Aerosol 2.0: Graffiti Goes Digital
Art is evolving. In all forms.
There’s no question that things have changed for music and literature, and will continue to shift as new technologies come to fruition. Nothing stands still in the face of innovation and even graffiti is no exception. The medium that visually reflects hip-hop culture is beginning to show what the the other pillars have already seen — a step out of the visceral and into the realm of digital.
One man has already a foundation for graffiti to exist without paint and entirely within the confines of a pixelated universe. Although the days of tagging buildings may not be extinct, there are newer — and less illegal — ways to create and share art a la graffiti, minus the rattle can.
“Graffiti is threatening to corporate and governmental control of space”
The recently released iPhone application DustTag — which allows users to draw tags on the touch screen and upload them to a free and open database — is just a piece of a larger project to digitize and document graffiti. The driving force behind much of this work is Evan Roth.
Graffiti writers have been hotly contested in many communities. Their work if often not only contested as non-artistic, but has landed some of the most affluent writers heavy jail sentences. Roth’s work to digitize the graff world may help solve the problem, by offering the artists a method, and a means, to display their work without becoming embroiled in a any sort of legal battle or being accused of vandalism.
His work on this project began in 2004 when he developed the software Graffiti Analysis 1.0 for his thesis while an MFA candidate at Parsons in New York City.
Combining the Graffiti Analysis software with motion tracking and computer vision technology, he created a system that records and analyzes a graffiti writer’s pen movement over time. Essentially, a small light is attached to the preferred tool to the writer, who writes his tag on a sheet of paper attached to a piece of glass. On the other side of the glass, a camera tracks the movement of the light while the writer makes his tag.
Information from the camera is sent to a computer, where the Graffiti Analysis software renders a digital version of the tag, which depicts changes in time and direction while the writer was making the tag. All of the motions of are translated into thousands of dots that map the movement of the writer to the mark it made. All of this is then implemented into recreating tags, making the experience as true-to-life as possible.
This data is stored in Graffiti Markup Language (GML) format, which has since become the standard for the expanding number of graffiti analysis programs.
Pairing this early version of Graffiti Analysis with a projector, Roth embarked on a series of unannounced displays of digital renderings of the tags on to large buildings around the city of New York. The tags stood illuminated across the faces of well-known landmarks, appearing as almost realistic street art strung across the massive structures.
His work captured the attention of Eyebeam, a nonprofit art and technology organization, which awarded him a fellowship in 2005. This financing has led to collaborations that have created an expanding list of applications, including DustTag, Eye Writer, Laser Tag, a second version of Graffiti Analysis and a free and open online database for the resulting data, 000000book.com.
Eye Writer is the result of a collaboration between Roth and members of Free Art and Technology (FAT), OpenFrameworks, and the Graffiti Research Lab. Working with legendary LA graffiti writer Tony Quan, who is almost completely paralyzed, they worked to develop a low-cost eye-tracking apparatus and custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with paralysis resulting from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) to draw using only their eyes.
Laser Tag, the result of a collaboration between Roth and Theo Watson, is a camera and laptop setup which tracks a laser point across the face of a building and generates graphics based on the laser’s position which then get projected back onto the building with a high power projector.
There has been no shortage of criticism for the increasing use of technology in hip hop music. Some might wonder if the increased digitization of graffiti will lead to similar issues. Will graffiti turn into the type of war that goes on between vinyl purists and modern DJs who use all-digital equipment?
It’s not likely. GML is much more an experiment in form and function than a replacement for the sacred art form.
The software developed so far does nothing to augment skills, but instead provides only a record and analysis of a tag writer’s hand movements. The fact that it doesn’t fundamentally change the way a traditional writer works poses an interesting question: What are the benefits of digitizing graffiti?
As Roth explains this in his thesis paper,
“Because graffiti is threatening to corporate and governmental control of space they have branded it as ‘gang related’, ‘vandalism’, a ‘quality of life offense.’ By digitizing the written form and representing it in an analytical, thoughtful, and expressive way, these stigmas recede into the background creating an environment where the viewer is free to explore form and content untainted.”
While police often crackdown on graff writers who tag up public spaces, this technology opens the door for a fundamentally new way to exhibit the work. Traditional tags can be drawn in much the same way, but displayed publicly in a digital projection, rather than a more-permanent medium like the traditional spray cans.
So, what’s the next development for Graffiti Analysis software? Evan took some time to share his plans for the near future:
“In terms of next steps, it’s all about opening everything up for open source collaborative fun…
An artist friend just got a robot running from GML data uploaded from Graffiti Markup Language sent from EyeWriter and DustTag:
Others have been developing flash players for playback in the browser:
The #000000book website will officially launch sometime within the next day or so, we’re currently implementing a lot of additions:
Soon I will start development on a system for 3D printing GML data from Graffiti Analysis.”
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