You’ll see it in any city, no matter how large or small. You’ll see it from the car ride home or on a casual stroll around your neighborhood. Hanging from millions of power lines across the country is a pair of shoes with laces tied together strung up from the power lines.
You might think nothing of it, but isn’t it weird how this is such a common phenomenon? It’s enough to make someone ask just how the heck those shoes got to be where they are.
What is Shoe Tossing?
Shoe tossing, also known as shoe flinging or shoe-throwing, is when someone ties the laces of a pair of shoes together and throws them over a telephone wire or power line. Shoes can be thrown over trees and fences, but they’re mostly seen on power or telephone lines.
Despite being incredibly common, there is no apparent reason explaining why the shoes end up where they do. The shoes could symbolize local culture or tradition, or other things.
The Documentary Uncovering Some Truth
The documentary The Mystery of Flying Kicks researches why, across the world, so many sneakers hang from power lines. The film used the volunteered phone calls, film footage, and photos from people all around the globe to explain why people fling sneakers.
There has never been one definitive answer, and reasons change depending on the country, but a few themes have popped up.
Celebrating Losing Your Virginity
One caller from Sydney, Australia, said that when a male teenagers loses their virginity, they tie the laces together and fling his sneakers up on a telephone line. Thus, the shoes celebrate the momentous occasion in the young man’s life.
Perhaps the permanence of losing your shoes forever to the telephone lines is comparable to the permanent change one undergoes when losing their virginity — once it’s lost, you can never get it back.
Another explanation of why shoes land on telephone lines is due to immature power dynamics. A bully will take the victim’s shoes, tie the laces together, and throw the shoes over the power line so that the victim can’t reach their shoes. The victim not only loses their shoes forever, but they also have to walk home without footwear.
The walk home without shoes is like a walk of shame signaling to passersby that the victim just had their shoes taken from them. Otherwise, why else would someone walk home without shoes? The bully feels victorious, and the victim has a reminder every time they walk past their shoes of the power dynamic they could not overcome.
The caller who offered up this explanation didn’t tie it down to a geographic location. Theoretically, any bully on any continent can fling their victim’s shoes over a telephone line.
Message to the Police
Jose from Madrid, Spain, said that when you see shoes flung upon the power lines in the city, it’s a message from the Mafia. The organization tells the police to stay out of the neighborhood, most likely as a warning that the Mafia will harm the police should the cops poke around too much.
According to the caller, “It’s like a gentleman’s agreement between the criminal gangs and the authorities.” The gang subtly tells the police to stay away and not bust their crime operations, and the cops avoid potentially deadly force from the criminals.
The message is clear to anyone — the more shoes you see on the power lines in a neighborhood, the more you need to stay away from it.
One of the most common explanations for why people throw their shoes over power lines is due to drug-related activity. It’s a common rumor that if you see shoes hanging on the telephone lines, there are most likely drug deals happening in that neighborhood.
When that idea is put up to scrutiny, though, holes appear in the logic. To paraphrase the caller from The Mystery of Flying Kicks, it’s not like you can see a pair of shoes hanging on a power line and knock on a house. The cops could figure that out too.
So do the shoes represent that, in general, there are drugs in the neighborhood, and, should you want drugs, you should stick around that place until you find the right person? Maybe. But with so much ambiguity for high-risk behavior, it’s unlikely that the shoes could practically tell you where to buy drugs in around the community.
Mark Gang Territory
One caller from New York City, United States of America, explains the reasons for hanging shoes as related to gangs marking their territory.
Each gang would be affiliated with a color. According to the caller, the Decepticons gang were purple and gold, so if you saw purple and gold shoes hanging from the lines, you knew you were in the Decepticon gang’s territory. If you were a rival gang member, this meant you could be in a lot of trouble if one of the opposing gang members saw you.
Gangs can’t use clear signage to signal to everywhere where they operate because, as with the drug examples, the police could figure that out too. But with the eerie, silent vision of shoes swinging ghost-like on the power lines, you know you weren’t where you should be — no matter your gang affiliation (unless you’re in the gang, of course).
A caller from Los Angeles describes an anecdote in which he saw a bunch of shoes hanging in a cluster from a power line. The caller says he asked his friend why the shoes were up there, and the friend said that the shoes belonged to local gang members who were shot. Some of the shoes even still had blood on them.
The surviving gang members hung up the shoes and threw them over the power lines as a way to remember those they had lost.
Alternative Graffiti — Shoefiti
It’s incredibly difficult and dangerous to remove shoes once they’ve been tossed over a power line. Therefore, once the shoes are up there, they rarely come back down. They become a permanent fixture in the are, like graffiti.
Therefore, according to one interviewee for the documentary, those who seek to vandalize an area opt for the softer approach than graffiti. They toss a pair of shoes over a power line and leave their mark on the city. The shoes are a way to say that you were there and that you accomplished something — like with the celebration of newly lost virginity in Australia.
Shoefiti is often said to have the same effect on a neighborhood as graffiti, so communities hoping to keep a particular image have cracked down on shoefiti and prosecuted those who throw their shoes over power lines, according to the documentary.
While graffiti artists chafe against the idea of shoefiti having the same artistic representation as their paint, the concept of shoefiti still holds. People want to leave their mark. If they don’t have any paint, their shoes will do instead.
Instead of a way to mark territory, some artists use shoes and power lines as a way to create art. Some performance artists made artistic, two-dimensional appearing shoes and hung them around the various cities in the world, such as New York City, London, places in South Africa, and more.
The artists enjoy the aesthetic of the hanging shows, the transgression of hanging them, and the actual act of throwing shoes up and watching them bounce around on the telephone wire, caught in their new home.
It’s possible to take a widely-seen yet still misunderstood urban phenomenon and put an artistic spin on it. If you’re in New York City, you could even see one of the 2,500 art shoes some artists hung up.
Perhaps some people throw their shoes onto power lines because they saw someone else do it. Replication of something for its own sake is the hallmark of a meme. If you’ve spent five minutes on the internet, you’ve most likely seen a popular meme, like Charlie Bit My Finger or Double Rainbow.
But memes existed before the digital era. There was “Kilroy was here” around the 1930s, for example, which people saw and replicated around towns and homes across the world.
When someone sees shoes on a power line, they might want to throw their old pair of shoes just for the fun of it, to replicate the meme. There might be no gangs in the region, no need to celebrate the loss of virginity, no place to buy drugs nearby. Merely the pleasure of replicating someone else’s idea on your terms.
“People do it because they see it’s done, and people have done it because someone has done it before,” says an interviewee in The Mystery of Flying Kicks.
There’s also the fact that shoes hanging on a power line is a novel and disruptive site. There’s an edginess to it that invites you to look at it. When someone succeeds in throwing their shoes on power lines, it has an effect of “I made you look at what you’ve done,” which is another reason why someone would want to throw their shoes.
For Memory’s Sake
Outside of one restaurant in Australia, a documentary interviewee named Raj describes how, when people move or stop working at the restaurant he works in, they’ll hang up their shoes on a power line outside as a sort of memorabilia.
Another interviewee describes how he did a similar thing in New York City. He had a pair of sneakers he didn’t want to donate or throw away, so he hung them up on a power line on his usual route.
Whenever he passed by those sneakers, he’d be reminded of all the good times he had while wearing them. Where else could you mount your sneakers as public yet personal memorabilia?
The documentary describes another person who hung up his sneakers as a way to mark transitions in his life. He threw up a bunch of sneakers in 1991, about six or seven pairs, at a time when he was hustling in a gang. He looks back on them in 2009 and is struck by how different a person he is.
Leaving Your Mark
Professor Marcel Danesi says that tossing shoes satiate a long-standing human need — to be remembered, to show that we existed. Changing the physical space we occupy does that, whether it is some paint on a wall or leaving shoes on the telephone wire.
As with the restaurant workers leaving behind their shoes, as with the New York City men looking up and remembering their old shoes, the shoes only could have gotten up there if the owners tossed them up. In that way, the owner of the shoes made a lasting mark on their environment.
When strangers look upon the shoes, though they might not know who the owner was, they still see the owner’s mark. The shoes are evidence that they existed, which is enough for anyone to pick up an old pair of shoes and leave their mark.
What to Know When Tossing Shoes
You Could Hurt Someone Throwing Shoes
Be sure you have a good aim when throwing shoes. Otherwise, you could end up hurting someone by a misaimed sneaker landing where it shouldn’t. Shoes with thick rubber soles, in particular, could do damage to sensitive areas, such as the face or neck.
If you manage to land your shoes on the power line, but they don’t hinge themselves on the line correctly, they’re prone to falling. And since they’re high up, gravity combined with the hard rubber soles could harm someone if it falls on their head.
Therefore, if you decide to throw your shoes on a power line, practice your aim beforehand to ensure that the shoes not only land where they need to but that they’ll stay.
Retrieving Shoes is Dangerous
In the documentary, people from Minneapolis call themselves the “Shoe Watch” or “Shoefiti Watch” because they don’t like the connotation that hanging shoes give their neighborhood. The Shoe Watch would climb on their cars and, with sticks, retrieve the shoes hanging on the telephone lines.
In the documentary, the men use long wooden boards or even a lightsaber toy to get the shoes. However, being so close to an electrical line is dangerous. According to a significant electrical provider Georgia Power, a typical overhead power line runs 7,200 volts of electricity through the wire.
Accidentally touching the line could cause instantaneous death, as the electrical current in a power line is far too strong for the human body to handle. Even if you think the material you’re using does not conduct electricity, like plastic or wood, other factors could still allow the deadly voltage to reach your body, such as moisture collected on the surface of the item.
Another dangerous activity in retrieving thrown shoes is the potential for falling. Often, power lines are too high up for most people to reach. You’ll have to stand on a ladder or on the top of a car to get within reach of the shoes — even with a lightsaber in hand. If you slip, you could fall and hurt yourself or someone else below you.
If you decide to retrieve shoes that have been thrown over a power line, practice the utmost precaution. Use rubber gloves to protect your hands from an electrical current. Make sure you’re on a safe, even-grounded elevated platform to put yourself in reach of the shoes.
Check the weather conditions and ensure it hasn’t rained in your area, as rain not only makes the shoes more conductive to electricity but creates more slippery footing. You could not only fall but electrocute yourself in the process.
You Could Send the Wrong Message
Despite how little consensus there is behind why people throw their shoes onto power lines, most people assume that it’s because there is either drug or gang activity in the neighborhood. Not only that, but people could imagine there are bullies in the area who take their victims’ shoes and string them up on the telephone lines.
It may not be true — your neighborhood could be excellent — but the connotation behind shoes strung up on the power lines could send the wrong message to those passing through.
As you can see, there are lots of reasons why people throw shoes on power lines. It could be because of personal victories, drug or gang-related activity, an art piece, or a way to remember yourself or someone close to you. Now that you know these reasons, you’ll never look at shoes hanging on power lines again.
There’s a secret life to what’s behind shoes on power lines. If you decide to memorialize your shoes as well, practice the proper precautions, and make sure you do it safely and legally. You never know who could find your shoes, and what that person would think about them.