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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.