In the Studio is a multimedia series that highlights local artists and makers, in their element, doing what they do best. To contact us, email Visuals Editor Thomas R. Cordova at [email protected].

In high school, Long Beach native Bryan Phillips had aspirations of becoming a professional basketball player. But at 5-foot-1 in the 10th grade, he realized he would need to prepare for a different career path.

He dove into the theater arts where he invested a lot of his time developing comedy routines with friends and working on improv.

“After high school, that became a reality that that wasn’t really something I wanted to do forever,” said Phillips, who is now an artist and designer who specializes in custom sneakers. “It’s a tough industry, and I just didn’t have that drive.”

While out shopping for his brother’s Christmas gift in 2016, Phillips failed to find something eye-catching. So instead, he decided to buy some sneakers and make something special himself.

He had taken a couple of art classes in college, including graphic design, but outside of that, Phillips had only ever explored his artistic intuition through notebook doodles when he couldn’t focus in school.

“I wanted to see what could I do if I actually tried to learn good technique,” Phillips said. “I got really invested in it, I saw an immediate improvement in my work and so then I started doing it more as a hobby.”

Inspired by Hip-Hop duo Run the Jewelz second album, Run the Jewelz 2, Phillips created an intricate pair of red Nike Air Jordan 1s with the famous bleeding mummy hands holding a chain creatively painted from the collar to the vamp of the sneaker, and suddenly, he had order requests from people asking if he could create them a pair.

Now, the 5-foot-11, 31-year-old is the proprietor of Swell Guy Customs, a Long Beach-based company that has created more than 100 custom sneakers over the last five years for artists such as Trippe Redd, Lil Tecca and Baby Goth. Some clients even send Phillips $1,000 sneakers and designer handbags so that he can add his art.

“I have definitely seen growth in myself,” Phillips said. “I watch old videos of things that I’ve done and I could see mistakes that I’m making or things that I didn’t know, back then. And now I do know, and, and I’ve become a little more comfortable in that sense.”

Before blowing up in the sneaker community—his following now clocks at over 11,000 on Instagram alone—Phillips did not know there was a world of people out there looking to buy unique custom shoes from artists like himself. The ever-expanding billion-dollar sneaker industry has created a way for two mediums to coexist and breed innovation, given that these few-of-a-kind, hand-painted shoes can’t be found on the shelves of your local footlocker, Phillips said.

“It’s a cool cross between art and fashion where it’s not just something you put on your wall and whoever comes to your house gets to see it,” Phillips said. “You get to take it with you everywhere, your art gets mileage.”

It takes Phillips at least one week to make one pair of sneakers, which he charges clients anywhere from $300 to $500. His pieces consist of bold intricately hand-painted colors and are usually created in his room, which is overrun with comic book action figures and a poster of Michael Jordan.

After accomplishing what he set out to do when he first started his sneaker company, Phillips wants to expand his craft by learning how to make shoes from scratch and painting murals.

“I want to have art that’s recognizably mine, and I want to build a following of people that come for my work,” Phillips said. “Not just the fact that I paint sneakers.”