For more than 50 years, the Pinewood Derby has served as a rite of passage for young boys across the country. Each kid starts off with a kit containing a block of wood and four plastic wheels, then they get to go wild creating a car to race in the aforementioned race. For most kids, it’s just one of hundreds of after-school activities their parents throw them into so they can have a couple of fleeting hours of childless sanity. But for Bryce Wong, it was the first time he was dipping his toe into the pool of creativity and a peek at what was to come.
“When it comes down to applying some sort of creativity to something, projects have always been my favorite thing,” Wong says. “Pinewood Derby cars, school projects, painting skateboards, it’s always been a part of my life. There were some years my dad helped me [with my Pinewood Derby car] a little more than he should have, some years when he let me do a little more than I should have. One of them was modeled after my grandfather’s ’57 Chevy, and that’s my favorite one. It performed awfully, but it was a lot of fun to make.”
Wong grew up in a household of health care professionals—his father was a doctor, his mother an occupational therapist—but he never saw his life going in that direction. He found his career inspiration from a different family member. “I have one uncle who was always the quote/unquote cool uncle,” Wong recalls. “He dressed a little bit differently than my parents, he rode a motorcycle and he’s a graphic designer. He was the guiding inspiration on that. And my parents would say, ‘Yeah, your uncle does alright. It would be OK for you to go into art and design.’”
As a kid, Wong used to spend hours drawing silly little comic strips and throwing his creativity into projects like that beloved Pinewood Derby car. But it wasn’t until he immersed himself in the world of skating and street art that his passion was truly ignited. Seeing the way artists like Shepard Fairey, Banksy and Retna exploded on the scene changed everything.
“That was a huge thing to me,” Wong explains. “I was like, ‘Oh wow! Here are some people doing it not in a gallery, but doing it in this rogue way.’ Then seeing them turn their art into things like Obey. I thought that could be pretty cool, turning an art career into products. Then seeing people get that stuff tattooed, seeing people pay ridiculous amounts of money for pieces of art.
“And it was all happening because they were enjoying it,” he continues. “That was a big influence on me. I grew up in Orange County, it’s the most cookie-cutter, bland place in the world. Some of these beige walls could really use some art.”
When Wong left for college he found himself in a place that is the exact opposite of sunny Southern California—Cincinnati, Ohio. It was at the University of Cincinnati where he learned graphic design. But in between classes, he was hanging out with friends at tattoo shops and, eventually, learning how to tattoo.
“We were art kids being art kids, so somebody had a tattoo machine laying around,” he says. “We were all tattooing oranges and stupid crap like that. There were people who weren’t [doing oranges], but I’d seen enough of those ones coming out of our design studio to know that I shouldn’t let anybody tattoo me [laughs].”
Instead, he bounced around tattoo shops getting work done and connecting with tattooers. He’d show them some of the art that he was doing and they’d share some information about how to tattoo. Wong was getting a series of miniature apprenticeships and would soon be tattooing on his own. With a desire to take his art in so many different directions, not to mention his desire to work on creative projects, tattooing was never going to be his only focus.
During the pandemic, Wong stopped tattooing for a while. While he loves tattooing and doesn’t ever imagine a time when he would give it up completely, taking a break did wonders for his creativity. For instance, he’s been painting murals for the first time.
“Before this past year, I had never really painted a wall,” he explains. “And like with tattooing, being a new medium, there’s a lot to figure out. That’s part of the fun for me. I still love tattooing and I tattoo my friends, but stopping unlocked other avenues to be creative and I’m grateful for that time.”
As he was going to school, Wong imagined he’d graduate and end up as a graphic designer or a toy maker. It wasn’t until he saw a pair of Yeezy Red Octobers that he considered the possibility of working in footwear.
“Back then I was a hyper, hyper Kanye fan,” Wong recalls. “I thought this was the sickest thing ever. I’d never worn a shoe that looked like that, nor did I even know that shoes like that existed. I was like, ‘Damn, there are amazing molded textures, there’s artistry to it. The shoe itself is this whole vibe,’ and that set me off.”
There are a lot of aspects of shoe design that Wong finds intriguing, perhaps none more so than the challenge of finding a balance between art and functionality. Shoes can’t just look cool, a person has to actually be able to walk around in them, and in the case of the Nike SBs Wong designs, skate in them. Skate footwear has a history of throwing graphics all over the place, so he has the freedom to get wild.
One of Wong’s favorite shoes he’s worked on, the Nike SB Dunk Low Grateful Dead, is a true testament to how crazy he can go artistically without losing performance. The shoe comes in three different bright colorways, features the band’s iconic bear logo and a zip pocket to stash, well, whatever you want to stash. Oh, and we almost forgot, the shoe is covered in long fur reminiscent of shag carpeting.
“I wanted to make this crazy shoe that hearkens back to the historic model SB with a new spin,” he says. “I got to run graphics on it and pitch a bunch of different fun things. Making a shoe fuzzy is just hilarious. At the end of the day, that was just an art piece. I was making art for your feet.”
Wong has found that Nike is an incredibly creative place to work, but the irrefutable truth is that when you’re designing sneakers you’re creating something for mass consumption. An artist can’t get away with the same things they can when creating a mural or a tattoo or a custom skate deck. Sometimes in the process of creating a shoe Wong is told “no,” which can be an incredibly frustrating thing to hear for an artist. Instead of letting the restrictions of the gig get him down, Wong has found a way to have it all.
“When I first started at Nike, I slowed down on my art so I could put all of my creativity into Nike,” he explains. “What I found was that my creative abilities at work weren’t as sharp when I stopped doing stuff outside. Tattooing and street art is more outsidery and that’s the beauty of it. I go to work and I do my best to create crazy designs, sometimes I’m told ‘no.’ Then I go home and I draw whatever the hell I want and nobody can tell me ‘no’ except for myself.”
This philosophy has helped him find a way to balance all facets of his life. He gets to work on crazy shoe design projects, tattoo his friends and still paint trippy takes on icons like Felix the Cat. “I had a really good buddy who I would skate with, he was like, ‘Are you skating because you’re having a lot of fun or are you [still skating] because you’re afraid of what people will think of you?’” Wong recalls. “He’d say, ‘Only do this if you’re having fun, it’s only good if you’re having fun. And it clicked with me that that was how I wanted to treat my art, how I wanted to treat my life.”
Right now, Bryce Wong is having the time of his life letting his creativity run wild on a series of projects, exactly like he did all those years ago at the Pinewood Derby. Sounds like he’s got it all figured out.