Vibrant pastel colors and cartoon drawings on a once-clean pair of Air Force 1s: they’re definitely not sneakers you can buy at the mall. A labor of love, time, and a whole lot of paint, Henry Dunkelberger, MCAS ’20, created his own business selling sneakers with custom artwork that are as funky and cool as he is.
His shaggy hair and stacked silver rings are emblematic of how his art comes together—effortlessly, simultaneously disheveled and put together––and the origins of his creations have just as spontaneous a story.
“Right before junior year of college [my friend] asked me to paint a pair of Nikes for him,” Dunkelberger said. “I just, like, didn’t exactly know how it was going to turn out, but he basically just gave me, like, the freedom to do whatever I wanted on his shoes.”
And with a single pair of custom painted shoes, Dunkelberger’s art was out on Boston College’s campus like it hadn’t been before. By creating a truly unique product for one of his friends, Dunkelberger essentially marketed his art and a new product for free, and the response was more than positive. To date, Dunkelberger estimates that he’s completed about 30 sneaker commissions, and many of them can be seen around campus.
Dunkelberger’s first pairs were simply painted in vibrant colors. They were different from the variety of plain white sneakers typically spotted around BC’s campus—a homogenous jumble of Adidas Stan Smith sneakers, Reeboks, and Superga platforms. But his original idea to only paint the sneakers could have been done by anyone.
“Once I started to add the drawings on top, [the sneakers] had this whole, like, other dimension that looked … more reflective of my own art,” Dunkelberger said.
The high demand isn’t for shoes that go with every outfit or make kids look “normal.” Clients want a new take on the frequently worn and recently revived Nike Air Force 1s, originally all-white, but now decorated with Dunkelberger’s signature touch—his drawings.
Including the sneaker, Dunkelberger charges $210 per pair. And although his paintings and sneaker orders typically don’t stray far from his own artistic style, Dunkelberger occasionally receives orders asking for a theme.
He created a BC-themed pair of sneakers complete with White Claw cans, St. Ignatius, and a sketch of University President William P. Leahy, S.J., on the big toe. But, his price won’t stay flat for long. Per pair of sneakers, Dunkelberger typically spends around six to eight hours.
“I don’t really have, like, exactly tons of time because of school work,” Dunkelberger said. “But right now, it’s not really about making money … Right now it’s more about getting my artwork out there. And I feel like shoes are a great way to do that.”
Dunkelberger’s sketchbooks are filled with drawings reminiscent of boredom-driven doodles found inside notebook margins and cartoon television animation.
Dunkelberger sometimes takes one of his drawings and uses it as inspiration for his larger canvas paintings. As for color, he prefers not to plan. He describes his paintings as random, going with his own flow and painting as he pleases. Still, Dunkelberger manages to create cohesive art with little deliberation beforehand—his paintings come together to form characters in his own artistic universe.
“If you were to look at a painting of mine, it would feel like it could exist on its own, like in a, in a world,” Dunkelberger said. “It has, like, a cohesive style and, like, a uniformity to the palette.”
Myles Asante, CSOM ’20, has watched Dunkelberger’s creative process since the beginning. The two met during the first week of their freshman year and clicked—both share a passion for arts, music, and fashion.
Whether it was blasting rap music or talking about up-and-coming clothing brands or creative directors they thought would be the next big thing—they knew about Virgil Abloh before he made it big—Dunkelberger and Asante fostered their friendship with creativity on a college campus that is notoriously uniform. Asante was exposed to Dunkelberger’s penchant for doodling and creating art not long after just becoming friends.
“Freshman year he wasn’t even doing canvases, he was literally just doing doodles on his wall,” Asante said. “So it literally just started from that type of inspiration. Like he’s always had a doodle book, always had a sketchbook, so it’s just really cool to see his process go down like that.”
Asante went on to describe the “wall” that he remembers Dunkelberger sketching the faces of his friends on. The wall, which Asante recalls as really more of a block of blank drawing space, was eventually filled with small caricatures of Dunkelberger’s friends during his freshman year.
These small doodles that later led to Dunkelberger’s larger pieces were truly the start of his artistic career. He grew up around art and creativity, but whereas most artists realize their skills or hone their craft at a younger age, Dunkelberger did not start actively pursuing art until the end of his sophomore year of college after he watched The Radiant Child, a documentary about Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late graffiti artist who painted the streets of New York’s Lower East Side in its punk heyday of the 1970s and whose 1982 painting of a skull fetched $110 million at Sotheby’s in 2017.
Dunkelberger’s mother was an art teacher for the local elementary school he attended, the Potomac School in McLean, Va., shaping the creative environment in which he grew up in and reeling him in when he was rowdy. As a child, Dunkelberger frequently misbehaved, and when he got to fifth grade and began taking his mother’s art class, his focus wasn’t necessarily on art.
“I don’t think that, like, my mom’s art class was really the catalyst for me becoming an artist. It was more like a fun like playground type of environment for me to, like, do what I want to do and then have suddenly more leniency because my mom was the teacher,” Dunkelberger said.
While the cliche narrative of young burgeoning artists would tend to begin with an art class that shaped a life-long passion, Dunkelberger’s story is less cut and dry. An English major, he has a self-proclaimed fear of maths and sciences, and, early on, he had aspirations to be a writer.
“I’ve always had the ambition to, like, do something that was sort of like of my own doing,” Dunkelberger said. “At first, it was writing where I felt like I could really carve out some sort of path for myself.”
But, if his growing custom sneaker business isn’t enough evidence, writing wasn’t what he was meant to do—it’s painting and drawing that makes Dunkelberger feel alive. He developed an artistic style all on his own, one that he had never seen before. His current artistic obsession: a figure he calls a separated head, in which the jaw is detached from the head of a character. While hard to qualify in words, these kinds of images currently flood his Instagram (@dunks_donuts), as well as his most recent sneaker commissions.
Dunkelberger isn’t stopping at sneakers, though. According to Asante, his friend has big plans to take his creativity to the next level. His next business venture? Clothing design. He plans to move to Washington D.C. following his graduation in May, a city close to his hometown in Bethesda, Md., and pursuing a career designing his own clothing brand—a venture very different from the gig he has going for himself now. Instead of creating made-to-order pieces, Dunkelberger plans to create capsule clothing collections with, say, 30 pieces he spent months designing and will release all at once.
“He can just keep on expanding like that, because people are falling in love with, like, Henry’s designs as a whole,” Asante said.
For Dunkelberger, the art gallery scene, an industry he described as “elitist,” isn’t really for him. Instead, he’s taking inspiration from one of his favorite clothing designers Austin Babbitt, more informally known as Asspizza on Instagram. Ideally, Dunkelberger sees himself creating clothing in a fashion inspired by Babbitt and moving away from made-to-order pieces in the future.
Dunkelberger’s style won’t only be found on sneakers, he hopes, and will evolve into wearable artwork on hoodies, shirts, hats, and other pieces of clothing. The possibilities are boundless in his universe of whimsy and color. With a grand total of just over 1,350 Instagram followers, Dunkelberger doesn’t yet match Babbitt’s 155,000, but he has time. New York Fashion Week may have just ended, but Dunkelberger is booked—with 40 clients on his waitlist and nine months to leave his mark on campus.