Shoe flinging or "shoefiti" is the practice of throwing shoes whose shoelaces have been tied together so that they hang from overhead wires such as power lines or telephone cables. The shoes are tied together by their laces, and the pair is then thrown at the wires as a sort of bolas. This practice plays a widespread, though mysterious, role in adolescent folklore in the United States. Shoe flinging has also been reported in many other countries.
Shoe flinging occurs throughout the United States, in rural as well as in urban areas. Usually, the shoes flung at the wires are sneakers; elsewhere, especially in rural areas, many different varieties of shoes, including leather shoes and boots, also are thrown.
Soldiers leaving the military often paint a pair of combat boots yellow or orange and toss them over a power line or telephone wire near the barracks or unit to which they were assigned.
A number of sinister explanations have been proposed as to why this is done. The foremost is bullying in which a bully steals a pair of shoes and puts in a position where the victim cannot reach it. Some also say that shoes hanging from the wires advertise a local crack house where crack cocaine is used and sold (in which case the shoes are sometimes referred to as "Crack Tennies"). It can also relate to a place where heroin is sold to symbolize the fact that once you take heroin you can never 'leave': a reference to the addictive nature of the drug. Others claim that the shoes so thrown commemorate a gang-related murder, or the death of a gang member, or as a way of marking gang turf. A newsletter from the mayor of Los Angeles, California cites fears of many Los Angeles residents that "these shoes indicate sites at which drugs are sold or worse yet, gang turf," and that city and utility employees had launched a program to remove the shoes. However, the practice also occurs along relatively remote stretches of rural highways that are unlikely scenes for gang murders, and have no structures at all to be crack houses.
Other less sinister explanations have been ventured for the practice. Some claim that shoes are flung to commemorate the end of a school year, or a forthcoming marriage as part of a rite of passage. In Scotland, it has been said that when a young man has lost his virginity he tosses his shoes over telephone wires to announce this to his peers. It has been suggested that the custom may have originated with members of the military, who are said to have thrown military boots, often painted orange or some other conspicuous color, at overhead wires as a part of a rite of passage upon completing basic training or on leaving the service. In the 1997 film Wag the Dog, shoe tossing features as an allegedly spontaneous cultural manifestation of tribute to Sgt. William Schumann, played by Woody Harrelson, who has purportedly been “shot down behind enemy lines” in Albania.
Others claim that the shoes are stolen from other people and tossed over the wires as a sort of bullying tactic, or as a practical joke played on drunkards. Others simply say that shoe flinging is a way to get rid of shoes that are no longer wanted, are uncomfortable, or do not fit. It may also be another manifestation of the human instinct to leave their mark on, and decorate, their surroundings. It has been reported that workmen often throw shoes if they are not paid for waxing floors.
In some neighborhoods, shoes tied together and hanging from power lines or tree branches signify that someone has died. The shoes belong to the dead person. The reason they are hanging, legend has it, is that when the dead person's spirit returns, it will walk that high above the ground, that much closer to heaven. Another superstition holds that the tossing of shoes over the power lines outside of a house is a way to keep the property safe from ghosts. Yet another legend involves that shoes hanging from telephone wires signals someone leaving the neighborhood onto bigger and better things. Of course, only each individual shoe-thrower knows why his/her pair of shoes now hangs from a wire.