a 30-year-old robotics engineer named James Powderly, who, among other projects, once helped develop a remote-controlled arm for NASA’s Mars rover program. Alongside the cycle walked Evan Roth, a 28-year-old artist whose graduate thesis at Parsons the New School for Design analyzed graffiti tags as a source of mathematical data.A couple of things fascinated me about this article, and I'd encourage you to read the whole thing. First, I must check on Mr. Roth's quantitative research on street graffiti - I wonder what if any meaningful patterns might reveal themselves?
In the fall of 2005, the two formed an entity called the Graffiti Research Lab, a nonprofit design studio with the mission of producing tools for urban communication. The cycle is their latest invention, and its appearance in Chelsea was its official New York debut.
As Mr. Powderly neared the museum’s entrance, he jumped off the cycle and pointed it toward a bare stretch on a garage door across the street. Mr. Roth pulled a laser pointer from his pocket, and as he moved the laser’s green dot across the wall, a line of what looked like thick, drippy paint lit up its surface, roughly following the motion of his hand.
But what seemed like an illegal tag was in fact a projection, an ephemeral splash of digital graffiti that would vanish with a flick of a switch on the cycle’s gas-powered generator.
“You want to try?” Mr. Roth asked the growing crowd behind him. He handed the laser pointer to a young woman standing nearby. She nodded, hesitant but curious.
The cycle is designed to be an accessible, almost playful simulacrum of street tagging, giving passers-by a whiff of the thrill of posting a message in places they’re not supposed to. It is what its creators call a gateway graffiti experience. The idea is to put the tools for unfiltered, unsanctioned public expression in the hands of those who might otherwise shy away from grabbing a spray can or a paint marker.
By night’s end, several dozen people had used the laser to scribble personal messages, squealing with amazement each time the projected beam of light appeared on the wall.
Even more interesting, though, is how average people reacted when given a chance to try Roth and Powderly's graffiti tool. They thought it was exciting and fun. It makes me think more people would do graffiti if it weren't legally forbidden. Even in an environment where it was okay, the first gal who volunteered did so hesitantly, says the Times. I think that's because graffiti breaks a taboo. But like many taboos, graffiti prohibitions seek to suppress something humankind has done since before the dawn of civilization: Write on the walls.
There is something to a blank piece of paper that makes a writer want to fill it with prose or poetry. There is something to a blank canvas that inspires a painter to bring it to life with images and color.
Is there something to a blank wall that makes some people want to write on it? Does graffiti satisfy a basic need to say "I was here. I was alive. For this one moment, right now, in this spot I mattered. I have left my mark"? I don't know, though the hypothesis finds support in the fact that humans have written on the walls longer than our species has had laws or perhaps even language.
Public policy solutions to graffiti must understand what motivates it and ultimately, I think, learn to accommodate its more socially acceptable forms. Indeed, many jurisdictions are headed that direction now. I think that's why we keep seeing headlines like these:
- Boston gives graff artists 90' wall as they crack down elsewhere
- Lewiston, OR dedicates wall to graff writers
- Graffiti artists find legal haven in Queens
- El Paso PD backing youth graffiti art project
The folks at the Graffiti Research Labs call their toy/tool/gadget a "gateway graffiti experience." But a gateway to what? Illegal activity? Probably not for most people. But maybe graffiti research will demonstrate that the ancient practice can be inspired, not just insipid, fun, not just felonious.
In any event, they sound like they're doing some neat, thought provoking work. Interested in more? According to the Gothamist, reacting to the NYT story:
Graffiti Research Labs has done other eye-catching work around the city, including Throwies, which are clusters of LEDs attached to a magnet that can be thrown and stuck to metal surfaces. Powderly and Roth's work, along with others as GRL, is part of the Eyebeam OpenLab project. Eyebeam is a group committed to open source R&D with all technology released to the public under a creative commons license. The Graffiti Research Labs flickr pool can be found here.Also here are some other recent graffiti-related stories that caught my eye: