Sneaker collector, runner and designer, Zhijun Wang created his first sneaker mask seven years ago to protect himself and raise awareness about the chronic smog and air pollution in Beijing. As the industrial facilities have ramped down due to coronavirus, the air pollution levels have considerably dropped – the skies are clearer. Wang has now shifted the focus of his work towards the pandemic outbreak and developed a downloadable mask pattern to help relieve the global shortage of surgical masks.
Although a mask has become a visual signifier of the Covid-19 pandemic, for Wang it is not just a sign of sickness. “It can be adopted as a prosthetic augmentation of identity for youth, and a defensive shield to dissuade public interaction,” the designer says. “The mask is like a subculture, and it’s spreading the word.”

Wang first thought of creating a sneaker mask on his evening run in Beijing. “I wanted to design a mask for myself which could combine both aesthetics and utility,” he explains. Turning to his impressive sneaker collection, Wang noticed that “most of the upper material of the sneaker is light-weight, durable and breathable,” a perfect combination for a mask that could not only protect but protest against increasing environmental issues that threaten our planet. “My sneaker masks are about letting the young generation rethink the relationship between the mask and the environment in different ways, awakening people to make some changes,” he says. Today, the designer discusses his repurposed sneaker masks, why wearing a mask is a temporary solution and how everyone can make masks.
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What urged you to navigate towards masks as a medium for your artistic expression?
Before the smog was serious in Beijing, I used to run at night. I tried a lot of masks from the market to protect myself from pollution, but they are not perfect for my face, so I wanted to design a mask for myself which could combine both aesthetics and utility. I think it not only needs to speak out but also let everyone read the hidden message behind my work. It’s like a soft feedback to this sensitive issue and avoids me getting into trouble.
Your masks raise awareness of environmental issues – chronic smog and air pollution in Beijing. Why did you decide that sneakers could be a key material to carry through that message?
I have loved collecting sneakers since I was a teenager. When I got the idea to make a special mask and needed to choose a suitable material for it the first time, I noticed my sneaker collection – most of the upper material of the sneaker (especially running shoes) is light-weight, durable and breathable. I decided to use it as the key material continuously.
You have mentioned that you have been collecting sneakers since you were a teenager. Do you ever hesitate or regret dismantling the sneakers from your collection to create masks?
No, I like to collect limited-editions, especially with a special story behind the pair. But they are not for wearing, I just keep them on the shelf. So making a sneaker mask is like giving another sort of value and meaning to my collection.
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You used to love football as a child. Tell us what it was like to design a custom sleeve badge for the Premier League Asia Trophy, which took place in Nanjing and Shanghai.
It’s a coincidence that they chose me to design for this event, it’s the first time they put another element into the iconic Premier League logo, especially for the game in China. I wanted to put simple and meaningful elements that stand for the country. I used the Chinese character ‘China’ (中国) as the background in a waving flag shape behind the lion. I love playing football and FCB is my favourite team. I’d love to make a protective mask for the athletes on or off the field.
Your artwork is conceptual as well as utilitarian. How practical are your masks against toxic air?
My sneaker masks are designed to filter the PM2.5 with an inserted filter. And most of my masks have a pair of air valves on the nose part. After repeated calculation and testing, we got the arc rating of masks. It can not only reserve space for the face inside but also keep airtightness.
In 2018, Takashi Murakami’s Hidari Zingaro gallery hosted your solo exhibition Maskology, and since 2017, your work is in the permanent collection of the MoMA in New York. When do you think the message of your work is stronger: when your masks are worn or exhibited in the gallery space?
I can share on social media freely when I wear the masks, but the effect and feedback are quite different from the exhibitions at galleries and museums. I think the gallery is more helpful to enhance the exposure of my masks to their audience.
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Ikea, Nike, Off-White, Yeezy, Adidas, Fila; Is there a reasoning behind using widely recognisable branded materials?
Those brands have their own quality control and the materials are much safer. I don’t want people to misunderstand that I only use certain brands as materials to make a mask. Each sneaker has its own identity; I prefer well-designed sneakers that can provide me with more inspiration.
Your masks have been declared a symbol of a sick society. Would you agree with the moniker?
I think it’s not proper to describe it like that. In Korea and Japan, people wear masks not only because of the sickness. It can be adopted as a prosthetic augmentation of identity for youth, and a defensive shield to dissuade public interaction. The mask is like a subculture, and it’s spreading the word.
Your masks have been worn by Takashi Murakami, Paulo Dybala, Errolson Hugh, Adrianne Ho and have amassed the following of sneakerheads worldwide. What do you think is about your work that resonates with so many people?
I made more than two hundred different masks in the past seven years. Many could not understand my original intention in the beginning. Except for the medical industry, few brands sell masks as production. However, when facing the global environmental issue, more and more people have to wear masks as essential protection in their daily lives and it has already influenced the fashion industry. The mask is becoming a part of a daily outfit for people to show their personality.
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In response to the Covid-19 outbreak in Italy, you reworked an Esselunga shopping bag. Could you elaborate on the message behind the mask?
Esselunga is an Italian supermarket. I went there when I was invited by Adidas to visit Milan for a mask project for Paulo Dybala. The yellow Esselunga shopping bag left a deep impression on me, it’s a special symbol of daily life in Milan and Italy. When I heard the news about the outbreaking virus in Italy and the lack of supply for masks, I suddenly thought of the yellow shopping bag. I wish to share my idea through masks, helping people to rethink the material they can use to make a mask by themselves when it's difficult to get it from the market and pharmacies. It’s the same idea as the Ikea shopping bag.
With your wife Yutong Duan (Aria), you have released the free downloadable templates for masks that can be made at home – everyone can wear a mask. Did you, as a mask artist feel the responsibility to help amidst the shortage caused by the coronavirus outbreak?
After the outbreak of the global pandemic, I received a lot of messages and feedback from people from all over the world. So Aria and I spent one month developing a simple mask template to let everyone know that they can make a mask with home materials. It’s different from the way I make masks, but it’s helpful and useful to people who can’t get surgical masks during the quarantine.
Also, to make it more understandable and easier for people all over the world, we translated the template in eight different languages on, including Spanish, Italian, Korean, and German. This page got 25,000 visits and downloads in the first month.
With the virus outbreak, do you think masks will become an essential part of our daily attire?
My sneaker masks are about letting the young generation rethink the relationship between the mask and the environment in different ways, awakening people to make some changes. If human beings keep destroying this blue planet, wearing a mask daily is just a temporary solution; more and more punishments are waiting for us. It needs the support of our generation and the future.
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