VALRICO — It began with a pair of worn Pony sneakers.
Joerod Collier of Riverview said the scuffed white leather was calling to him.
"I've always liked color and individuality," he said. "In middle school, I used to decorate my shoes with interchangeable Velcro pieces and match them to my outfits."
Then, during his junior year at Riverview High School, Collier spotted his first pair of painted sneakers. He was hooked.
"I thought, 'Wow. That's the ultimate way to be different, to express yourself,' " he said.
Canvas, leather and vinyl sneakers all worked as a medium.
Using inexpensive paints from Walmart, Collier began experimenting with painting his own sneakers.
"My first try wasn't successful," he said. "The paint began crackling. I finally found a special acrylic-based paint that would adhere to leather and vinyl."
Collier's wearable art was an instant hit with the urban-savvy high school crowd.
"Everyone started asking me where I got my shoes, so I started painting their shoes, too," Collier said. "Pretty soon people were paying me and it had developed into a business."
He joined the Future Business Leaders of America and DECA clubs at Riverview High to learn entrepreneurial skills. While still in high school, he filed for a fictitious name for his enterprise and then incorporated it. By the time he graduated in 2007, Collier's business was going strong and he was able to add two sneaker painters to his team at SurreaL Styles.
Sneaker painting is a hot trend in the world of sneaker lovers, said Joseph Karlovich, Webmaster of an international Web site, sneakerobsession.com, that focuses on all matters concerning sneakers.
"There's a huge sneaker culture that spans 30 to 40 years," Karlovich said. "There's a large population of people who are obsessed with sneakers."
They eagerly look forward to the new models from popular manufacturers like Nike and Adidas, seek out vintage sneakers and collect painted sneakers, which has become an art form in itself, said Karlovich.
There are sneaker painters who have established national reputations and whose sneakers sell for $500 and up, he said. He features many of these painters on his Web site along with other trends in the "sneaker culture."
"Each sneaker painter has his own style, and the shoes can become very collectible," he said.
One urban sneaker artist, who goes by the name MAG, has sold shoes to celebrities such as Miley Cyrus, Will Smith and Mira Sorvino under the business name Punk your Chucks.
Collier and his team are more surreal than literal.
Rather than painting a likeness of SpongeBob SquarePants on his shoes, Collier uses color and design to give the impression of SpongeBob.
"It's more of a Salvador Dalí style," he said.
But are they art? Collier doesn't go that far.
"I don't claim to be an artist," he said. "I see myself as simply creative. I can't draw anything in the traditional sense, but I know how to create designs. My designs are more subliminal, like my chocolate edition. Instead of painting a Hershey bar on the shoes, I give the impression of chocolate melting."
One team member, Anthony Rodriguez, honed his artistic skills doing graffiti art. Now, instead of subdivision walls and highway overpasses, Rodriguez focuses his talent on sneakers.
The other team member, Nick Tuttle, also attended Riverview High.
"He's a lot like me. He likes to … have nice clothes. He started painting his own sneakers, and I suggested we collaborate," Collier said.
Collier, now 20, has transformed a bedroom of the River Glen home where he lives with his parents, Ramona and Joseph, into a studio. There, the three painters produce about seven pairs of custom-painted shoes a month at $150 per pair.
"It can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to complete a pair, depending on the design," Collier said.
Collier sells his shoes by word of mouth or through his MySpace page. He plans to launch a Web site, surrealstyles.com, on Monday
"My goal is to distribute internationally," said Collier, who has already sold several pairs to customers in Europe after a feature story on his business ran in Vibe, a national magazine specializing in hip-hop culture.
As far as his mentor, Debra Campbell, is concerned, Collier already is a success.
Campbell, the director of Forward Thinking Initiatives, a teen entrepreneurial program, met Collier at a workshop at the Museum of Science & Industry when he was 15. She helped him develop a business plan for his new company there.
"I thought, 'That's the end of that,' " Campbell said. "But he went on to develop his business. He displays the business ethics and commitment to his community that we emphasize in our program. I'm so very proud of him."
She was so impressed with Collier, she said, she recruited him to teach workshops at her school, the Hillel School in Tampa.
"If a teen sticks with a business for a year, it's a success," she said. "But he's now been doing this for five years and has even hired employees. That's a commitment you don't often see in a young person."
When he's not painting shoes, Collier attends classes at Hillsborough Community College and works in the customer service department at Mercantile Bank. His dream is to develop SurreaL Styles into a full-time enterprise.
"There are a lot of people painting sneakers," he said. "It's become very popular and there's a lot of talent out there. But my shoes have a unique style and, with the right marketing, I think this will take off.''
D'Ann White can be reached at [email protected]