If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then a bootleg copy made in China must be the ultimate compliment.
That's how Rasta Geary Taylor sees it, at least. The St. Petersburg artist customizes shoes, hats, skateboards, furniture and more at his store, 1 of 1 Customs at 659 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg.
He recently showed off a pair of knockoff sneakers made in China that are a close replica of a pair of Nike Air Force 1 shoes he custom painted with the Statue of Liberty on the toe and the skyline of New York City on the side. Taylor sold the shoes for $350 to a Big Apple fan who later sold them for $800 on eBay. A counterfeiter in China must have spotted them on eBay and found a way to mass produce imitations with a blurry version of Taylor's artwork scanned on the side and toe. The knockoffs sell for $80 a pair online.
"I just wish I'd gotten some credit for it somewhere," Taylor said. "And they did sort of a bad job."
There is no way shoes made in mass quantities can come close to the detail and colors Taylor puts into his custom pieces that he spends up to 15 hours painting.
Sports themes are some of the most frequent requests. He can paint scenes with four players in action or a detailed picture of just one favorite. The Big City line is popular, too. Taylor has painted the skylines of Tampa and St. Petersburg, the Pier and Tropicana Field on hats, ties and shoes.
He opened 1 of 1 Customs about six months ago after the rent got too high in Tyrone Square Mall, where he ran a similar store called Rasta's Customs for two years. Since he started in the custom business, he has painted about 800 pairs of shoes, from sneakers to heels, 300 hats and plenty of skateboards, scooters, jeans, purses and dresses.
Prices range from $50 to $350 for items in the store. His starting price to custom paint an item a customer brings in to him is $40. Taylor uses at least four coats of paint designed to go on leather for his images, then seals them with an elaborate clear coat process.
Since moving to Central Avenue, he has gotten requests to paint more unusual images on a bigger variety of merchandise. He has put a pharaoh on a conch shell, a princess crown on a Sony Cybershot camera and lady bugs crawling through a tree on a Dooney & Bourke handbag.
"When customers want something really different, it helps me to be way more creative," he said.
The paint is barely dry on two baseball hats Taylor painted with pictures of Tropicana Field that a customer is giving to a couple who got married there. Between the rows of palm trees leading up to the stadium there is a small white sparkle on each hat to mark the spot where the couple said their vows.
"My mouth just dropped open when I saw (the hats) because they are so gorgeous," said Nancy Stevens, who is giving the hats to two friends who got married Oct. 10. "I just told him they got married at Tropicana, this is the date and these are the names and he took it from there. I have gotten some other things from Rasta and he does a great job on everything." She's asking him to paint the skyline of Chicago on two wine glasses for a gift for someone else.
The Rays are also a customer. The team commissioned Taylor and his business manager and protege Jesse Kiebzak to paint 75 baseball hats to give away to fans who purchased a blue Captain Morgan drink during a game last season.
"The hats were gone by the third inning. There was a huge line. The fans were getting a free $50 to $100 hat for buying a $9 drink," Taylor said. "We were on the big screen. It was great."
"He did some nice work for us for a brief time with our Captain Morgan promotion and we were pleased with the results," said Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn.
Taylor likes to speak at schools and other youth programs and let the kids have a hand at personalizing shoes or hats.
"I teach them they can have their own business one day by taking their talents and doing something," he said. "It gives them hope."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.