Michael Perez Scores with Sneaker Art

Airbrusher Michael Perez crafts colorful, custom-made cleats for pitcher Hector Santiago and other Major Leaguers.

Michael Perez created these July 4th cleats for Chicago White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago.
Michael Perez created these July 4th cleats for Chicago White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago.
Photo courtesy of Michael Perez

When Chicago White Sox pitcher Hector Santiago took the mound against the Detroit Tigers during Major League Baseball’s Players Weekend in late August, he was sporting a brand-new pair of custom-painted cleats that depicted his nickname: “Bulldog.” Styled in White Sox black, white and gray, a cartoon bulldog snarled on the heel of each cleat. The chain connected to the dog’s collar snaked toward the toe, finishing in a dog tag emblazoned with Santiago’s No. 53.

The painting is the handiwork of Michael Perez of MP’s Paintwerx in Belleville. Perez makes his living custom-airbrushing cars, motorcycles and surfboards, but broadened the scope of his artwork when he was introduced three years ago to Santiago – a 2006 graduate of Bloomfield Tech High School. Perez has been designing and painting cleats for the pitcher ever since.

“I give Michael an idea, and he just runs with it,” Santiago says. “It’s great how he does his research and fills up the whole cleat so there’s a story and a history behind it.”

On Mother’s Day, Perez painted Santiago’s cleats with pink and gold flowers. On Father’s Day, Perez painted an image Santiago’s dad. During the World Baseball Classic, in which Santiago represented Puerto Rico, his cleats featured Puerto Rican baseball legend Roberto Clemente. Perez painted a red, white and blue motif for July 4th and primary-colored puzzle pieces for Autism Awareness Day. And when Santiago’s grandmother passed away last year, his memorial shoes featured a perfect portrait of his Mama.

“The image of my grandmother looked exactly like the picture I gave Michael,” Santiago says. “And he had them ready in time for my very next start.”

Perez, who drew and doodled as a child, did not start painting seriously until his early 20s. Perez broke his wrist playing high-school football; after graduation, he re-injured it working construction. When he could no longer hold a hammer for extended periods, his uncle Joe Romano, owner of Delavan Auto Body in Belleville, remembered Perez’s talent with pencil and paper. Romano gave his nephew an old airbrush to play with and saved old car doors and hoods for Perez to practice on. Before long, Perez had covered his family’s lawn mower and garage walls with flames, skulls and words.

“I never took art classes in school and never thought I was that good, but my Uncle Joe saw something in me and pushed me to do it,” Perez says. “I really took to the airbrusher, and nowadays, I’ll paint pretty much anything paint will stick to.”

Perez has also painted cleats for big-leaguers Ervin Santana, Eduardo Escobar, Eddie Rosario, Kenny Vargas, Kyle Gibson and Nate Jones, among others, and hopes to someday paint cleats for NFL players.

“The players let me be really creative,” Perez says. “Most times, they just say, ‘I’ve seen your stuff, just do what you do.’ I love that.”

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