Celebrities may be drawing blood for their merchandise but not all of them are drawing controversies. On 24 August 2021, canned water company Liquid Death—which claims to “murder your thirst”—announced its collaboration with the American skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. Harvesting blood “straight from the source” (aka Hawk himself), the limited-edition drop features 100 skateboards infused with two vials of the legend’s DNA. How, you ask? With blood mixed into a can of red paint and screen-printed by hand onto the board.
Priced at a blood-curdling (although Twitter diagrees) rate of $500, the entire drop—called the ‘Hawk Blood Deck’ for lack of a more obvious and uncontroversial term—sold out minutes after going live on 25 August. According to the company, 10 per cent of the profits will go to 5 Gyres, a nonprofit aimed at reducing plastic pollution, as well as Hawk’s own organisation, The Skatepark Project, which helps build skateparks in underserved communities.
“I am deeply thankful to have a connection with my fans, and I appreciate how Liquid Death connects with theirs,” Hawk said in a press release. “This collaboration is taking those connections to a new level, as I have literally put my blood (and soul?) into these decks.”
Just an FYI, Hawk wasn’t kidding when he included “soul?” flanked by brackets in the press release. This is because Liquid Death literally owns Hawk’s soul. “Tony Hawk is a member of the Liquid Death Country Club,” a representative of the company said in an interview with CNET. “So he previously sold his soul to Liquid Death via a legally binding contract, meaning the brand technically owns Tony’s blood.” Another chilling FYI: absolutely anyone can sell their souls to Liquid Death in exchange for early access to limited-edition merchandise, invites to private events and all kinds of other “cool shit” the company can’t tell you about yet. Just enter your full name and email and sell your soul—it’s as easy as subscribing to a newsletter.
Oh, and each board also comes with a copy of a “certificate of authenticity” signed by the legend himself. So we have legendary DNA being distributed worldwide. What could possibly go wrong? “Although it could arguably make the world a better place, never ever use these boards to make clones of Tony Hawk,” Liquid Death mentioned in a disclaimer. In the video posted to his own Instagram, Hawk worried about the skateboard owners being in possession of his DNA and shouted, “No clones!”
2021 reboot of The Island aside, the major ingredient used in the Hawk Blood Deck must remind you of a similar collaboration that shook the internet earlier this year. Enter Lil Nas X and MSCHF’s iconic ‘Satan Shoes’.
In March 2021, internet collective MSCHF released 666 pairs of the Satan Shoes made in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X in a PR stunt to promote the artist’s new song ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’. Made using modified Nike Air Max 97s, the $1,018 trainers featured an inverted cross and a pentagram along with the words ‘Luke 10:18’ and “1 drop of human blood.” Although the shoes sold out in less than a minute, Lil Nas X was at the centre of public scrutiny for the collaboration and was repeatedly labelled “disrespectful.”
Mere hours after the shoes sold out, Nike denied its involvement in the project and filed a lawsuit—asking the court to stop MSCHF from distributing the sneakers entirely. They were later recalled as part of the settlement agreement. So is Liquid Death seeking a similar ‘viral’ reaction, minus religious references and a lawsuit?
Let’s start with responses over on Twitter. While half of the users hope Liquid Death drops more skateboards infused with Hawk’s blood in the future—with some even admitting to licking and eating them if they get their hands on it—others were quick to point out the double standards, including Lil Nas X himself.
“Now that Tony Hawk has released skateboards with his blood painted on them, and there was no public outrage, are y’all ready to admit y’all were never actually upset over the blood in the shoes?” the rapper tweeted. “And maybe u were mad for some other reason?” Others seem to echo this ‘lack of similar outrage’ point of view—with some looping racism and homophobia as possible “explainers.”
On the other side of this conversation, users are pointing out faults with the collaboration rather than the icon in question. “It has absolutely nothing with him being gay/black and tired of people using that as an excuse,” wrote a user. “The only reason why Lil Nas X shoe failed cause of the whole Satanic thing he was going for. He should’ve known the whole satanic thing wasn’t going to go well.” Middle ground on the platform, however, agree on the fact that they don’t want blood anywhere near their sneakers or skateboard—collectively rolling their eyes on both concepts alike.
Instagram seems to be having a mind of its own in this storm—with ‘nah he tweakin’ trending on the platform. It all started when Lil Nas X commented on a post shared by RAPTV addressing the controversy.
Summing up his opinion in three words on the platform, ‘nah he tweaking’ is now flooding the comments section of Instagram posts by big celebrities including Kanye West, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. Although it started with human users commenting randomly, spam bots picked up on it. A few hours ago, Instagram announced that it has now muted the term from the platform entirely.
So what does ‘nah he tweaking’ mean? According to Urban Dictionary ‘tweakin’ refers to the act of not making sense of anything or saying something stupid. “Perhaps the rapper feels Tony’s blood-infused skateboards are ‘stupid’, but we’re just speculating here,” wrote HITC.
Although Hawk did not respond to the rapper’s tweet about his skateboards, he took to Twitter to note how the deck was “inspired” by the Marvel comic book based on the rock band KISS—where the band members reportedly poured their own blood into the red dye used to print the first issue.
Satan Shoes did not embed Lil Nas X’s DNA in its sole.The blood was instead drawn out of selected MSCHF employees. But maybe the rapper walked so Tony Hawk could skateboard in his blood-infused ones?
At a time when three-ply masks necessarily hinder traditional mediums of self-expression, we’ve all been turning to its visual counterparts instead. Enter Do It Yourself (DIY) culture and its tremendous impact on social media platforms over the pandemic.
Now, if you are one of those 3 a.m. YouTube junkies like me, chances are that you must’ve crossed paths with a parallel universe of artsy ASMRs. Yes, those addictive customisation videos where YouTubers swipe an acrylic solution across a new pair of Air Force 1 before stenciling, painting and packing their orders with fancy zip tags. Well, guess what? Footwear giant Nike is increasingly threatening that livelihood, not just for art collectives like MSCHF with their controversial Satan Shoes, but for countless individual customisers.
In a lawsuit, filed last month in California, Nike accused Drip Creationz—one of the largest shoe customising companies in the world—of deconstructing Nike shoes, adding new material to them and reselling them for more than its retail price. “That violates trademark and copyright laws,” Nike lawyers said, as noted by CBS MoneyWatch.
“Our goal is to help ensure consumers are able to buy our products that are both authentic and authorised by us and there is no confusion for consumers,” Nike said in an email to CBS. “None of the items sold by Drip Creationz are authorised Nike Inc. products.”
When it comes to those one-man operations we’ve been fond of on YouTube Shorts, the customisers make money by either designing and selling a shoe from scratch online or working with clients seeking a specific design. That’s where the problem lies for Nike. When someone customises one of its shoes, it is “materially altered in ways neither Nike nor our partners approved or authorised,” the company said. This may involve using trademarks and branding from other companies that Nike never agreed to collaborate with.
“The more unauthorised customisations get manufactured and sold, the harder it becomes for consumers to identify authorised collaborations and authentic products,” according to Nike. “Unchecked, post-sale customisation undermines our brand because we lose control of what the brand means and what our message is.”
For most of its part, Nike wouldn’t outright admit if it plans to legally challenge other customisers after the Drip Creationz case is resolved. But CBS MoneyWatch noted how the company has filed a second lawsuit alleging trademark infringement against former employee-turned-customiser Jeffrey Waskowiak and his company KickRich.
Let’s be honest here, no one knows exactly when people started altering Nike shoes, but those involved in the industry stress that the practice is decades old. It’s also important to note that the practice is not exclusive to Nike shoes. Adidas and Vans are some of the other brands that have gained traction within the sneakerhead community.
One of the top-selling athletic shoes in the US, however, is the Nike Air Force 1. According to the market research firm NPD Group, AF1’s are the shoes that many customisers use—given its large blank canvas. CBS also outlined how most customisers are either experienced artists, fashion fanatics, savvy entrepreneurs or all three. “A majority of people are just one or two artists working out of their garage or basement doing one or two at a time just as a side hustle or hobby,” said Aron Solomon, a Montreal-based attorney and self-proclaimed sneakerhead to the media outlet.
The boom of sneaker customisations can essentially be linked back to social media. With dedicated communities on platforms like Reddit, customisers are often seen posting pictures of their designs, raking in orders and comparing notes with fellow artists on their techniques. According to CBS, new customisers rely on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter “to learn where to buy the right paint, when to layer colors, how to perfect their stenciling and other practical tips.”
“None of this is being done out of malice,” Solomon added in the interview. “If anything, it’s just encouraging people to buy more Nikes.”
The Nike lawsuit essentially sets boundaries as to how far consumers may go under the law to alter and resell its shoes as a commercial product. Given Nike’s stance, these boundaries are now hazier than ever before. “Does the line stop at painting faces or logos on a shoe, for example, or does it extend to replacing the sole, tongue or leather?” CBS wrote. Either way, Solomon believes that “Nike is making a giant brand mistake” in pursuing the case.
In the Drip Creationz suit, Solomon said Nike could have a tough time proving whether or not the company has suffered any monetary losses. Another customiser, Rasheen Dixon, believes Nike could hurt itself even more by winning in court. “Nike is going to lose a lot of US-based customers if they crack down on this because nobody wants to wear a Nike Air Force 1 that everyone else can have,” he said.
According to NPD Group, athletic shoe sales grew more than 35 per cent in the first six months of 2021 compared to the same frame in 2020. The very notion that the global athletic footwear market is expected to hit $66 billion by 2027 doesn’t help Nike’s case either. While the footwear giant is busy defining boundaries between artistic and commercial expressions, it won’t be long before customisers move on and find another pair of shoes to work with.