By now you should have noticed the throughline that connects everything in this issue—our guest creative director, Dominic “The Shoe Surgeon” Ciambrone. Most of the people you’ve seen featured throughout these pages have been hand-picked and interviewed by Ciambrone, so for his feature article we figured why not stick with the winning formula and have Dominic interview Dominic?
Interviewing oneself is, by definition, a meta exercise that would challenge even the most seasoned journalist. On the other hand, who could possibly know the inner workings of Ciambrone’s creative brain better than the man himself? Take it away, Dominics!
What’s up, Inked Magazine? You’re here with Dominic Ciambrone, The Shoe Surgeon, and this is my first time creative directing a magazine. So I’m excited to have a special guest today. Tell me who you are and where you’re from.
I’m Dominic Ciambrone, also known as The Shoe Surgeon. I’m an artist, creative. I’m a maker. The Shoe Surgeon has since become a brand, it’s not just a person. Now we have switched it to The Surgeon, making it less about me as the creator and more about the brand as a whole.
Tell us a little about your early life and growing up.
I was born in Orange County, but I moved up to Northern California before I was one. I moved to Santa Rosa, about an hour north of San Francisco, and that’s where I was raised. From a very young age I was always very creative. I was making Legos and building forts and doing these things that just fed my soul. I just always needed to be building things.
When did you first become interested in sneakers?
I remember painting my first pair in middle school. I wasn’t allowed to wear blue and red. I couldn’t wear yellow, either. So I had an orange Sharpie and I Sharpied my Dada Supreme shoes with orange because I couldn’t wear any other colors. My crew called ourselves OP, Orange Pride. And from there my first real big sneaker was the original 1985 Jordan 1s. My cousin let me wear her pair, she had an original pair. I wore them my freshman year of high school and the power that the shoe gave me to be able to connect with other people was amazing for me. I could connect without actually having to speak just by wearing some cool shoes. So then I got into sneakers.
When did you start collecting sneakers as a hobby?
About that time. It wasn’t as a hobby, it was more for fashion and to dress differently. I liked to go to school and look fresh and have different outfits. So I had everything from Jordans to Timberlands to Air Force 1s to K-Swiss to Sperrys. I had a wide range of shoes and outfits because one day I looked like Justin Timberlake and the other day I’d have a jersey and some Jordans on. I used shoes as an expression of who I was and I was never stuck on just one type. Of course, Jordans and Nike SBs were the shoes that were the hardest to get and the most coveted, but I collected all types of shoes.
Before you started customizing and making sneakers, were you into arts and crafts? Like, what were you into besides just creating sneakers?
I was always building, coloring, drawing and doing a bunch of stuff. I would
get Legos and I would not follow the directions and build something better than what was actually supposed to be made. I fell in love with building. I also started building physical forts in the backyard. I remember building a two-story fort in my backyard where we’d go under the ground and I was, like, 10 or 11 at the time. I had a next door neighbor who was a contractor, I would go watch him build stuff. It was just cool to see wood being cut, hammer and nails, drill gun. I was always very artistic and crafty. And I took that into anything I did, even dressing. In high school, I started changing my room around all the time. I would build a closet that would actually rotate because I had clothes and I always wanted to make cool shit. I was screen printing t-shirts in high school. I started sewing in high school, sewing t-shirts and sewing clothes. I actually sewed my prom tux.
How did you first break into sneaker customization professionally? I know there’s never just one moment that got you there, but can you explain what got you into it?
I guess it was the first paid job I did for someone other than a friend. It was hard for me to understand how to take money for my art at first because I didn’t think my craft was at the level it needed to be. I became The Shoe Surgeon when I was 19 years old and I created the name. I always believed I was this artist and this brand or this persona. I remember “Law & Order” reached out to me to make shoes for a TV show when I was 23 or 24. Justin Bieber. I was making shoes for will.i.am. I was selling shoes at H Lorenzo, one of the highest-end boutiques in Hollywood years ago. I would say around that time.
So this is when you realized it was a career and not a hobby any longer?
I realized it was a career when I made $15,000 in a month, and that was a lot of money to me. I knew I could make a living out of it, even though I didn’t yet know how to sustain it. I would say it just clicked. I always knew I was gonna do it, I just didn’t know how. I just believed in it so much I kept doing it until eventually it became a business.
What was your favorite customization of all time? I already know this answer because I’m you, but, like, tell me anyway.
I don’t have a favorite. I don’t believe in favorites. I believe there’s different moments and experiences for each one. I made a custom Supra Skytop 4. It was a last-minute job, or I procrastinated on it like I do on everything, and I came up with the idea two days before I was supposed to bring it down to Los Angeles. It was Pendleton fabric and veg tan and I put a boot sole on it and I stayed up all night with my brother who helped me a little bit. Then I brought it down to LA and the experience to create that thing and bring it to life was unreal. There’s so many, though. I’ve worked on shoes for so many celebrities—and it’s not about that—but it’s about people who respect my art and my craft, just like how I respect other people’s arts and crafts. Making pink crocodile Timberland boots for Pharrell Williams who’s been someone I’ve always looked up to. He inspired me the most at a young age, from music to fashion to just everything. Then making shoes for everyone from Kanye to Drake to LeBron James, and working with Nike and Jordan brand and adidas… then collaborations with Gucci and all types of brands. So I don’t have a favorite. I think there’s just different moments and different stories to make things come to life.
Here’s an interesting question. What is the sneaker industry going to look like in 25 years?
Shit. Twenty-five years, I feel like we might not even have sneakers, hopefully we’re fucking flying by then and we’re not creating any more waste and it’s just ultimate repair. Which I want to create. Nike came to me years ago, like, what should we do? You need to build a repair business where you can fix things, because we can’t just create more and more and more and consume more and more and more.
What is your white whale when it comes to a sneaker? In other words, what’s that shoe you’ve always wanted but have never been able to obtain?
What is my white whale? What is my unicorn? What is my grail? That’s the thing. People think I love sneakers, but I just like making shit. I like taking anything and turning it into more art or taking it apart. I’m obsessed and passionate about making things. When I look at shoes, it’s different from how the normal person looks at shoes. I look at it like, “Oh, how can I reinterpret this and put my spin on it?” And it’s not that I’m making it better. I’m making it how I see it. I don’t have a grail. I could wear a dirty pair of Vans for the rest of my life and just keep making stuff and then make it for other people because I’m satisfied by the craft and the art and the passion I put into the shoe. So there’s no shoe I love so much that I need it.
Let’s talk about creative directing this issue. Have you had fun putting this together? Because I know the Inked team is a little stressed right now.
This is the first time I’m creative directing a magazine, so shout out to Sami and all of Inked for giving me the opportunity. This issue means a lot to me because it gets to show me behind the scenes putting everything together. From the people I’m interviewing to how I’m looking at art, fashion, shoes, spaces, design and everything. People think I’m this sneaker person and I’m not. I mean, I happen to make sneakers and it might have popped off because people love sneakers, but when you come into my world you see that I’m working on a one-of-a-kind Bentley that we’re gonna sell at Art Basel and you see that every part of it is designed well and it’s thoughtful. It’s always been a dream to be on the cover of Inked and now I get to choose the covers and shoot them while having fun doing it. It’s a new way of creating. Instead of just having it in a shoe, I get to show the world more about who I am and how I’m seeing things and who I’m connected to.
Can you walk us through some of the people you featured and why you’re interested in featuring them?
Yeah. Let’s start with 2 Chainz, who I recently became close with when I showed him some of the stuff I’m working on. He really loves fashion and I love fashion beyond just sneakers. So I get to actually work with people like him and create some crazy shit. Then I have Brittany Byrd, who I’ve worked with on a Gucci project. I love her fashion sense, her style and how she looks at things. I’m bringing in Jaysse, 2J’s, cause he loves tattoos and he’s a sneaker guy, we’re working on a business together. We’ve got Cleo Kinnaman, I love Cleo. We connected a couple years ago, right when COVID happened, we traded shoes for a tattoo and we just clicked. [For the shoot]
I get to dress her with my clothing that no one’s seen before. It’s unisex clothing, so I get to put that on her and she’s just dope as fuck. Michael Voltaggio, the chef. I come from hospitality. My parents are chefs and we have a deli so I really wanted to include him. He has some of the dopest tattoos, too. We included Ben Baller. Over the last couple of years we’ve connected and done shoes together. It’s just cool to be able to be connected with some of these people who are passionate about their craft and what they do. They’re all at the top level in their crafts, and that’s how I look at myself.
Who would you say has the best fashion sense in this issue?
Man, that’s tough. It’s between two people and they’re both women, Brittany and Cleo. They both are swaggy as hell because they can dress sexy, but they can also dress casual comfort and just wear whatever and look dope.
This is Inked, so let’s talk about tattoos. Tell us about your first tattoo.
My first tattoo was “SoCal.” Everyone in Northern California was getting NorCal tattooed with the bear and the nautical star. And I was trying so hard to be different… so I got the same thing, but SoCal. I’ve since gotten it covered, but I’m gonna have someone actually tattoo over it so it comes out again. I was 18 and my friend did it in his bedroom and it was my introduction to tattoos and I didn’t love it. Well, I loved it for a while. And then after a while I was just like, “Fuck, I feel like a poseur. Why am
I getting SoCal just because they got NorCal?” Now, coming out of it, it was just a time of my life and that’s who I was. I appreciate that tattoo because it’s a part of me.
Have you ever gotten a tattoo of your logo? Uh, the answer is yes, but let’s hear it from you.
I have a tattoo of my logo. My tattoo artist, Joe Leonard, was the one who actually designed the logo. He’s the same tattoo artist who designed Guy Fieri’s logo, we’re both from Santa Rosa. It was cool. I’m loving it. I love the imperfection of it and I love what it meant and what it means today.
How have you gone about building your own collection?
I’m starting to build my own collection of tattoos that I have done. My son wrote his name on my leg, and I tattooed it. My son drew a bat and then I put it on my leg and I tattooed it. My daughter drew a parakeet on concrete with chalk and I tattooed it on me. I’m showing my kids that you can do anything you believe you can do, so that’s how I’m starting to collect art and I’m getting better at it. The goal is to tattoo part-time for friends, celebrities and close homies. I’m an artist and I can create however I want.
Do you have any stories behind some of your tattoos?
This one is very meaningful. It’s Queen Charlotte. I lived in Charlotte from 18 to 19 years old and Niche Market was a store out there, it was the first store that I made shoes for. I love Charlotte, it plays a very important role in my life. I had my brother’s birthdate [done, too]. I just started collecting tattoos of my family, just so it’s a reminder that they’re always with me.
Let’s wrap it up by trying to encapsulate what this entire issue is about. How do you see tattoos and fashion working together?
Tattoos and fashion work together because tattoos are a way for people to express themselves. It’s another way to be an individual. Tattoos are how you dress your skin. You remember Zombie Boy (Rick Genest), he was covered in the skeleton tattoo and he started becoming a fashion model and you see fashion models have more tattoos now than ever. It’s just like people wanting to dress a certain way, that’s what tattoos are. It’s a bit of fashion. They go hand-in-hand. Shout out to Celine and Emil for helping inspire me to tattoo their art. Thank you, Dominic, for having me in your space.
Thanks for having me in your space. Wait, it’s my space.
Yeah. Thanks for having us.