day.

You’ve also credited your time in the military with inspiring your art.

I use a lot of military patches in my work. I came across a lot of materials there that I wish I had at home. These 13s are a perfect example. The rubber bottom pretty much winterized the outsole. The paracord for the laces are military.

You moved to Brooklyn when you were 12. What’s it like to be back to where it all started — creating these “Coney Island flavors” customs?

Honestly, it feels surreal. I’ve always wanted to move back to New York. I’ve been trying to come back here for so long, but I’ve invested so much in Miami. It feels like I’m meant to be here.

Some sneakers are easier to customize than others. The Air Jordan 13 isn’t as common, so what made you want to work on it?

The thing that people don’t realize about the 13 is that it shares the bulky sneaker style that’s “in” right now. When I dip the bottom, it amplifies the sole, which makes you think, “Oh, this already existed. Why not bring it to life more?”

What advice would you give to someone who is having doubts about their creative journey?

Keep creating. Your time will come. Two years ago, I couldn’t have done this, but everything comes full circle. Keep going. Your chance will come. I was working on sneakers for years, and one idea got me here.

What does “love the game” mean to you?

You’re going to see me at the event high off creating. That’s the love part to me, creating. Me getting messy, the end product and the smile on someone’s face. Even if it’s not the person getting the shoes, someone who sees it and is influenced to at least try. That’s the love for me. That’s it. The mess, the happy customer and the person who gets an idea inspired from what I’m doing.

The Air Jordan XIII White/True Red/Black releases globally on August 4 on SNKRS and at select retailers.