How my obsession with an augmented reality gaming app centred on hidden graffiti art made me engage with the city on a whole new level.
I had been living in London for years, and in thinking of myself as a Londoner, I had already grown tired of her charms. In a city that has been the focal point of every modern western historical incident from Wellington and Nelson to William Wallace, and where every great mind from Shakespeare to Sherlock has lived, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by it all. So easy, that instead of exploring Temple church to see the Knights Templar effigies, or visiting the birth-homes of Charlie Chaplin and Charles Dickens, I often opted to spend my nights in, eating Pret-A-Manger sandwiches and watching Eastenders, waiting for my death.
My only joy came on the weekends when I would explore Shoreditch and Hackney for street art and graffiti murals, which I’ve always enjoyed—and for a time I ran a small street art blog that catalogued all the urban art that crossed my path. That meant I was somewhat in the loop when, in 2014, I caught wind of a new, free street art app that turned “graff-hunting” (as I call it) into a real-life video game. It was called Flash Invaders and it centered on the Parisian street artist Space Invader.
For fans of the 2009 Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, you might remember Space Invader as the cousin of protagonist Mr Brainwash. Using bathroom tiles and a lot of epoxy resin, Space Invader creates small mosaics in the image of the Space Invader aliens from the eponymous 1980s video arcade game. He places them on walls, bridges, overpasses and ledges all around the world. I had hunted and photographed his work before, as he’s left his mark in major cities all around the world like New York, Miami, Hong Kong, Kathmandu, Paris, Amsterdam, and many more. But this new app took the act of graff-hunting and turned it into a game of points and high scores, much like Pokemon Go, but predating it by two years. And also, not lame as fuck.
London was suddenly new and exciting again, and the familiar streets I thought I knew inside and out became strange. I had to look at them with new eyes, because now I was scouring every nook and cranny for Space Invaders.
As soon as I would stumble upon a ‘Vader in Soho or Finsbury Park or Old Street, I would whip out my device and take a picture, or “flash” the piece with the app. (It wouldn’t allow you to use photographs from your camera roll, to prevent cheating.) The app uses your GPS location and the image provided and cross-references it against the large databank of “activated” ‘Vaders around the world. And if there’s a match, your device makes this “dun-dun-TAH-DAH!” video arcade midi-type chime and your screen flashes with how many points you’ve earned with that particular ‘Vader. Most of the old ‘Vaders are worth a mere 10 points, but some of the bigger pieces are 50 points. And the large ‘Vaders that are new and timely garner a whopping 100 points.
It became especially exciting to scour London for ‘Vaders every time the street art blogs and listserv’s announced that the artist himself was in town and had slapped up a dozen new pieces. Suddenly it became a race to flash the pieces before the street art looters scraped them off the walls in an attempt to sell them on eBay, or business owners caught wind of the vandalism and blasted them off. If the blogs sent you to a specific ‘Vader location, but the piece was already gone, that piece was quickly catalogued in the databank as “deactivated,” and you could no longer get the points for it.
To this day, Flash Invaders is still wildly popular. In fact, Invader recently posted on his official Instagram page that the app has surpassed one million flashes. When Invader put up new pieces in Ravenna, Italy a few weeks ago, the front page headline of the French newspaper Libération said that Invader’s invasions are without end. With his recent invasion of Tokyo, and the thousands of users on the app, it seems Flash Invaders won’t be losing steam anytime soon.
The great thing about Flash Invaders for me was it forced me to pay attention to the city that I had already begun to take for granted. I would look at every street that I’d walked down a hundred times with fresh new eyes, like a modern day flâneur. Every world-weary Londoner is sick of Westminster Bridge and the London Eye. But recently I actually headed straight for that area and elbowed past throngs of gaudy American tourists with their fanny packs and selfie sticks just because the blogs reported a new ‘Vader had been erected on the south embankment. Sure the area is a tourist trap, but I have to admit, the view of a ‘Vader overlooking Big Ben and the houses of Parliament to the north at dusk is quite the beautiful sight. It also took me to areas of London I had never seen before and would never have had the impetus to visit otherwise. London is just such a sprawling metropolis, if you live in Tooting Broadway, you would have no reason whatsoever to visit Ladbroke Grove, which is on the other side of the city and a two-hour tube-ride away. ‘Vader became that reason for me.
Hunting ‘Vaders along Rivington Street in Shoreditch led me to discover murals by Thierry Noir, the French artist who famous painted the Berlin Wall during the height of the Iron Curtain. Because of ‘Vaders, I discovered everything from the colourful Brixton Market, to the popular blue door featured in the Hugh Grant-Julia Roberts rom com Notting Hill, to the rooftop on Savile Row where The Beatles infamously performed their final public concert.
Furthermore, it connected me to a large graff-hunting community that was more than willing to share tips, maps, and locations. I would run into many fellow ‘Vader flashers on the street, easily identifiable by their devices pointed skyward, trying to zoom in on small mosaic tiles. But like most 21st century interactions, most of my connections came from the internet. ‘Vader hunters run huge Instagram accounts and post their finds using hashtags like #invaderlondon #invaderwashere and #SpaceInvaderLondon.
In fact, some Instagram groups, like the #reactivationteamUK and @spacerescue_intl have become so popular, they decided to make it their mission to “reactivate” some of the “deactivated” ‘Vaders, and even managed to get the elusive artist Space Invader himself to collab. Once these groups have remade the old, damaged, or destroyed ‘Vaders, and placed them back in their original locations, Space Invader himself will make sure those pieces are once again “flashable” on the app. It’s a huge network of people who do all of this for free, just because they enjoy public, urban art and they want to share in the joy. And as luck would have it, they’ve shared it with me.
I’m returning to London this holiday season and have already begun planning which coveted ‘Vaders I want to find and which other hunters I want to collab with whilst there. Three years later, the game still excites me because the scavenger hunt has become addictive. As long as ‘Vader continues his ‘invasions,’ there will always be new pieces to find, new areas to explore, and new art to admire.
Follow Christine Estima on Twitter .