When you think of Sperry Top-Siders, the type of guy who comes to mind is not a dude who inks arms, backs, necks and legs in a Queens, New York, shop called Solid Gold Tattoo. But that is where Rob Hotte has been honing his craft for more than a decade, and he is now deeply associated with one of yachting’s most iconic footwear brands — all because one of his longtime clients works for Sperry.
“It must have come up as a marketing idea, to tattoo the leather,” Hotte says. “My friend gave me a call to see if it was possible, and they sent me some samples.”
Hotte played around with designs: a clipper ship, an anchor, a nautical pinup girl. Sperry liked them enough to invite him to a company meeting to see whether people would go for the concept.
“I tattooed about 300 pairs of employee shoes over four days,” Hotte says with a chuckle. “Some people got the name of their boat on the side of the shoe and a ship wheel on the top. Then it turned into kids’ names, a picture of a horse, whatever you thought.”
Suffice it to say, the experiment was a success. For the past year, Sperry has been flying Hotte to a different city every weekend for special events and store openings featuring Top-Sider shoes. He is now tattooing everything boaters can think of onto the leather, from brochure-based yacht profiles to scrimshaw designs that look like wood carvings.
He even got to fly to New Zealand for a nine-day Sperry photo shoot that included cruising on a sailing yacht. While he’s not quite ready to give up his shop in Queens, he can see why so many people who wear Top-Siders love the sport of yachting.
“My grandfather owned a boat marina, but I’d never been on a sailboat,” he says. “That was a great experience, right outside of Auckland. I was holding the wheel, and I got to pull lines to open the sail up. I had a smile on my face the whole time.”