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How Miguel Ibarra’s BLM cleats came to be

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Getting the details from the man behind custom cleats in MLS.

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Ahead of the first game for the Seattle Sounders in the MLS is Back Tournament, social media was buzzing about the pair of cleats Miguel Ibarra would be wearing when he took the field.

Pink, with the declaration, “Black Lives Matter” emblazoned on the sides — along with other related phrases and imagery — the custom boots were a continuation of Ibarra’s efforts to use customized equipment to share the message. Prior to those cleats, Ibarra had commissioned shin guards that displayed some of the same images and phrases. The shin guards were such a hit that he got a pair for each player on the team. The anti-racist messaging of Ibarra’s gear is an important one, so it was cool to see the Sounders amplify that message in a piece discussing the cleats.

While the conversation around the cleats reasonably focused on the messages that they were being used to convey, another aspect largely seemed to go under the radar. Due to the strict nature of player sponsorship and shoe deals, it’s uncommon to see an MLS player in anything other than the latest models and colorways of whichever silo they prefer from their chosen brand, let alone a custom pair.

This is true to some extent for all sports, but the brands hold particular power in Major League Soccer, as Felipe Cardenas outlined for the Athletic in December. When there’s an opportunity for some creative freedom, though, that’s when someone like Parker Ballard steps in. Parker, the artist behind PJB Customs, is the person responsible for Ibarra’s BLM cleats.

Ibarra’s not the first person or athlete that Ballard has collaborated with, and each new project requires a different approach and process. “With Miguel, we had talked about a couple different concepts all centered around activism and social justice. In the end he decided he wanted to do a Black Lives Matter theme and he wanted to use some design elements from his Kings Pro shin guards.”

With a concept and some specific details nailed down, Ballard went about determining the layout, making sure each element was properly placed. Once everything was in place, Ballard started to add the small touches that elevate the design. “I also like to try to throw in little details in the background, so for Miguel’s pair I put some words like love and hope in the background. I also thought it would be cool to have the space needle on there, so we put a faint space needle on the heel behind his number and initials.”

The process

Custom sneakers require more than just coming up with a cool idea and design, they need a lot of work to make them a reality. Even more so for soccer cleats, which have to stand up to repeated use in a sport where the main activity is kicking. Describing the investment of time involved, Ballard explained that “on average I’d say about 12-16 hours. I do like to take my time though, so it can very easily take 20 hours for a pair.”

What exactly takes all that time? For starters, each pair has to be prepared by stripping them down to make a blank canvas. “Putting in the work to prep the cleats will ensure that the paint adheres well and doesn’t crack or peel. So I typically spend an hour to sometimes two hours sanding the cleats and then scrubbing them with acetone to remove any type of factory finish.”

The process can vary some from cleat to cleat, though, as different materials require their own unique process. Once the cleats are sanded and scrubbed, that’s when the design starts to come into play. “After that I will tape them up and hit them with a couple coats of adhesion promoter. I get the adhesion promoter from an auto parts store, so I think it is typically used to paint cars but it works well on cleats. After that I use a special acrylic paint made by Angelus Brand for shoes, and that’s where you really get to have fun and see the designs finally come to life after all the hard work sanding and scrubbing the cleats. Then when all the painting is finished I’ll apply a finisher for that last little bit of protection.”

The process doesn’t end when the paint dries for Ballard.

“The last thing I always do is shrink wrap my customs and that’s always a satisfying way to finish the process,” he said. “Then it is always a blast to see your work on ESPN, or to get pictures of people wearing your customs.”

That final touch and attention to detail provides an additional air of professionalism, and makes each pair seem that much more special. He also sends each pair that he does in a customized shoe box as well.

Ibarra isn’t the first MLS player that Ballard’s worked with, as his friend and former teammate Christian Ramirez has had customs from Ballard in the past. “Christian Ramirez found my work through hashtags. So he reached out and we’ve been able to do a couple of pairs together.”

As one could imagine, Ramirez is how Ibarra got connected with Ballard. “With him and Miguel [Ibarra] being so tight, Miguel saw the stuff I had done for Christian and we were able to link up and start collaborating on his pair.”

Origin story

With professional athletes in his client list and a wide range of products in his portfolio, how did Parker Ballard get started? His origin story starts in a place familiar to many a sneaker head or aspiring shoe designer with more time than money: Nike ID.

“Growing up I can remember my brother and I spending a lot of time on Nike ID customizing cleats we would never buy haha! Then in high school some friends and I made jerseys for our basketball team and I really enjoyed that whole process as well. So I think I’ve always been into designing and creating something unique. I wasn’t great at drawing freehand or painting though and so those are definitely skills I’ve had to work on and that I’m still trying to get better at.”

Designing cleats online or making basketball jerseys is one thing, but how he got started making custom cleats by hand is another. “The first pair I ever did was for my younger sister. She was having a really good junior year in track, so my parents bought her some nice sprinting spikes and some special spikes for long jump. The long jump spikes in her size only came in the rival high school colors though, so we watched some videos and ordered some purple paint to paint them Lehi Pioneer purple.”

From that first pair, Ballard was hooked. “I really enjoyed that little project and from there I ordered some more colors to play around on some old shoes I had. And after that it just ended up taking off.”

All about the details

While Parker Ballard enjoys making custom shoes and cleats, and getting to go through the process of collaboration and design as he works on cool projects, the pair of cleats he did with Ibarra had special meaning for him. Ballard wanted to be sure that people understand the importance of what he and Ibarra were trying to convey, so he shared this message:

“The reason Miguel’s custom cleats have been so popular is because of the message conveyed through the artwork. I always see the shoebox as a part of the custom, and a piece of art in its own right.

“To expand on the message of Miguel’s cleats I added a verse to the shoebox which reads: ‘Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God;’ from Doctrine and Covenants 18:10. I think we’d all do well to live each day knowing we are all brothers and sisters. Everyone we meet has great worth in God’s eyes and is deserving of our love and respect. The people in our lives (even the ones we meet in an elevator for 2 minutes) are brought into our lives for a reason, and more often than not they are fighting through some type of adversity that life has thrown their way. How much of a difference can we all make when we take the time to compliment instead of criticize, and to lift up those around us. We may never know the true impact that a few kind words may have. I really hope that when people see Miguel’s cleats, they are inspired to be familiar with all and to truly seek out ways to love and serve the people God has placed in their lives.”

To see more of Ballard’s work, you can check out his Instagram or even browse his shop at pjbcustoms.com