Look! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a chain? No, wait—it’s a pair of shoes on a power line. But what are they doing there?
Shoes on power lines aren’t something you see every day. But like colorful beads on trees, it seems that wherever you see one, you’re likely to see many. While there’s some consensus about what those beads mean (it’s a Mardi Gras tradition), there’s quite a bit of disagreement when it comes to what shoes on a power line actually mean. In fact, retired police sergeant Rob Demarco, who spent 20 years on the force in Eastchester, New York, has a theory that most were flung there simply because there were already other shoes on the power line.
In other words, unlike colored balls on power lines, metal wrapped around a tree, balls on cruise ships and the occasional painted purple fence post—all of which serve very specific purposes—the shoes you see hanging from power lines may be a product of our “monkey see, monkey do” mentality. That said, what Demarco’s theory doesn’t necessarily account for is that first pair: How did it get there? And why?
Theories abound as to why people might be adorning their power lines with shoes. If you like interesting facts and random trivia, then you’re going to want to read on.
Why do people throw shoes on power lines?
It’s one of those things you probably never thought about, but people have been chucking their shoes as a form of personal expression since before power lines, let alone electrical power, even existed. For example, there was an old English wedding custom of throwing shoes at a newly married couple. Some say it was meant to bring the newlyweds happiness and good fortune. There’s also a long-standing military tradition of flinging one’s boots to symbolize the end of one’s post. Space pioneers Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin even apparently flung their moon boots from the hatch of their rocket before returning to Earth.
While these traditions suggest that shoes on power lines may serve a celebratory purpose, there are plenty of other theories for them—and not all involve expressions of mirth. In fact, some even involve purported criminal activity.
One of the more popular theories about shoes on power lines is that they’re part of a system by which gangs mark their territory. The problem with this theory is the dearth of gang members willing to corroborate it. Moreover, when we queried police departments in various large cities around the country, none were willing to confirm or deny.
Location for buying drugs
According to a police chief from Prichard, Alabama, and members of Jackson, Mississippi’s City Council, some drug dealers do, in fact, communicate that they’re open for business by tossing a pair of shoes over an adjacent power line. On the other hand, a spokesperson for the New York Police Department (NYPD) told the New York Times, “I don’t think it’s the sort of thing that people advertise by leaving a sign.” And a police chief from Toronto has publicly debunked the theory as nothing more than an urban legend.
If you see a license plate with a gold star, it’s a safe bet that the car in question carries grieving family members of a member of the military who has died. Similarly, if you see shoes hanging from a power line, it could be a memorial to someone who has died. As one Brooklyn resident pointed out in a YouTube series he calls “Decoding the Streets,” the shoes symbolize that the deceased individual is now “walking in heaven.” Some say that these types of memorials are often for people who have died as a result of gun violence.
When you see a pair of combat boots tossed over a power line, it might be the work of a member of the military who was celebrating the end of their post. But throwing shoes over power lines is also something some graduating high school seniors like to do to celebrate their milestone.
Similarly, one Redditor notes that when they were still in school, they would gleefully toss their gym shoes onto the wires near school to mark the end of the school year. Fast Company points out that some toss their shoes over power lines to celebrate the loss of their virginity. And in case you were wondering, yes, you can file that one under the category of weird facts you’ll wish you knew sooner.
Losing a bet
This is a pretty harsh penalty for a mere unfortunate bet, but people have wagered worse things, we suppose. That said, depending on the age of the tossee, this may veer into bullying territory, as discussed below.
Demarco tells Reader’s Digest that in some neighborhoods, a pair of shoes thrown over a power line is evidence of bullying. Specifically, it may mean that someone—usually a vulnerable child—has been separated from their shoes by a bully or a pack of bullies, who then throw the shoes over the power line to admire them like a trophy.
Or, as one Facebook user explains, “When someone comes along and punches you and steals your $200 skate shoes, they throw their old ones on to the power lines.”
Kids being kids
Along the lines of Demarco’s leading theory on why people throw shoes on power lines (mimicry), a dangling pair of shoes may signify nothing more than silliness—i.e., kids being kids, perhaps challenging their friends to see who’s strong enough to accomplish this feat with the fewest attempts. Of course, this practice isn’t necessarily limited to kids.
The practice of hanging shoes on power lines has also been likened to the work of graffiti artists. Indeed, it’s sometimes referred to as “shoefiti.” And a crowdsourced art installation seems as good a reason as any for flinging one’s shoes over a power line. Indeed, the artist Ad Skewville and his brother took this idea and ran with it, etching shoe images onto shoe-shaped pieces of wood, then flinging them, by the pair, over power lines all over the borough of Brooklyn, New York, as well as other locations in New York, London and South Africa.
According to Demarco, one tends to see fewer instances of power lines heavy with hanging shoes in affluent neighborhoods, as compared with more economically diverse urban settings. One reason may be that many affluent neighborhoods are less populous than urban settings, which can translate as fewer people and fewer opportunities for shoe tossing. Or it may reflect a lack of tolerance for the practice. In other words, if a resident sees a pair of shoes thrown over a power line, they might be more inclined to register a complaint through the proper channels and to have that complaint effectively addressed.
Conversely, an urban setting that’s neither well-maintained nor adequately patrolled by law enforcement might inspire some to hurl their shoes over local power lines as a passive-aggressive “cry for help” to local politicians.
How common are shoes on power lines?
Apparently, the more highly populated an area, the more shoes you’ll see on power lines. Since most of the police departments contacted by Reader’s Digest declined to comment on the practice of shoe tossing, it remains unclear, nevertheless, which cities are most affected and to what degree.
Our research did, however, turn up sundry dispatches from various locales where the media has covered moves by local legislators to make a regular practice of removing shoes hanging from power lines. For example, Jackson, Mississippi, considered passing an ordinance in 2021 that vested the city’s Public Works department with the authority to remove the shoes upon receipt of a 311 call from a resident. Similar ordinances were considered in Long Beach, California, in 2010, and Wilmington, North Carolina, in 2014.
Is it illegal to throw shoes on power lines?
Is it illegal to throw an empty soda bottle or other trash onto the street in your town? If so, then it’s probably illegal to throw a pair of shoes over a power line as well. According to a spokesman for the NYPD, shoe tossing could be considered criminal mischief, at least as it’s defined by New York law. Other states may have similar criminal mischief statutes, and those that don’t may file the practice under the same category as littering.
According to Arizona’s Salwin Law Group, “many people are not aware that littering, even a small amount, is actually a crime in Arizona.” Based on Section 13-1603 of the Arizona Revised Statutes, it would appear that throwing one’s shoes over a power line could be considered a class 2 misdemeanor, unless it occurs on a highway, in which case it might be considered a class 1 misdemeanor, which is the equivalent of a DUI. In addition, uniform vandalism laws may also prohibit the practice of hanging shoes on power lines.
Is it dangerous to throw shoes on power lines
Whether it’s dangerous to throw your shoes on a power line will depend upon your working definition of “dangerous.” For example, you may believe that defacing any public property is dangerous to the community. And you wouldn’t be wrong, according to FindLaw, which points out that any such act might constitute vandalism in states that have adopted uniform vandalism laws.
Likewise, while it’s debatable whether shoes dangling from power lines actually signify gang occupation and/or the availability of street drugs for sale, you might feel that the presence of said shoes will still send the wrong message to the wrong people.
Finally, North Carolina’s Duke Energy specifically warns its customers against flinging objects over power lines. “This can cause short circuits, and could result in injuries,” the utility explains.
Who removes all the shoes from power lines?
It depends upon the locale in question. As noted above, Jackson, Mississippi’s City Council was in favor of charging the city’s Public Works department with the task. In some municipalities, however, the companies responsible for maintaining the lines appear to be the ones responsible for removing dangling shoes. But one thing that is clear across the board: If you’re not a professional, then you should steer clear of power lines and not try to remove them yourself, as tempting as it might be to score a pair of sneaks.
Is throwing shoes on power lines a strictly American phenomenon?
Throwing shoes over power lines may have the look and feel of a very American pastime, but this practice isn’t confined to the States. In fact, the entire continent of Australia is considered a hotbed for errant shoe tossing, according to the Daily Mail. Other countries where the practice is at least fairly common include the U.K. and Spain.
Apparently, it’s not a problem in the Netherlands, however. And this might be because the Netherlands doesn’t have nearly as many overhead power lines as some other countries. That being said, shoes do get tossed in the Netherlands—it’s just that the targets tend to be trees.