Sunday, August 12, 2007

Digital graffiti? or, Is there something to a wall that wants us to write on it?

Recently I wrote about the cost benefit analysis and real-world effectiveness of different graffiti solutions, so I was interested in reading this piece from the New York Times today ("The writing's on the wall. (The writing's off the wall)," Aug. 12) about:
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.

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.

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?

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:
To me, these stories indicate that many in government and civil society recognize the wall writers have their place. That's also one of the implications of the public reaction to Powderly and Roth's bike-mounted graffiti tool.

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:


Anonymous said...

TYC plan to use pepper spray on inmates draws ire
Associated Press
Monday, August 13, 2007

AUSTIN -- A Texas Youth Commission proposal to have guards rely on pepper spray to subdue unruly juvenile prisoners has angered justice advocates, who call the practice barbaric and regressive.

"It sends the message that the TYC is moving more toward an adult correctional system, as opposed to a rehabilitative juvenile system," said Isela Gutierrez, coordinator of the Texas Coalition Advocating Justice for Juveniles.

TYC officials say using pepper spray will reduce injuries to staff and inmates and lower workers' compensation claims, which they say are the highest in the nation among youth prison systems. Last year, 16 percent of TYC employees filed claims, with nearly all injuries reportedly suffered while restraining an inmate or breaking up a fight.

The commission has "got to do something to cut down on the number of injuries to youth and staff in restraint situations," said TYC spokesman Jim Hurley.

Under current guidelines, TYC guards can use pepper spray only when the inmate is putting himself or others at risk and after "less restrictive interventions" have failed. These other interventions include reasoning with inmates and takedowns.

"The result, generally, with pepper spray, is that we get compliance immediately, without injury," Hurley said. "You have to ask yourself, 'Do we go in with a bunch of people and try to do a takedown, or do we use pepper spray?"'

But Gutierrez said she fears poorly trained guards using pepper spray as a first resort, or the effect it will have on inmates with respiratory problems. TYC officials say the pepper spray they use is only half the strength of what's used in the adult system.

Whereas physical restraints often lead to broken arms, pepper spray causes teary eyes for five to 20 minutes and poses "no real restrictions for any medical condition," said Dr. Owen Murray of the University of Texas Medical Branch, who oversees health care inside the TYC.

Michael Dale, a Florida-based juvenile justice expert, said a reliance on pepper spray would show the TYC is taking a step backward.

"It's absolutely the wrong direction, and it's a shame," Dale said. "Rather than looking at options that require greater skill, greater training, greater education ... pepper spray is just the easy way out."

© 2007 Abilene Reporter-News

Anonymous said...


I just happened onto this blog today. Fascinating. What particularly caught my attention was what you wrote in a post in July (

"Why do I think this might have applications describing human behavior? Because I think people move in packs but also behave as individuals, that we are at once individual decisionmakers responsible for our own actions and simultaneously gravitate toward family, peers, the people closest to us with power, charisma, traditional authority, or other "parent seeds," in this analogy. They themselves revolve around larger centers of gravity the way moons revolve around planets that revolve around suns that revolve around galaxies, etc..

We are each both motivated and constrained by others, and also independent free agents. It's not an either or, thing, both are true, simultaneously. Indeed, such nonlinear truth is why I think social scientists have trouble crafting predictive mathematical models, much less workable solutions, for many extremely human concerns like crime, migration, or in this train of thought, privacy"

This is very insightful, and by coincidence, I've just written a book about it. It's quite striking the similarity of what you say and the thesis of my book The Social Atom.

If you're interested, you can see the basic ideas at

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Wow, did you actually use the Voronoi cells as examples in your book? I think a lot of people around the world are thinking along those lines in different fields, and for sure not everybody's aware of each other.

Some interesting stuff on your blog, thanks for pointing it out. best,