The Krimpets were long gone. It was around 2013 when the artist Distortedd was making her way through the abandoned Tastykake factory in North Philadelphia. She said she snuck in with her then-boyfriend to do what graffiti kids like them did: Tag the place.
She spotted the mess, asbestos and lots of graffiti that artists before her had left there. The place reeked of mildew and she didn’t want to breathe too deep or linger too long. On their way out, she noticed that security guards could see them. She was not trying to catch a fine. She climbed over a small ladder and fled.
“I was like no, bruh, I’m good. I’ll just sit in my crib,” recalled Distortedd, whose real name is Anhia Santana and who doesn’t share her age. She loved creating art, but that close call was enough to make her leave graffiti behind. “At the time, that’s when Instagram started to get really popular. I was like, ‘I need to take advantage of it.' ”
Distortedd, a graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, started posting art on her Instagram page all the time. Then came recognition from celebrities like rapper Action Bronson, R&B singer-songwriter Jhené Aiko and living legend Erykah Badu. In 2015, she had more than 11,000 followers on Instagram, and prices for her work, as reported on Philly.com, would range from “$30 to several hundred dollars.” This year, she has roughly 112,000 followers, and her paintings go for $2,500 and up and her murals for $8,000 and up. Now, the artist is celebrating the release of her first sneaker: her spin on Reebok’s Instapump Fury. For Distortedd, who feted the sneaker’s launch at REC Philly in Center City in January, it’s a total dream come true.
“They actually let me draw on a sneaker,” she said. “This ain’t no shade — with other women, it’s often just color.”
The sneaker is part of Reebok’s ironically named collection “It’s a Man’s World” — with a red strike-through — which called on women collaborators working in creative industries with gender disparities, itself a commentary on the boys’ club that is sneaker design.
There’s been a push for more women in the sneaker industry, one that designer Sophia Chang sees as making gains. Nike’s women’s market, for example, continues to grow, and as the financial news site Investor Place reported, could continue to: expanding from nearly $7 billion in 2018 to $25 billion in 2025. In 2018, as Cardi B was striking a partnership with Reebok, Women’s Wear Daily reported that Reebok was “signing deals with more women than men.”
“It takes time, and the change will happen, and is happening step by step, bit by bit,” said Chang, who has worked on strategy with Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, and who released a collection with Puma.
Still, the sneaker industry continues to lack diverse staffing, Chang said, and needs more people of color working across roles, from design to marketing: “That type of approach of making sure your team is more openly diverse should ultimately be reflected onto your product and whatever your end output is.”
The art on Distortedd’s sneaker stretches across a white base, for a multicolored look that leans into lavender, rose, mint, and orange curd. The art looks like an entangled hydra. Her inspiration came from Super Mario Bros.
Part of why she claims Philly: because she soaked up so much of the energy of the skater and graffiti scene here into her work. She cofounded and designed for the local apparel brand Bombardment, but preferred making her own solo visual art.
"I don't like to be a ghost designer," she said in 2015. "I like people to know I make the art."
Her style can feel like cartoons, punk illustration or tattoos; the vibes can be energetic, trippy, or macabre, often all at once. She calls her work “crazy as s—.”
“Sometimes, I look at the stuff that I make and I’m like, ‘What?’” she said. “I think I go deep in my mind and pull it out.”
Distortedd, who currently lives in Los Angeles, moved around a lot when she was growing up, some of the time in Santo Domingo, some of the time in West Philly, among other places. The person who nurtured her artistry when she was small was her father. One day, when she was in either pre-K or kindergarten, she had gone out with her dad and her cousin in Reading, Pa., where she lived at the time.
“We went for shopping and pizza. And then I didn’t see him again,” she said. Her father was arrested for selling drugs, incarcerated, and later deported to the Dominican Republic. That was her memory as a child of him as a free man. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
“I don’t think it hit me until I saw him in jail. Then, it was like, ‘Man, this is weird,’ ” she recalled. “As a kid, I didn’t understand it. I just didn’t want to see him in place he couldn’t get out of.”
Her father would send her drawings on scarves or pieces of paper from prison through the mail. She’d send back her own.
“He was like my pen pal,” she said. It was, she reflects now, a reminder that her dad existed, but it was also what got her in the habit of making art.
As a teenager, she was a sneakerhead. She’s a middle child with eight siblings, she explained, and her mother wasn’t able to buy her the collection of Jordans she longed for. So, she saved the money that she made braiding hair and started to buy that collection for herself.
She’s never been the girl who stays in heels. Sneakers and art are two loves she hasn’t let go of. She doesn’t think that kids who grew up like she did are taught that they can be artists as more than just a hobby. She knows she wasn’t taught that. Distortedd said seeing the response to her work on social media made her think differently, made her realize: “Maybe, I should do this all the time.”
She’s been building toward a moment like this, she explained. “It was like at arm’s reach, but you can’t really grab it. It felt like that for a while,” she explained.
“I made it happen. Someway. Somehow,” Distortedd said. “Well, I’m making it happen. I’m not all the way there, but I’m getting there."