At once, the colors steal your eyes.
Complimentary hues blare from various canvases hung about the bedroom. The abstract swirls of color form neon octopi, dripping skulls.
A banner of exotic, tessellate patterns cascades down one wall. Besides the sanitized glare of a desk lamp beating down at his work, only the winking flame of a candle lights the room.
The dreary, syncopated melody of The Neighbourhood’s “Sweater Weather” seeps out of the speakers of the iMac in front of him. Here and there, a heavy breath from the dust-colored pit bull sprawled out on the floor can be heard over the music.
He doesn’t make a sound.
His burgundy, “whatever” plaid shirt is betrayed by his no-strand-out-of-place, dirty-blonde part.
He pauses, rears his head slightly to get a better look at the shoes he is painting. The large, black leather Nikes seem like the least fitting thing to adorn with bright blue cartoon bubbles encircling a nearly flawless rendition of the Pokémon Squirtle — but that’s what the customer ordered.
He sips from a mug that reads “Tommy’s Brand Coffee” in vintage-ad lettering. His name is Tommy, too. He licks his lips and gets back to work.
“It’s just like homework, really,” Tommy Nickerson says of the hobby-turned-business that paid for the iMac on his desk. He says this in the same matter-of-fact tone he uses to mention he’s friends with members of the band he’s listening to, which is slated to play at Coachella this year.
His Coachella ticket — the shoes paid for that, too.
In this bedroom garnished wall-to-wall with canvas works of his own creation, Nickerson paints slip-on Vans, Toms Shoes or Chuck Taylors with custom designs and sells them online. The Nikes are a first for him.
The music senior uses Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade goods, to sell his creations. His personal gallery on the site has drawn international attention and currently features approximately 40 designs.
These include depictions of Jack Skellington from “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Edvard Munch’s iconic painting “The Scream” and the cover of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures.”
Nickerson also personalizes shoes with original images. Customers can provide him with a direction — sometimes as vague as the concept “change” — and he’ll realize it on the shoes with paint pens.
“I have these ones with a mermaid and an octopus,” Nickerson says. “They’re super girly, but they just turned out amazing.”
A lot of people ask for octopi, he says.
Nickerson has painted some of his more popular designs ad nauseam. His most popular pair is modeled after the album cover for alternative rock band Brand New’s “Deja Entendu,” which features an astronaut suspended over a body of water. Nickerson estimates he has reproduced this image on Vans 40 to 50 times.
“I can whip them out in like four hours because I’ve painted them so many times,” he says.
Having garnered a steady flow of customers, Nickerson has raised his prices and charges up to $310 per pair (not including the price of the shoes and shipping, which the buyers cover). His orders come from all over the world, and he has shipped shoes to Belgium, Australia and Afghanistan.
Almost half of Nickerson’s orders come from outside of the United States, he says.
Once, Nickerson painted a pair — another octopus — for a woman who worked at a snowboard factory. She agreed to send Nickerson a snowboard in exchange for two pairs of custom shoes.
“It’s all off of Etsy,” he says. “The cool thing about Etsy is not only can I sell my art off of it, but if you Google Circa Survive Vans or Brand New Vans — Deja Entendu Vans, especially — mine are up there within the top eight Google images. So Etsy popularizes my stuff.”
With a steady increase in demand, Nickerson has had to hire out sketches for some of his designs to a highschooler in his hometown — Moorpark, Calif.
Rohith Gopal, 16, first heard about Nickerson when his local newspaper, the Moorpark Acorn, published a feature on his custom shoes.
“I thought it was unique that people would pay this much money for shoes,” Gopal (to Nickerson, he’s just “Ro”) says.
Gopal reached out to Nickerson, sent him samples of his drawing and the partnership grew from there.
Gopal, who has been drawing most of his life, particularly helps Nickerson by drawing hands, faces and bodies — things Nickerson admittedly struggles with.
But when it comes to coloring the images, Gopal says Nickerson’s talent is unmatched.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Gopal says.
It was a chance meeting that delivered some of the skills Nickerson says now account for all of his luxury spending.
When he came to Cal Poly, Nickerson was assigned a dorm room with then-stranger Eric Cunanan. The two quickly realized each other’s interest in making art, and Cunanan taught Nickerson the color blending technique he says adds depth and vibrancy to the shoes.
“I just explained to him how I get colors to blend with paint pens, and he took off with it,” Cunanan says.
Cunanan says he’s impressed with the shoes Nickerson makes now.
“You look at the work he’s doing now and that can’t be taught,” he says. “He’s put in the time and effort to develop his style and take it to the next level.”
With all the shoe orders Nickerson is getting these days, that time and effort is apparently paying off.
Business administration sophomore Adam Murray ordered a pair of Nickerson’s “Celestial” design, which features abstract bursts of color — blue on one foot, orange on the other.
“The way Tommy puts the colors together is amazing,” Murray says. “He’s a great artist, and I needed a new pair of shoes.”
Murray says it was a pleasure doing business with Nickerson, and he strongly recommends his services.
“If anyone wants any amazing art they can walk around in,” he says, “Tommy’s definitely the guy to go to.”
This spring, Nickerson will graduate, after which he is intent on making a future out of music and art. He plans to move back in with his parents in Moorpark, where many of his friends live and an active music scene can satisfy the other half of his creative appetite.
The Southern California town may be suburbia, as Nickerson calls it, but it’s a “little slice of heaven” for the inventive young artist who’s making people’s dreams wearable.