While most artists chose paper and canvas, Ben Towers opted for skin and leather.
For over a decade, Ben Towers has been a tattoo artist, leaving his mark on thousands of clients. “Understanding the magnitude of tattooing someone and that they’re going to live with it forever is a trip,” he says. Four years ago, he branched out and started designing a different form of wearable ― and less consequential ― art: customized footwear.
“The first two years, I didn’t take it too seriously,” he says. “Just a pair here and there for fun while learning as I went. But these past two years, I tried to turn it into something serious, and it picked up some steam and snowballed into a legitimate business for me. Now, it’s one of my main focuses.”
Towers tattoo two or three clients daily at Ink Gallery Tattoo Studio in Fairfield. At night, you can find him in his garage working on sneakers or cleats that he sells through online retailer Stadium Custom Kicks. “Both mediums are wearable but in different contexts,” he says. “The beauty is that every project is different, and every day is different, so things never go stale.”
Have you always been artistic?
I’ve always been relatively artistic. Both of my parents are artistic in their own right. I always got art supplies for birthdays and holidays throughout my childhood, and I assumed that’s what all kids got. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I noticed I was better than my peers. I never really took it too seriously. I would draw things that I was into at the time. Growing up in the ’90s and early 2000s, I was surrounded by eye-catching illustrations and artwork on skateboards, cartoons, comics, and pop culture. It wasn’t until I found tattooing that I realized I could make a viable living as an artist.
How did you get into tattooing?
Becoming a tattoo artist happened very organically. After high school, I had one tattoo (maybe two), but I was always fascinated with the culture and history of tattooing, so whenever my friends got tattooed, I’d want to tag along to watch and ask questions. My parents and brother went to college, and I assumed that that was the natural progression so that I would do the same.
But I wasn’t entirely passionate about any of my classes, and I didn’t have a career in mind to pursue. It became apparent that I was more passionate about tattoos and learning how to tattoo than anything I learned in college, so I dropped out. I figured I was young enough to give it a shot, and if I fail, I can figure something else out. My parents were highly supportive, even though they knew little about the industry.
I started hanging around at shops and drawing with tattooers to hone my skills. A lot of tattooers can be secretive about the trade. It’s considered sacred to some purists, and not everyone should be in the inner circle. I tried to pay my dues to earn my keep by doing grunt work, and I was able to get an apprenticeship at a local shop through a close friend of mine who was dating a tattoo artist at the time (they’re now married and best friends to my wife and me). Fast forward ten years, and here we are.
What was the first tattoo you ever did?
The first tattoo I ever did was a music note on myself. It is small enough and seemingly simple enough. Growing up in a musically focused family seemed fitting, but it was so poorly done I have since gotten it laser-removed!
How did you start customizing sneakers?
I’ve always been into sneaker culture. I’m just a jeans and T-shirt guy, whether at home, at work, or out at a ballgame. I’m simple that way. But your sneakers can set the tone for your whole look. Sneakers are the first thing I notice in people. I’ve always believed that you spend most of your life either in bed or on your feet. So, there are two things to invest in: comfortable pillows and excellent footwear.
I started customizing sneakers as a fun hobby, figuring I could add little logos or patterns to shoes or repair a scuffed or damaged sneaker. As I gained more knowledge on the process, I learned how to accomplish more complex designs and make the sneakers more durable. I then started taking it more seriously, and some of my tattoo clients were ordering custom sneakers from me.
My goal was to climb the ladder and do a pair of sneakers or cleats for a professional athlete. It would be cool to have my artwork eternalized in sports history. I have a habit of romanticizing sports. Eventually, I did a pair for Ryan Lavarnway, an MLB journeyman, Olympian, and World Baseball Classic competitor. Word of mouth travels fast, leading to a whole run of orders. That’s when I linked up with Stadium Custom Kicks.
What are Stadium Custom Kicks?
Stadium Custom Kicks is a group of the world’s best sneaker and cleat customizers. I’m very humbled and honored to be a part of the movement. The founder of Stadium Custom Kicks, Alex Katz, started customizing cleats while playing in the White Sox organization. It then grew to do a few pairs for teammates, which snowballed until it grew. Stadium Custom Kicks designs sneakers and cleats for people all over, from all walks of life, but what’s most exciting for me is the amount of MLB, NBA, NFL, and college athletes that order customs through Stadium Custom Kicks. Stadium Custom Kicks has done cleats for players in the MLB All-Star Game, World Series, College World Series, the Super Bowl, and everything in between. And the beauty is anyone can order a pair, whether predesigned on the website or completely custom, from soup to nuts.
Do you prefer one medium to the other?
I like both tattooing and working on sneakers in their own way. The methods and techniques are incredibly different. Working on skin with sweat and blood while it’s attached to a person with feelings and emotions is a wild experience. Some are more meaningful than others, but a little more soul is involved, whereas working on sneakers is more like fashion to me. Tattoos have a sense of permanency, so my clients might be nervous or have emotions tethered to the design, while sneakers are a way to express yourself. If you get bored with them, you can kick them off and move on to the next pair.
What are some of the challenges you face with each medium? How long does a typical tattoo and sneaker design take?
After a long while, the most significant challenge I’ve overcome is the fear of making mistakes. I am now confident that mistakes are fixable 99.9% of the time. Tattoos can be challenging because every skin tone is different. Some skin is looser or tighter, and some are dryer or oilier. I think a big misconception is people assume tattooing is just like drawing on skin, but there’s so much science to understand about the skin and how it reacts and to not damage the skin while working. There’s a lot to think about.
The challenge with sneakers is you’re working on a smaller scale. You can stain the material in areas you don’t mean to, rip or fray the seams or stitching if you aren’t careful, and there’s a lot of value in the prep work to ensure your job is applied correctly and is durable.
Some projects are more straightforward than others. I’ve done tattoos that take five minutes. I’ve also done tattoos that take more than 20 hours. One of my most significant accomplishments is that I tattooed a client three days in a row at the Atlantic City Tattoo Convention. We did a leg sleeve in about 18-20 hours, and I took home “Best of Show.” Sneakers can take anywhere from two to 10 hours, depending on how complex the job is.
What are some of your favorite tattoos and sneakers that you designed?
I like staying versatile in both fields, not pigeoning myself into one style. So my answer changes daily, but one of my favorite pieces of my career is a blue jay I did on my wife (girlfriend at the time). It was for her late grandmother, whom I’d never met. It meant a lot to her and her family, but it was also an incredible moment for me to give that to her. I try to keep that sentiment for every tattoo I do. I can do a simple tattoo on someone, not think much of it, and potentially never see that client again. But to them, it’s the most critical tattoo in the world. So, I treat every tattoo as if it’s my favorite.
My favorite sneaker was the pair I did for Ryan Lavarnway that I mentioned earlier. It was equipped with his jersey number, the Israeli team logo for the World Baseball Classic, team colors, and a satirical mascot on the heel. It was fantastic to provide that for a baseball player with such an illustrious career, but even more so to give a wearable keepsake for a tournament where he was representing his nation. And the fact that that pair was the catalyst for me to join Stadium Custom Kicks was the icing on the cake.
Who would your dream clients be for a tattoo and custom sneakers?
My dream clients are always the few who are willing to collaborate. I toe the line of understanding that I’m a professional and may know what is best, but my clients also have to wear it moving forward. So I prefer when there is a give and take to come up with the best design where both the client and I feel the most fulfilled. But as far as picking a specific person, I’d love to make a pair of cleats for Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. He’s one of the greatest players to play the game of baseball, but also, being a New Jersey native, it’s a cool thing to share with him. I’d also love the opportunity to tattoo him as well.
What does a typical day in your week look like?
Being an artist is a 24/7 thing. It’s not the lifestyle where you can punch in, work eight hours, punch out, and just shut your brain off. My gears are always turning. I’m always thinking of the next move or the next goal to chase. I’ve struggled with a work-life balance because you must fully immerse yourself in whatever you do to stay at the top of your game.
With that being said, a typical day is waking up and checking my emails and social media to make sure all my clients are answered and accounted for. I then ensure I finish my drawings and pull whatever references I need for my appointments that day. Then, I take care of whatever stuff I need to do around the house and try to write a little bit by sifting through whatever thoughts or ideas I had the night before. Then I head to the tattoo shop to tattoo all day. I’m big on podcasts, so I’ll listen to podcasts on my commute home. Then I spend some time with my wife. After she goes to bed, I go in the garage and work on sneakers or cleats until I can’t keep my eyes open.
On weekends, I try to separate business from pleasure, and my wife and I make it a point to hike, walk, and be outside. I play a lot of golf; I’m an avid cigar smoker, and friends and family are most important to me, so I make it a point to carve out time for all that. My wife and I have a daughter on the way, so I’m sure my days and nights will drastically change for the better.
What are some of your favorite things to do in Bergen?
As a comedy fan, we frequent Bananas comedy club in Hasbrouck Heights. My favorite golf course to play is River Vale Country Club. My wife and I are big eaters. We’re both Italian and constantly trying new restaurants and bars. Right now, our favorite Italian restaurant is Dimora in Norwood. We also love Granita Grille in Westwood.
My next move is to keep the train moving. Part of being an artist is never to be satisfied. I’m always trying to get better at tattooing; things with Stadium Custom Kicks are only going up from here as I hope to make new and exciting pairs. I hope to stay involved with my interests by using art as a springboard. And I hope to be my best dad once my daughter arrives.
Anything else you would like to add?
The biggest thing I want to add is how anything is possible. I grew up in a rural, middle-class town with little to do. No one famous ever came from Vernon. So, I always assumed you needed to grow up in New York City or Los Angeles to become a celebrity. But I kept pursuing my passions and never underestimated the value of hard work. My parents are driven and motivated people who put love and family first. So, whatever I was into, I’ve always gone all in, and it’s made me realize how obtainable things are if you care enough to make it happen. Where you come from doesn’t define you, but the direction you’re heading in does, and I’m proud of my path.
Get to know Ben Towers
I grew up in Vernon Sussex County, a rural area with little to do. So, my brother and I were forced to be creative, play outside, build stuff, and think outside the box, which led me to explore different artistic mediums. I wouldn’t trade my childhood for the world.
Currently, I live in Old Tappan. Bergen County is rich in culture, and being within arm’s reach of Manhattan, there has been so much artistic influence for me.
Recognition & Awards Thankfully, early in my career as a tattoo artist, I could travel and work at several conventions and expos. I’ve amassed nearly 50 awards for various tattoo styles from places nationwide, including Miami, Chicago, Washington State, and all over the tri-state area.
Future Aspirations: I’m notoriously a serial obsessive, meaning when I get into something, I get REALLY into something. Sometimes, they’re just phases, and other times, they stick, so who knows what I’ll obsess over in the future, but one of the constants is comic books. One of my early inspirations was comic books and superheroes, and I’ve been slowly chipping away at a comic book of my own that I hope to get published someday. Along with writing the comic book, I also do a lot of general writing. I’ve been working on a comedic memoir to give lighthearted insight into the tattoo-world culture, with funny anecdotes and inside information on a typically taboo scene. I also regularly write stand-up comedy material. Until now, I haven’t had much time to commit to it, but I hope to have it be a regular staple in my life someday.