Very few people would have given up on what most consider a dream, to make a statement, this was the case with Ari.
Ari Saal Forman is not only an artist, he is truly a creative, his work hovers over many different fields from graphic design, fashion, to experiential marketing.
In our trip to New York, he invited us to his apartment where he told us about his life, his first contact with sneakers, his experiences working with big companies and how all that set the stage for one his biggest statements: The Menthol 10s. In our interview, Ari explains the details and the protest behind the sneaker that had kids camping outside Rivington Club back in 2006.
“Oh man… Who is Ari? Someone that doesn’t like going down a bullet point list on who he is. And not because I’m pretentious, but because it just doesn’t seem like anybody should be that self-important.”
“So, kill me if I am not creative. I’m dysfunctional. Without art, I don’t want to live. Because I’ve been faced with it and I have to pretend that I am somebody else. It doesn’t feel good. There’s been different times when things changed or started, but there’s no point at which it was the beginning of creativity. I was born into it.”
You are an artist, right? When did you discover that you were in to arts?
Ari I’m an artist. I am also a trained graphic designer and that’s where I have made my living in so many ways.But I have no memory of it starting. My mother was an arts and crafts type of women, candle making, decoupage, tie-dye, coloring books every damn day. So, kill me if I am not creative. I’m dysfunctional. Without art, I don’t want to live. Because I’ve been faced with it and I have to pretend that I am somebody else. It doesn’t feel good. There’s been different times when things changed or started, but there’s no point at which it was the beginning of creativity. I was born into it.
My mom couldn’t get anything right, but she could be creative. And with her the creative process wasn’t bound to anything. It’s very interesting when you talk with creative people and they’re like “I do this”. It’s very rigid, you know? And Rigidity is the devil. There is nothing else. So when you’re rigid and you’re like “I’m this”, America really loves that, because everything is a menu choice, you know ? And so my mom never limited herself, she was totally dysfunctional but she never limited herself. And I think that was the creative process.
So, I’ve never thought of myself as just a graphic designer, or just an artist, or just this or that. For me it was like I’ll do some graphic design, I’ll do some writing, I’ll do some conceptualizing, some painting, it’s all the same, it’s shapes and colors. I just never saw myself as just that one thing, and that’s probably the route of my problem. Need the prize, look at one thing and focus on it.
But jack of all trades, master of none is not necessarily true for everybody, but I feel like that’s one thing that describes me. I feel I’m good at somethings, but master, I am no master of no fucking thing. I have some friends that are masters of shit. I’m jealous, but I’m just too busy trying to do too many things.
So, where were you born and when did you come to New York?
Ari I was born in Oakland. I’m from the bay. I don’t know shit about it. But I was raised in L.A. and every single person in my family is born in Philly. But then being in a Phili family, they were not L.A., so I grew up as sort of an L.A. kid but also being a Philly kid. Then I was homeless for years with my mother and we ended up in Phili when I was 12, because my dad had moved back to Phili. I tell people I’m from Philly because everything really about me is Phili, I’m not really a L.A. dude. I don’t really like the overall culture of L.A. or Phili. That’s why I’ve been here for 20 years.
If I had to, If I could choose what I was, I would say that I’m a New Yorker because I’m at the utmost of that psychology. But … New Yorkers are quick to remind you that you’re not a New Yorker (laughs). And I’m not an Oakland Person, and I am not a Phili person, so what the fuck am I? It’s just like I’ve told you, I’m not rigid, I don’t fit into one thing, I am a Jack of all cities and a master of none. It’s kind of a lonely place.
What it’s like now living in New York? What did the city do to you?
Ari I don’t really know how to answer that, I answer that question a thousand times in different ways, but I’ve never been asked so straightforward. I love New York. I don’t love everything about anybody or anything, but I made New York home because it suits me. It’s not perfect. But the reason that it suits me is that I’m not one of those people who wants to hide and be in the suburbs, I don’t like quiet space. Like, this is quiet for me. But at night is a ghost town, I see people breaking into stores there, there is nobody around.
But what New York does, for me, it offers me the most that this country can offer me in the things that I seek, access, 24 hour food, 24 hour transportation. You can live in New York and be poor, there is this misunderstanding that New York cost so much. There is mexican people here, who have come here and they’re earning 6 dollars an hour. If they can live here, any fucking body can live here. McDonalds pays you 15 dollars an hour. You ain’t gonna live well, but if you’re going to suffer, if you’re gonna be broke, you can be broke anywhere. You can be broke in your home town or broke in New York. Be broke where you wanna be. Be rich where you wanna be. And New York, for me, is a university and I don’t look at the cost of New York as a waste of money, I look as tuition and I’m paying for the college, the university the New York is, and the degree that it’s gonna give me is what I make of it.
Do you remember when you first started to be into sneakers?
Ari Yes, I remember going to Seers, 77 is the same year that Star Wars came out, and I remember going to Seers and stealing Star Wars stuff. And so this is the winner, which is basically like a Converse. So look, Gym Shoes made by Converse exclusively for Seers. But I remember shopping in Seers and I liked the colors, I remember this color ways they relly popped. But L.A. is on the fault out there right, and there’s a part of L.A. that has fucking tar bubbling up, just coming out of the ground in the middle of Hollywood.
Anyways, the point of that story is back then my dumbass run down there and got my fucking sneaker stuck “smack”! And If you step in tar, you not coming out of that shit, you’re fucking done. Whatever is there, stay there. So I lost a shoe in that motherfucker, and I remember going and getting it a new shoe after that. But that wasn’t it.
It was then around 77 or 78 someone told me I need to go get Vans. And so, they used to be called Van Doren back then because that’s the family’s name. So I went to the Van Doren store in the Valley, which is just outside of Hollywood, and they were just how they look now which is sneakers on the shelf, not very creative, but it was just a mile down the road from the factory. And so you go into the store and you choose the Era, and they had thes big rims, like swatches of material and colors and stuff. They would pull out a form and you say – “I want the era and I want this green, I want this purple, and this Hawaiian print, and I want checkers around here somewhere. And they go “ok, and how do you want the other shoe?”. The other shoe could be whatever I wanted to be, it did not have to match. Not like ID, but these things didn’t exist till the 2000s. These motherfuckers are doing since day one.
That was when I realize the value of a sneaker. I could make something that no one else had. And that to me was priceless. I made the order, and a couple of weeks later they call you up, “hey your order is ready”. Fuck!. One of one, my shoe. And I would always get mismatch. So I get like black red black and then red black red. Always.
“That was when I realize the value of a sneaker. I could make something that no one else had. And that to me was priceless. I made the order, and a couple of weeks later they call you up, “hey your order is ready”. Fuck!. One of one, my shoe. And I would always get mismatch. So I get like black red black and then red black red. Always.”
Before you did your sneaker you did some projects with Nike, right?
Ari I did the Air Force 2. It was Espo’s idea. We did the On The Go magazine together from 89 to 97, you know, that’s De La Soul and that’s Mobb Deep over there, Jay-Z, we worked with everybody. If you go to my website, there are pictures of early samples of the Air Force 2, but you gotta dig, there’s a bunch of shit in there that I’ve never seen on the internet.
But that Nike is a stiff rigid fucking company. Any company of that size is stiff and rigid you know? But I got introduced to Nike because I did work with ESPN for X-games. So I did 5 year of touring with X-games with my marketing company, we did like experiential stuff. And through that process I got introduced to Wieden and Kennedy. What Wieden and Kennedy is to Nike, what Coca Cola is to McDonalds. So anyways, there was really this process of getting into Wieden and Kennedy, who will always be the creative agency for Nike. And Kennedy was sort of this outside partner who had the green light from corporate, from Phil Knight and from Mark Parker. So they’re bringing me in for the alternative thinking for Nike, it wasn’t Nike bringing me in it was Wieden and Kennedy. And then getting approved by Portland.
So I was doing little things and big things, and then I did that big ass project. And then simultaneously my friend Steve was blowing up, and Nike came at him for first artist pack. It was him, Pharrell and Halle Berry together. And Steve is a ball buster, he don’t fuck around, he will not sell out for the check. And my interaction with Nike it was through Wieden and Kennedy so it was all great. His interaction as a creative was okay but there was a little bit of conflict there. And Nike is rigid and they really didn’t want to do something that crazy. We were like – “let us make an all clear dunk”, and that idea was smart as fuck,
We knew that real hood dudes on the block are kind of like republicans. They’re conservative, they’re rigid, they don’t like change, they don’t want to do anything that they don’t want to. So Steve knew this was going to be something really crazy. And they wanted him to be crazy. But they wouldn’t let us touch the Dunk or the Air Force 1. So in Phili, we just liked the Air Force 2, but people don’t seem to gravitate to it, but it’s a smart shoe. And he was like “I wanted to be clear” and they were like “no we can’t do it”. So they were taking clear materials and putting mesh behind on anything to try and reinforce it. And Steve, to his credit, just kept pushing. He was like “what do you mean won’t work? In the 70s we had clear gummies and shoes, they sewed vinyl over couches”. But eventually, it took a long time and it got there. A whole shoe couldn’t be clear because they just insisted it wouldn’t hold up construction wise, which is bullshit.
So when they did that, Pharrell was already phasing out of Nike, so he just phoned in all black dunk with a NERD Brand on it, and Halle Berry did a purple pinkish kind of Nike Rift. But Espo shit sold out before Pharrell and Halle Berry, which was crazy for this obscure artist to sell out before the stars, you know.
And it was a tough process working through that, which showed what it could be done. And then it became an issue when it came time to do it again because it sold out, and a ton of money was made for charity, it was really a good thing. And they came back to Steve, and Steve was like “ok, now put the real budget up and let’s go really help some people, let’s do something, let’s make chip for some kids in the projects, let’s do something!”. And let me be clear and make sure that you translate this, I don’t believe this to be the philosophy of Nike, I believe that maintaining a corporation requires a certain amount of conservatism, it’s just the nature of that beast. And you can be pretty creative with it I think, corporations of that level Nike and Apple and those types of corporation had been creative. And I think Apple does a pretty good job. We can bashe them all day because of their size they are doing all types of horrible stuff.
But I think that if Mark Parker and Phil Night were my friends, and we were in my apartment, I think I could sell them on anything, and they would top down dictate. But that’s not how these things work, so I think that Nike is capable of creative stuff, and I think Virgil has shown that, I think they have loosen up, and there are some of those things happening. They are allowing the logo to be twisted and moved around, which is corporate blasphemy, you don’t do that in any corporation. And so Kudos to Nike for starting to feel that but it is the people in the path of progress that are afraid of their jobs or afraid to do anything that hasn’t been done really.
So, Steve was asking to do something that was really out of their comfort zone and they just wanted to do more colorways. I think when you come at them with concept it’s scary. And I suppose Steve was coming at them with concept. And so going through that process, working with Nike and going through the Air Force 2 process with him, I was the sneaker guy, he was the artist, you know? We really collaborated in that way. And then him trying to move onward and do bigger shit and not just another colorway. To me, I got frustrated with that process, I got frustrated at my clients, I got frustrated working anti tobacco, working with tobacco, working with alcohol. It was the same nonsense, the same rigidity in everything that I did. And so that was the catalyst for the Menthols.
And how did you come up with the Menthols?
Ari Here was this ideal that the parody, the pun is the Swoosh turned upside down. So if you just a numb skull that’s what you notice. I had a conversation with somebody and I realized the pun was the first thing. Which was interesting but I was only thinking american, even if you didn’t grow up in the hood you probably seen NewPort at some point, even back then, you would have known: “oh! Ha ha ha! I get it, it is like the Newport thing”. If you grew up in the suburbs you seen it. But when I talked to people abroad, like yourselves, you’ve been around sneakers long enough, and graffiti and hip hop and stuff, it’s very easy for you to go “that’s corny man”. And you’re right. That is corny. It is corny just to turn the fucking swoosh upside down and be like “ooh”.
But you don’t know New Port. And you don’t know what New Port has done in the hood. And you don’t know how they advertise. You don’t know how Nike advertises the same way. And you don’t know how 70% of Nike’s business was represented through Foot Locker. And Foot Locker did their own advertising, not Nike. Nike gives them money towards that and stuff. You see, Foot Locker loved advertising in the first and on the fifteenth and you just know that’s payday right? But that’s when the poor people in America get the check from the government. Advertising on the first and the fifteenth is devious… Is devious! Trying to uproute people’s money that is important to their lives for commercial shit. So that means some kid didn’t get, formula, some kid didn’t get pampers. Some kid didn’t even get the fucking child support money, because my man over here, had to get Jordans. That’s not my call to tell him what to do. But sure enough it is my fucking job to tell the corporation what to do. Because that’s a collective conscious. Us together, anyone of us can be ignorant, together we should be thinking a little better because we bouncing of each other.
I’m against smoking, I’m against drinking to be honest with you. If it was up to me fucking alcohol and tobacco would be banned. I know that’s not real. But that’s just me, because I think that those are the real parasites of any community, even rich communities. But that’s me, and that’s me living in a fantasy world. But for me there’s just that, let’s turn the Swoosh upside down then I can say, this is why, Nike, New Port, the mark, the fact that one of them owns it and the other one doesn’t but they both share it. The fact that when you own a mark you own the category. So when I say Nike does apparel. That means that New Port can’t do apparel, unless they’re allowed. Unless Nike allows them. Now they not gonna fight each other and they probably both going to win or lose. I’m probably wrong in many ways about that. But they serve me to the same thing. I think if they really wanted to fight, if somebody said I’m putting a billion dollars on this shit, you gonna stop using that mark, then they go for it. That’s just me, it’s not a conspiracy. So it’s just a conversation. And that’s the concept, right?
Then there is the anti tobacco thing, saying to people that there is no value to this, in the shoe, that this is a piece of trash. The value is what I put into it. It’s what I’ve given it with my hard work. But it’s ridiculous that I can’t control that aftermark, and I can’t control the things that happen with it, and so someone can have this thing that makes me so happy and put it in such a bad place. To hurt their family, to hurt themselves, make themselves look stupid. Because you can look cool to one person and look stupid to another person. We all live in this hypocrisy right? And to me this shoe encompassates so many things for that reason, and working with Nike is just rigid, I was never going to be able to do that. It would have been a dream for me to work with them again but I had to decide to never work with Nike again. And, you can clearly tell that I love Nike. I knew that there would be value in being the one person.
“I’m not gonna do something if I’m not saying something. I’m just not gonna do it. And so for me I was like, well I can be the guy that’s like everybody else and hope to make a colorway someday with my heros, I’ve done that and doesn’t seem to be too impressive, I’m gonna be a bad guy, I’m going to put the scope on my chest.”
It’s ghetto fabulous. I want to wear this. I wanted to say something. And I’m not gonna do something if I’m not saying something. I’m just not gonna do it. And so for me I was like, well I can be the guy that’s like everybody else and hope to make a colorway someday with my heros, I’ve done that and doesn’t seem to be too impressive, I’m gonna be a bad guy, I’m going to put the scope on my chest. And honestly, I would work with Nike again. I really would, but it would have to be in some real mutual terms. Since they’ve done this stuff with Kaepernick, since they’ve done stuff into upturning their logo with Virgil, I think there is room for them to move forward.
I would like to work with Vans. They were the first ones to impress me. I would love to work with Nigo just because I appreciate him doing it before me. If there is no Nigo, there would be no me. Nigo owes Nike a check and Nike owes Nigo a check. They made each other a lot of fucking money and he opened up the eyes of Nike and forced them to be more creative, even though they’ll never admit it. For me, working with Nike, working with anything it has to have the message and there has to be some flexibility, I’m not gonna do a colorway, It’s just not enough money in it, so I can have some 17 year old pat me in the back. I’m trying to bring them up to me. Not have them bring me down to them.
And it took somebody I think like Nigo to change something, and maybe a guy so powerful like Virgil Abloh, that he can dictate trends in companies that wouldn’t even give a second thought. And so, maybe because these companies started kind of liberal at their core they have some flexibility.
Tell us a little bit about the creation process?
Ari The point is, a pun is cheap. It’s a good laugh but it’s a cheap laugh. You know how like you say the pun 3 or 4 times it’s just not funny anymore. But a good joke, a good thoughtful joke you repeat is timeless, it’s endless. But that’s not good enough, it had to have purpose, then I started to think what can I do, and I thought this vehicle will work for that. But is a sneaker the best way? Well, yeah because I know that I can land in importance and value to the sneaker, I know the community well. The community love sneakers.
Contacting some factories, that’s the easy part, it takes time, but that’s the easy part. Because everyone can contact the factory, anybody can have a good idea. I mean it’s a bootleg, anybody could make a bootleg. I just got there first. But would they have done with the depth and the purpose and the meaning? No.
Before streetwear was craze, I used to do shit like that and if you don’t like my shit, you can not like my shit, but you can’t discredit my shit. Point anything in the shoe and I will tell you why. For example, this dude in the picture was actually drugged up face down on ground. I had originally positioned this way but then I saw this dude and I was like “oh yeah” turn it that way, because it says – indulge yourself – and he is fucking fully indulged and no one pick that up. And that dude was face down knocked up for an hour like that.
So this guy payed all this money for this fucking shoes and he is just happy, he is hyped up, hype beast up, but then he doesn’t have money, he is so uneducated, he is fucking eating crappy food, and he doesn’t have much money, cat food, dog food, cigarettes on this shit because he is ignorant. So, in his mind he is the fucking man, but everything around him is just pathetic. So is indulge yourself. After all, if you are not gonna binge, why bother?
It’s pretty sick. Kids hit me up like – “I’m saving up” – like 16 year old kids. The first thing I say is don’t fucking buy these goddamn shoes, what’s wrong with you? If you got fuck you money and your parents are rich, by all means then, have at it. I don’t wanna stop your flow. But if you are saving money, don’t do it.
And why did you pick the Air Force 1?
Ari If you’ve been following my Instagram or any of that sort of stuff, you would see that the first choice was the Air Max 90, but it was gonna cost too much and that air technology is patented, and so they have to fake it. And the Air Force 1 was the right vehicle, the right silhouette, at the time they were hot, BAPE was hot, and I knew that if I wanted people to pay attention to the message, to the idea, to the dialogue had to be that.
“It’s pretty sick. Kids hit me up like – “I’m saving up” – like 16 year old kids. The first thing I say is don’t fucking buy these goddamn shoes, what’s wrong with you? If you got fuck you money and your parents are rich, by all means then, have at it. I don’t wanna stop your flow. But if you are saving money, don’t do it.”
Where did they sell? And how did you get the word out that you were dropping these shoes?
Ari I sold them at ALife, at Rivington Club which was the pinnacle of sneakers boutiques at the time and still is the most handsome sneaker boutique that has ever been made. I did a drop, kids slept out for 2 days in line and it sold out. It was amazing, the whole thing was a lot of fun.
Back then everybody wanted to be BAPE. And I knew the BAPE dudes and I wasn’t trying to be BAPE, I was seeing the lane that Nigo opened up to me to be subversive. There was this one super legitimate forum called NikeTalk. And that was the authority back then, they were like the snobs of snobs. They were all kind of sports dudes, so I came in sneakers from a different viewpoint, but the thing was I had done the magazine and the magazine was legitimate as fuck, so I knew I had the legitimacy, if the shoe didn’t. Then I gave an exclusively to my boy for his website and he did the feature and within a couple of weeks everybody knew about it.