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Untangling the Urban Myths Behind Shoe-Tossing

Posted on 14 September 2010 by admin

Fear not, gentle readers and citizens of Richmond. Those shoes often seen suspended high from power lines do not mark gang territory or availability of crack-cocaine.

At least, that is the final word from the Richmond Police department.

“Richmond police, through the intelligence that we have gained has found no correlation between dangling tennis shoes and criminal activity,” said a spokesperson for the police department.

On the other foot, from Gang Reduction & Intervention Program (GRIP) at the attorney’s general office, is word that dangling shoes have several meanings, and those meanings change over time. A spokesperson did confirm that the shoes can indicate gang activity.

“Currently, shoes hanging from telephone wires can indicate gang presence or a drug territory, or it can simply be a youth prank,” said Amy Kube, program director for GRIP, whose information came from law enforcement partners at the Virginia Gang Investigator’s Association (VGIA).


The number of urban legends surrounding these cultural artifacts rivals the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. All around the globe, people use shoes to decorate power, cable and phone lines. Except for the places where they don’t have powerlines. Or shoes. Or in Iraq, where shoes, especially the soles, are considered unclean. In Arab culture it is rude to even show someone the bottom of your shoe.

There are explanations that range from victorious to menacing. Sometimes the well-heeled participants are simply celebrating.

“I have heard that it means that someone has achieved something lofty, like graduating from school,” Heather VanderPas said, a former Richmond resident who has explored many a local neighborhood.

Hightops could adorn the blacktop as covert flags for illegal drag racing.

“The guys in Henrico County use them as markers for drag racing,” Samantha Fotovat said, who first heard of this when in high school and she knew some people who knew some people who illegally drag raced.

“Territory markers is all I have ever heard, ” said local hairdresser Meredith McGlohon.

And she isn’t talking about Sacagawea’s moccasins.

Sometimes, it’s just because. Just because they outgrew their shoes. Just because they were drunk. Just because they were bored.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Alison Stokes said, who sees the shoes frequently in her neighborhood off Carytown. “Just that kids are goofing off but there are no drugs sold right in this area.”


Although Ronald Savage, founder of United Coalition Association in the Bronx, N.Y. didn’t return my calls or emails, he has previously gone on record declaring a connection between sneakers and criminals.

Savage, who works with gangs in N.Y., spoke on film last year to the BBC and confirmed that tossed shoes serve as a memorial to fallen street soldiers, or, “that another gang has gone into someone else’s neighborhood and they beat him up…and after they beat him up they threw his sneakers up.”

In 1999 Beth Shuster (shoe-ster, seriously?) reported that Los Angeles Councilman Nate Holden so earnestly believed gang members used shoes as territory markers that he tried to have a law passed for their quick removal.

Like many other policemen around the nation who have been pumped for information on the correlation between gangs, drugs and sneakers, LA police did not believe Holden’s theory.


In 2005 Ed Kohler coined the term “shoefiti” and started a website that “chronicles Shoefiti from around the world while trying to find meaning in this common act.”

Kohler’s first reply to my inquiry on foreboding footwear was a bit evasive.

“Clearly, there are a ton of reasons why shoes end up on power lines,” said Koheler. “For example, I think it’s safe to assume that soccer cleats near a stadium are either hazing or a post-season celebration situation.”

I persisted, asking if he ever had a direct “tie-in” from a detective or police officer.

“I haven’t heard of any police confirming a tie-in,” said Kohler. “Our gang strike task force head in Minneapolis has said there is no relationship, which may be true.”

“Or, he may be trying to avoid alarming citizens who’d then view ALL Shoefiti as gang related,” added Kohler.


Poke around on the Internet and ask your friends what the shoe-tossing represent. You will find a mixed-bag of responses. In most cases, what is worse than there being an actual problem is the perception there is a problem.

Fear not those shoes decorating the Powhite Parkway for the past 15 years. The only gangs on that road are the toll collectors.

Wikipedia calls the act of shoe-tossing a “folksport.” Sort-of a universally shared tradition without a universally shared intention.

“It’s been around since I was a kid,”  Mark Holmberg said, a local reporter tall enough to perhaps remove the decorative shoes himself.

While nobody seems to agree on what they really mean, most concur that it’s best to leave the removal to the experts.

Dominion Virginia Power removes the shoes only if they pose a safety issue or interrupt service to customers. Don’t try to get them down yourself.

“This could allow the electricity in the power line to flow through them to the ground, hurting or even killing them, ” said Jim Norville, spokesman for Dominion.

I’ll keep my eyes out for suspicious activity, in case. A pair just went up last week behind my house.

Help us understand this folksport of shoe-tossing. Tell us what you know.


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