January • 20 • 2021

Sarah Hwang 
Street Art in Digital Space:
KATSU’s Graffiti Drone

Installation shots of KATSU’s Dot exhibition at The Hole, New York City, 2020. Image Credit: The Hole NYC

Street artists have taken to social media and the internet as a new format to explore their practice beyond the material. They have manipulated their street art to be made and seen in the digital sphere in the forms of GIFs, animation and video, photo collage, drone paintings, and more. What was once an act of transforming physical space has been reformatted into a digital reconstruction of the urban environment that can be completely controlled by the street artist: the emergence of the street artist’s utopia. 

One artist who comes to mind is KATSU, who uses surveillance drones and fire extinguishers to produce ground-to-roof tags. He is an agitator and believes graffiti should represent the act of vandalism. KATSU established himself in the 1990s as a prolific tagger with his single-line skull character. The artist became

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KATSU text and skull sticker tags in a restroom, Seattle, ca 2016. Image by the author. 

known as a pioneer of the fire extinguisher tag when he brought a fire extinguisher filled with paint to the Art in the Streets (2011) exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles and sprayed his multi-story tag on the side of the building. This was a transgressive act against then-MoCA director Jeffrey Deitch’s decision to curate one of the first comprehensive exhibitions on modern graffiti and street art, which the artist saw as a palatable spectacle for the mainstream public. (1) Since then, KATSU has been experimenting with attaching spray-paint onto surveillance drones, creating the world’s first graffiti drone.

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KATSU fire extinguisher tag at MoCA, Los Angeles, 2011. Photograph by Martha Cooper

KATSU’s 2020 exhibition at The Hole NYC, Dot, debuted a new installation of blank canvases hung in the gallery and spray-painted with randomized, colorful dots by pre-programmed drones. The sprayed dots go beyond the canvas extending across the walls, overlapping other colored dots, with paint spilling onto the floor. It is what one could call total destruction of the gallery space (reminiscent of Yayoi Kusama’s description of her dot installations as “self-obliteration”), a goal shared by both graffiti writers and users of drone technology. (2)

Installation shots of KATSU’s Dot exhibition at The Hole, New York City, 2020. Image Credit: The Hole NYC

But KATSU’s destruction of the gallery space seems different from the usual form of destruction that graffiti writers strive for. It feels frenzied and whimsical. The colors follow no particular palette, the dots no order. There is no delineation between space and canvas, floor, and wall. Is it graffiti, painting, or installation? Who is its author, KATSU, or the drone? One thing that is clear in the exhibition is that KATSU’s installation displays omnipotent control over the space. 

 

Control is important to a writer especially when it comes to their tag, or a writer’s given and/or adopted identity, and in order for writers to become a master of their craft, they must practice writing their tag and observing the traditions and styles passed down by their experienced colleagues. Like any practice or tradition, the subculture of graffiti has its own specific language, rules, and rituals, much of which is rooted in early hip hop but also has absorbed elements of other subcultures, such as skateboarding and punk rock. (3) Street artist Stephen Powers’s (ESPO) book The Art of Getting Over (1999) contains an afterword that “reprints” the unspoken rules of graffiti writing (all as a fabricated discovery of a transcript from a fictionalized character named Mark Surface at the Graffiti Writers Local One Union Hall). The afterword includes rules from “Know the history” to “Don’t write on houses of worship.” (4) Another street artist and contemporary of Powers, Barry McGee (TWIST) has also described the graffiti process as one similar to conventional visual practices in which observation, repetition, and dialogue take precedence. (5) These rules and rituals establish a pedagogy of graffiti that allows the writer to take control of their image and production in a landscape that is wrought by decades of over-policing and surveillance.

 

Beginning with former mayor John Lindsay’s “War on Graffiti” in 1971 to Rudy Giuliani’s redevelopment of Times Square in the 1990s, New York underwent severe deindustrialization that affected the outer boroughs that many Black and Brown residents called home, namely the South Bronx and Brooklyn. (6) This was also the period when the controversial broken windows theory was first developed and introduced in a March 1982 issue of The Atlantic by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which stated that disorder, or signs of crime, leads to crime. (7) Graffiti was (and still is) an exemplary sign of crime and as a result, writers were punished severely with heavy fines and months-long imprisonment for simply painting their name on facades and subways. Perhaps the most well-known example of broken windows in action is Giuliani’s aggressive campaign to clean up Times Square, which employed imminent domain and law enforcement crackdowns on minor offenses, including graffiti and vandalism. But the crackdown on graffiti was at its height with his predecessor Ed Koch, who introduced new subway cars coated with an anti-graffiti primer, installed barbed-wire fencing and guard dogs around train yards, and passed age restriction on the sale of spray paint and markers. (8) These quality of life ordinances reached beyond New York to cities all across the US and became the foundation of Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill, transforming how Americans govern. (9) 

 

Many graffiti writers during this period, who were primarily from deindustrialized boroughs, felt powerless living in their city. Graffiti was not a crime for them, but rather, a way for them to be heard. In Henry Chalfant’s acclaimed documentary on New York subway graffiti Style Wars (1983), a young teenage DONDI (Donald White) is interviewed with his mother in their home. His mother is captured discussing her frustration with her son’s need to graffiti the subways and DONDI defends himself saying: 

 

It’s not a matter of them knowing who I am...It’s a matter of bombing [heavy tagging], knowing that I can do it. Every time I get into a train, I see my name...It’s for me, not for nobody else to see. I don’t care about nobody else seeing it, or the fact that they can read it or not. It’s for me and for other graffiti writers, that we can read it. All these other people who don’t write, they’re excluded, I don’t care about them. They don’t matter to me, it’s for us. (10)

 

Control can have great appeal to a writer whose existence is ignored, and even denied, in everyday society. Perhaps, this is why the internet and digital media today have become an attraction for street artists. With its relative openness and lack of regulations, the internet can be a place where a street artist can reimagine the world to their liking and connect with other like-minded artists. This desire to have full control over one’s creative production finds kinship with the internet, a site of simultaneous centralization and deterritorialization, because of the internet’s machine-objective predicated on pure production and limitlessness and its transeunt ability to mediate the physical to the virtual. Like any image or object displaced from its material context and re-placed in the digital space, digital street art is realized as photography and thus, the pixel becomes a malleable unit that can be exploited and adapted to the hyperflat surface of the screen, allowing the image to permeate numerous screens and servers. It can express multiple forms and possibilities that are not necessarily feasible in its material form and hyper-inflates the nuances of its material counterpart, straddling the line between form and formless, real and virtual, possible and impossible. For street artists like KATSU, their intention in creating digital street art is to go beyond the street—to reconstruct a world where street art can embody its contemporaneity, a world where the Anthropocene has never occurred and concomitantly, where humanity is omnipotent.

 

In a 2014 interview with Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, KATSU shares his aspirations for his graffiti drone technology to become semi-autonomous:

 

I do have this little video game-inspired fantasy of lying in my bed, sending my drones out my bedroom window, having them render my tags all over the city and then flying back home to me, like, in my bed. The idea would be to eventually create a drone that has a free flight mode that allows either for more collaboration with the drone or less collaboration with the drone, and then potentially a dual flight mode, where I can have the freedom to get the drone where it needs to be and then put it into a new flight mode to maybe execute a tag or something that almost looks hand-drawn. (11)

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Video still of KATSU’s Icarus Two drone painting, ca 2017. Image Credit: New Atlas

For KATSU, painting with drones is a form of freedom where he can be in control of his production. The graffiti drones are an extension of his vision and spirit as an agitator, an amplification of himself. In the same interview, he admits that “drones are becoming this extension of human beings in the same way that we’re growing so close to our smartphones and devices.” (12) The drone, a mobile device that manifests the internet like smartphones and laptops, becomes an extension of the material body by giving the user agency and mobility that transforms them from passive consumer to active onlooker. KATSU’s views are synchronous with those of data privacy activists who believe that control over one’s own data sharing is to possess cultural ownership as well as ownership over one’s identity. The artist’s drone paintings manifest his desire to have curatorial control as well as production control over his art, which in some ways have more value than the art itself. Art historian David Joselit has written about the increasing relevance of the curatorial episteme in global contemporary art since the ascendance of Conceptualism, writing, “the fundamental question is not what counts as a work of art ontologically (within the narrow definition of the Western canon in which Duchamp operated), but rather, what is authorized as legitimately contemporary among all of the alternate aesthetic forms of heritage that have been synchronized with one another since the 1980s.” (13)

 

Though Joselit, here, is discussing the readymade’s historical transformation from sculptural object to cultural strategy, it also applies to my discussion of street art’s transformation from art-object to digital image. By giving agency to the programmed drone, KATSU has allowed his tag to become metabolized by the pixel/digitality of drone technology, resulting in the simultaneous embodiment of graffiti as painting/material and image/virtual. This embodiment of two visual idioms with their distinct ideologies has allowed for a hybrid language to emerge that is beyond one or the other. It is what Suely Rolnick describes as an anthropophagic subjectivity, a destabilization of any absolute or stable identification with any repertoire and gives way to “a plasticity of the contours of subjectivity (instead of identities).” (14) Digital street art is no longer primarily concerned with transforming physical space, but something beyond the public sphere. KATSU explains:

 

They allow me to do what I had always yearned to do. I’ve always looked at a building or looked at a canvas and stretched my arms out with my eyes. My eyes have always been able to reach it but my limbs have never been able to touch and reach these spaces. I can only walk so fast and come back to the vantage point to look at something from a perspective and be able to interact with it. You know, it’s the time-old tale between science fiction and inspiring technology, whatever, but it’s a bizarre line between the drone seeming like this cold, alien thing to most people, but in fact actually being an extremely natural manifestation of human desire and human creativity and human emotion. (15)

 

It is about reconstructing the street artist’s current reality—one that is dominated by a singular voice (in this case, anti-graffiti advocates)—into a new reality infused with alternative subjectivities: a multimedia montage that assembles, fragments, reconstructs, and salvages fiction with reality. Fiction, here, does not mean creating new signs in the semiotic field but rather, an active narrative in which we can introduce myriad ideas, desires, and histories of the marginalized into the norm. It is a call for a balancing of the scales between the dominant historical narrative and the lived reality of the oppressed, a reclamation of one’s stake in the mythology of the globalized world. 

• • •

Sarah Hwang is an art writer currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was an art publishing resident at Art Practical in 2017 and has contributed to Art Practical, FLAT, and Berkshire Fine Arts. In 2021, she will begin a Ph.D. in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art.

Endnotes

1.  In an interview for RJ Rushmore’s Viral Art, KATSU explains his decision to illegally tag the MoCA building: “It [Art in the Streets] was one of the most comprehensive exhibitions on graffiti and vandalism ever and I was not involved. I did not think that I should be but decided that I would be. I wanted to put some ‘real graffiti’ in the show and see how [Jeffrey] Deitch and others would react.” For more, see RJ Rushmore, Viral Art: How the internet has shaped street art and graffiti (USA: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, 2013).

2.  Yayoi Kusama originally conceived her patterned installations as an adolescent during which she had experienced hallucinations (she calls it her “era of mental breakdown”). She had gained early recognition for her early dot fields in 1950s Japan, attracting the attention of Dr. Shiho Nishimaru, a professor of psychiatry of Shinshu University who specialized in the art of the mentally ill. In Dr. Nishimaru’s paper on Kusama, the artist is interviewed about a hallucination she experienced one afternoon as an adolescent in which she saw a pattern of a vase of violets covering the entire room: “I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness.” For more, see Andrew Solomon, “Dot Dot Dot,” Artforum, February 1997, 69.

3.  For more context on graffiti’s origins in hip hop culture, see Style Wars, directed by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver, New York: Public Art Films, 1983; Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon, The History of American Graffiti, New York: Harper Design, 2010; Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America, Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1994; Jeff Chang, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2005—to name a few. For more context on graffiti’s intersection with other subcultures (particularly West Coast graffiti), see Eungie Joo, “The New Folk: Stories from the Backyard,” Flash Art 224 (2002), 124–126; Aaron Rose and Christian Strike, ed., Beautiful Losers, New York: Iconoclast Productions, 2004; Glen Helfand, “Neighborhood Watch: A Microhistory of the Mission School,” in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: 75 Years of Looking Forward, eds. Janet Bishop, Corey Keller and Sarah Roberts, San Francisco: SFMOMA, 2009: 345–351—to name a few.

4.  Stephen Powers, The Art of Getting Over (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 154–155.

5.  Barry McGee (TWIST), reflected on graffiti culture in an interview with the curator of his 1998 exhibition at the Walker Art Center, saying, “Graffiti is very dear to me. I am very protective of it...I like the spontaneity of the outdoors: the walls that are seasoned with layers and years of the contributions of various writers, amateur and experienced. Kids read the walls like history books, naming off each style and era in which markings have taken place. Stories are exchanged about the individual who rises above the “norms” and becomes “the kid who is up” for any given month. All very curious stuff.” For the full interview, see Eungie Joo, ed., Regards, Barry McGee, Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1998.

6.  Joe Austin, Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Problem in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 83.

7.  George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The police and neighborhood safety,” The Atlantic, March 1982, Online

8.  Joe Austin, Taking the Train, 75–106.

9.  David Yassky, who was the former chief counsel to the House Committee on Crime under the Clinton administration and helped to write the 1994 Crime Bill, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times in which he admitted the law led to America’s problem with mass incarceration and was founded on broken windows policing. See David Yassky, “Unlocking the Truth about the Clinton Crime Bill,” New York Times, April 9, 2016, Online.

10.  Style Wars. Directed by Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver. New York: Public Art Films, 1983. Start 6:05.

11.  KATSU, “Interview: KATSU and The Graffiti Drone,” interviewed by Arthur Holland Michel, Bard College Center for the Study of the Drone, April 10, 2014, Online.

12.  Ibid.

13.  David Joselit, Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020), 158.

14.  Suely Rolnick, “Avoiding False Problems: Politics of the Fluid, Hybrid, and Flexible,” e-flux journal, no. 25 (May 2011), Online

15.  KATSU, “Interview: KATSU and The Graffiti Drone.”