Art has almost always been a major piece of Jaden Mitchell’s life.
His father, John, was an early inspiration — Mitchell, when he was young, would try to copy the assorted doodles he saw him do.
But as he grew older, Mitchell’s art interest progressed from sketching portraits to painting. And he wanted to make shoes his medium in particular.
“So one day I just decided to go for it,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, while a freshman at Bethel High in Hampton, pulled a pair of Vans out from his closet and used paint gifted by an aunt to perform his first shoe work.
And, with practice, Mitchell grew that hobby into a business, Jays Custom Kickz — using shoes as his canvas for custom designs for a variety of customers. That’s all while emerging as a talent on the track, too.
Mitchell followed his older brother, Johnathan, to VCU as a member of the Rams’ track & field team. While at VCU, his business has continued to grow, with former Rams basketball star Bones Hyland and Olympic runner Michael Cherry among his clients.
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More than that, though, painting and creating is a comforting outlet for Mitchell.
“It just takes my mind off of things that’s stressing me,” Mitchell said. “So art is something that I always fall back on.”
Since he began his business, while an upperclassman at Bethel, Mitchell estimates that he’s painted some 180 different pairs of shoes.
When he was a junior at Bethel, his father gave him an airbrush machine for Christmas. It was an upgrade from painting shoes with brushes, and it was a catalyst that pushed Mitchell to kick his art up a notch and begin to invest more into the craft.
Mitchell bought a cutout machine for creating stencils to use on various designs. And he posted his work on Instagram, which drew more eyes. He also bought business cards to pass out locally, back in Hampton.
“As I posted more, I got work from people all over the United States … And then I’d make shoes for some of my classmates [at Bethel], and they’d wear them,” said Mitchell, who considers fellow shoe artists Cory Bailey and Dillon DeJesus among his inspirations. “And people would see them and be like, ‘Oh, where did you get those from?’ And, ‘Who made them?’”
“And then they would tell them it was me. So, that was kind of cool, to get my artwork out there.”
Meanwhile, Mitchell followed his brother’s lead in track. He picked up the sport as a junior in high school.
Jonathan, who’s one year older, helped bring Mitchell up to speed.
“My brother kind of dragged me into track,” Mitchell said. “Like I was doing art behind the scenes of course. And I was always big on art. I wasn’t big on track until I saw my brother run in high school .”
At Bethel, Jonathan was a two-time All-American and a two-time indoor state champion in the 4×400-meter relay before he arrived at VCU in 2019. Mitchell, who placed third in the state in the indoor 500-meter dash as a senior at Bethel, arrived a year later.
Since, Mitchell said he’s reached out to people around VCU about his artwork. One of those people was former VCU basketball player KeShawn Curry.
“I wanted to do a pair for the basketball team,” Mitchell said. “Just to get myself out there a little bit and freestyle on one of their shoes. So I did his.”
Mitchell’s work caught the attention of Hyland. Hyland saw a pair of Black Lives Matter Air Force 1s that Mitchell made and contacted him requesting that design on a basketball shoe.
The pair Mitchell painted for Hyland featured the words “No Justice, No Peace” on one shoe and “I Can’t Breathe” and “Equality” on the other shoe.
Hyland wore the shoes for a time last season, a campaign during which he went on to win Atlantic 10 player of the year before he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets last July.
“They looked pretty sweet on court,” Mitchell said. “I think those were definitely a big game changer for me.”
Mitchell also did a design inspired by the artist KAWS on a pair of track spikes for Cherry. Cherry wore the spikes in competition, and set a personal record in the 400-meter dash. Cherry was also an Olympian in Tokyo, winning gold in the 4×400-meter dash with Team USA.
Recently, Mitchell painted a pair of Air Force 1s with a gold VCU design for VCU athletic trainer Joe Collins, to wear during the A-10 indoor track & field championships last month.
When a typical client reaches out to Mitchell, he usually secures the shoe for them — most often all white or all black Air Force 1s or Vans — and then freestyles the artwork based on a requested theme.
He may complete anywhere from two to nine pairs a month. The implementation of name, image and likeness policy last summer allowed him to monetize the business freely.
Away from the art, Mitchell, a sophomore, has registered a pair of top-three finishes in track, at George Mason’s Patriot Games, including third place with a personal best of 1:06.87 in the 500-meter dash last year and second place with a 52.59 in the 400-meter dash this past January.
He’s also an accounting major, something that can apply back to his business, which he plans to continue no matter what career path he ultimately chooses after college.
A leading aspiration Mitchell has for Jays Custom Kickz moving forward is to execute a shoe or cleat design for an entire collegiate team.
He’ll continue to chase expansion and bigger opportunities, a pair at a time — his own artistic escape.
“I can definitely say that’s always kept me balanced with whatever I’m doing in life,” Mitchell said. “Whether it’s too much schoolwork, or track has got my mind feeling heavy.
“I fall back on art and I just feel free.”