A New Doc Addresses The Eternal Question: Why Do People Throw Sneakers Onto Power Lines?

A definitive answer to the mystery of shoe-tossing is elusive, but this 14-minute documentary explores a fascinating question.

So what does it mean when you see a pair of shoes, tied together at the laces, hanging from a power line? As demonstrated in director Mattew Bate's fascinating 14-minute short film, The Mystery of Flying Kicks, anybody who claims to actually know probably has it wrong.

By promoting a phone number where people from around the world could call in and explain their own meaning, Bate highlights the different urban myths surrounding the practice of shoe-tossing, or "shoefiti." A quick list of claims people make about what it actually means: A sign that someone has lost his virginity, a bullying tactic, a mafia signal to the police, code for where to buy drugs, a mark of gang territory, a tribute to fallen gang members, a graffiti-like practice to mark your street, "total bullshit," a sign that, in a given neighborhood, "people can do whatever they feel like and there's no recognition of law or decency," something done by food-service employees when they graduate to a better job, or a way to get rid of old shoes that are too beat up to give away.

Probably all of those things are accurate, at least in the case of somebody, somewhere—but as the film explores through documentary footage, animation, phone calls, talking-head interviews, hilarious reenactments, security cam footage, and more, the search for a standard meaning is probably fruitless.

Some people consider it art: A Brooklyn artist named Ad Skewville explains that he and his brother silk-screened an image of a shoe onto woodcuts and have tossed 500 pair in New York, London, and South Africa. "In the beginning," Skewville explains to the filmmakers, "People would clap. It's almost like performance art."

Others find it less charming. Bate spends time with Peter Teachout and John Hoff of North Minneapolis, who've formed what they call "shoe patrol," where the two retrieve sneakers from wires. "Frankly, I'd rather shoes than bullets in the window," Teachout admits, "But at the same time, why do we have to put up with something that looks like you live in a dump?"

The idea that one man's art is another man's eyesore isn't exactly news, but the conflicting meanings of something that's hard to make logical sense out of, as explored by Bate, are fascinating. He speaks to a semiotics professor who declares that it's an attempt to "prove to yourself that you exist," and to a New York man who boasts that he's standing under a pair of shoes he threw up 18 years prior that are still there—but ultimately, the film concludes, if you really want to know why there's a pair of shoes hanging from a power line in your neighborhood, you'd better throw your own pair up and determine the meaning for yourself.

Add New Comment


  • oldarmy

     I first saw this in the Army overseas.  When a soldier was returning stateside he would tie a pair of his boots together and throw them over a power or phone line.  Sometimes they paint them.  We always said, "somebody went home."  It was kind of a farewell in a service culture that saw troops coming and going every year or two.  There weren't many other ways to leave something behind in a scrubbed and white-washed environment. 

  • Cathy Sample

    the mystery of the flying kicks is like the chicken/egg debate. dunno the answer to that one either but i do have a couple thoughts re: the f.k.s. to resolve either question, logic tells me someone saw/did it a 1st time. since we don't have a clue which chicken or egg happened 1st. with either a chicken or egg is just an impossible endeavor and since i doubt there's ever been a chicken with the gift of speech there isn't one able to say how long ago some long ago stoner trapped themself with that riddle for the 1st time, we are assed out. however, some person flung their shoes up astride a power line 1st also, and my best guess is that somebody got new sneaks and flung their used up and ugly pair far away, but close enough for this 'pitcher' to stride below the discards and gloat and shame the old ones with the bitchin' new ones. but good luck finding the genuine 1st time guy. or some bullied kid got them forcibly removed that kid's from the posession of them to create the same type of torment a bullied child experiences. i think the urban legend about the flying kicks signifying there be drugs here is an actual reality. and not in the way the voice over announcer suggested, "that once you see the shoe signal you don't know which door to knock on to do your drug buy", that was a bit of paraphrasing. and silliness. there's no going to any door, those under the footwear market spots are most likely to be as much beneath the shoes as long as the coast is clear to negotiate the transaction. which door to knock on he says, dork.

  • hill

    A semiotics professor? They actually have such a thing or is it the ghost of Roland Barthes.