When World’s Collide — Drones and Graffiti


Not long ago I had two of my worlds collide when I was interviewed by Vice Magazine for an article on Katsu’s Graffiti Drone. I used to be one half of the first graffiti website, Art Crimes/graffiti.org. For the last million years, I’ve been a technologist, working on digital products and properties for all kinds of organizations big and small. It’s rare I get to tap into my knowledge of the graffiti world and the greater world of technology at the same time. It was fun to think about the future of street art.

Below is a slightly reworked response to a series of questions asked by the reporter in regards to Katsu’s open source, graffiti drone, Icarus.

There really is no competition for simple tools when it comes to writing graffiti. There are a bunch of ancillary tools, but graffiti is really mostly about markers and spray paint with stickers pretty close behind and then scribes, rollers, and wheat paste/paper. There is a drop off on the last bits because they aren’t as easily accessible or easy to carry and use.

If I were to bet on whether drone technology gets picked up widely, I guess the answer depends on what is your definition of the term “widely”. I remember seeing fire extinguisher tags by gangs in the early 90s in LA and their use is fairly widely shared knowledge, but I wouldn’t consider them widely picked up.

Tribute Sacer fire extinguisher tag outside of Deitch Gallery NYC 2009

The financial aspects of drones will keep them even more out of reach, let alone the technological aspects of getting something like this to work. As drone technology gets cheaper and cheaper, the financial hurdle will become less and less and obviously someone will package this up and make it pretty easy to get up and running. So far, what I’ve seen, has been extremely crude as far as quality and looks pretty tough to operate. I bet installing the software for the spray controller isn’t trivial.

At some point technology will likely allow you to be able to give the drone a flight plan and upload vector artwork and let it do the tough part. This is assuming mad inventors like Katsu and technologists will find this interesting and spend time developing the tools, but it seems likely.

Just like the MTA took the idea of a (spray painted) whole car and started selling wrapped subway cars to advertisers, I’m sure Madison Ave will be following on the heels of these innovations to figure out how to put up billboards more quickly and in places that you’ve needed to hire sign painters to put up huge ads. This sort of thing is already happening with drones in other industries, so why not in the more visual or design industries?

Maybe this technology could revolutionize tagging/graffiti/vandalism — because what’s happened outside of the canvas work is really just vandalism. Vandals already don’t have a particularly hard time finding ways of painting just about anything that they want that’s in public view, so I don’t think it’ll be about the inaccessible spaces. But if the technology does get advanced, then maybe the outcomes will be more visually interesting and that might revolutionize graffiti. The distinction being graffiti vs pure vandalism there.

I don’t want to dismiss what Katsu has accomplished, at all. I’m a huge, huge fan of a lot of the stuff he’s done and am really curious about where this all goes. Even Slayer had to take baby steps to get to Raining Blood.

Along the line about access, if you consider drones robots, I’m slightly more interested in other types that might crawl under doors and sneak into spaces. For many reasons, graffiti has largely been restricted to the outdoors. What happens when we get a ground based robot that can sneak into tunnels and realize pieces on subway trains? You get enough of those and it would be really tough for systems to keep their trains clean. Or how about attaching a camera to a robot that gets access to certain buildings and documents whatever deviousness a writer comes up with? Live twitch streams of all kinds of nonsense could follow.

Cost and Enx in Manhattan 2013

Graffiti has rarely had to deal with the question of automation. The ways it has come up are in things like stickers or wheat pasting. When Cost and Revs “automated” the production of posters by using a copy machine and writers started mass producing their own stickers to put everywhere, those were the first steps. Stencils have been a tool for automation long before style writers started doing graffiti.

Banksy in SF 2011

It’s conceivable that someday drones will be solar powered and a certain pattern could be repeated without any intervention of the drone operator. I can imagine cities using drones or other robots to use visual pattern recognition to keep telephone poles clean, or erase graffiti on every stop sign in a city. What if a writer does the exact opposite and has their auto-drone come home for supplies, but strategically go around the city and apply their tag in the same spot on every mailbox in a city?

What happens when a writer in San Francisco with a drone wants to collaborate on a large piece with someone in Australia and they sketch things up together in a digital file, give the drone the sketch and tell it where to go and complete the piece for them?

I’m not saying these are predictions, because there is a lot of things that would need to happen for these ideas to come to life. But..they are all in the realm of what I see happening in my day job in terms of technology, cost and ease of use around these ideas.

It’s probably not obvious, but, yeah..these things could be terrifying and horrible. This is coming from a fan of graffiti in general.

I’m going to broadly generalize and stereotype here, but graffiti writers in general are skeptical of things like drones because they see the privacy and surveillance issues out-weighing the potential benefits of these types of technologies. It take visionaries, like Katsu, to open writers eyes to creative uses of new technology.

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