Self-Taught Sneaker Artist Turns Hobby Into Successful Home Business

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13 Apr 2021 | PEOPLE

Self-Taught Sneaker Artist Turns Hobby Into Successful Home Business

3SG (NS) Ryan Tham taught himself to create art out of shoes during his free time in NS.

//Story by Koh Eng Beng

//Photos by Kenneth Lin & courtesy of 3SG (NS) Ryan Tham

Tattoo artist for sneakers: 3SG (NS) Tham provides custom shoe-painting services for clients from around the world.
English 华文

Most full-time national servicemen (NSFs) probably prefer to chill out during their time off, but 3rd Sergeant (3SG) (NS) Tham chose to spend his free time painting shoes.

He'd spend an hour or two each day watching YouTube videos on how to custom design and paint shoes, and put into practice what he had learnt.

Today, 3SG (NS) Tham is reaping the rewards of his hard work in NS – he has successfully turned his hobby into a thriving home business offering custom shoe-painting services.

He gets about 15 orders each month, with customers from Australia, Singapore, the United Kingdom and the United States.

After clients tell him the idea they have in mind, he draws and paints the design for them. He charges about $300 onward for each pair of custom-painted shoes, depending on the complexity of the design.

One of 3SG (NS) Tham's creations.

He reaches out to local clients through social media platforms such as Instagram and Tiktok, as well as word of mouth.

Many overseas clients have found him through Tiktok, where he has been posting videos of him customising shoes. His most-viewed video on how he removes the Swoosh on a Nike Air Force 1 sneaker garnered over one million views.

Overcoming self-doubt

Despite his success, 3SG (NS) Tham sometimes feels that he doesn't deserve the recognition and that he is not good enough. "Even till now, I still have this imposter syndrome."

The reason? He has never studied Art in school.

"Even when I was charging a really cheap fee or doing it for free for my friends, I felt like I didn't deserve it. Thoughts like 'Am I really good enough to paint on your shoe?' would come into my mind."

When 3SG (NS) Tham first started out, he offered to customise his friends' shoes for free as he needed to find shoes to practise on.

3SG (NS) Tham believes in improving his skills through hard work.

The only way to overcome this feeling, he said, is to keep practising. "Over time, I became more confident through practice. Those problems that seemed so big in the past, like being afraid of painting even my first brush stroke, became a lot smaller."

He added: "Of course, there will be new challenges in the future, but I am now more confident of overcoming them."

3SG (NS) Tham has improved his custom shoe-painting skills by leaps and bounds since his first attempt (right).

Building mental toughness

During his full-time NS, 3SG (NS) Tham graduated from Specialist Cadet School and served as a training coordination resource specialist at the Basic Military Training Centre.

He recalled that it was easy and tempting to waste his time off during NS. "I had to be very disciplined. Instead of playing games on my phone for that one or two hours each night, I used these pockets of time to work on my craft."

On certain nights after booking out, he would feel tired and want to sleep early, but told himself to press on to finish painting at least a small portion of his design.

But it became even more challenging when he was called up to join the national floorball team early last year.

Newly minted infantry specialist 3SG (NS) Tham with his parents at his specialist cadet graduation parade in 2019.

What helped was the mental toughness that he had developed while undergoing intense training in the Army.

Said the 21-year-old: "The physical training was siong (Hokkien for tough) but what was really tough was the mental (stress) we had to go through: the outfield missions, carrying heavy loads, and keep on walking without giving up – overcoming all this helped me to become mentally stronger and more disciplined."

Big dreams

3SG (NS) Tham, who completed his full-time NS this February and is currently waiting to enter the National University of Singapore, hopes to continue customising shoes and eventually start his own brand of sneakers.

Asked to give advice for current and future NSFs who have similar entrepreneurial aspirations, he said: "As cliche as it sounds, just live today like it is your last one. So go chase your dreams!

"If you start a business, just with the aim for making money, you could still do well, but you probably won't go as far as you can go. But if it is your interest or hobby, even if you're not earning that much, you'll be a lot happier."

Curious how 3SG (NS) Tham customises and paints shoes? Catch him in action here:

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