Last month, the notorious graffiti artist KATSU caught a tag that had, until then, been pretty much unimaginable. Using a modified drone equipped with a spray can, he painted a series of gestural red lines on one of the largest and most prominent billboards in New York City. Right across the face of Kendall Jenner, no less. The video of the stunt, which was the first recorded instance of public drone graffiti, got over a million hits within a week.
The stunt demonstrated that the graffiti drone, which KATSU unveiled in an interview last year, not only works, but is rather effective. Some, like the UK's Telegraph, went as far as to declare that a new era of vandalism was upon us.
And now, at icarusone.com, you can find everything you need to build your own graffiti drone, which KATSU has christened as ICARUS ONE. All it takes is a spray can, some tape, an arduino, some zip ties, and a tomato cage, and, of course, the drone itself, which costs around $500. The ICARUS will, in theory, allow graffiti writers to make spraywork that's larger and more far-reaching than anything that could be achieved with any other tool currently available on the market.
Judging by the instructions on the website, building your own ICARUS, which KATSU developed with the help of the artist Becky Stern, is not a walk in the park. But it isn't rocket science either. It does take some soldering, and one of the components, the mechanism that pushes the nozzle on the spray can, needs to be 3D-printed. You'll also need to know your way around an arduino. Those who consider soldering more difficult than dangling one-handed from a bridge can order a pre-made ICARUS directly from the source, though these orders will be reviewed on a "case-by-case basis."
KATSU assured me that the payoff of all that soldering and tinkering is significant. "The scale one can draw with ICARUS is frightening," he told me over email. "Imagine scrawling your name or a doodle 100 feet by 100 feet. Imagine sitting on a rooftop at night while your drone tags the building across the street. You could paint a rooftop on one busy street corner then fly over and paint one across the avenue."
It seems the artist's plan is simple: empower artists, wreak havoc.
He said he intends to build a fleet of ICARI to distribute among his troublemaking associates in order to seed an online community of graffiti-drone users. If there is enough demand, he told me, he will consider mass production. The design is completely open source, and people who make their own ICARUS are encouraged to expand, modify, and improve on the technology.
"Writers will able to deploy ICARUS in hostile environments and remove themselves from harm's way. Painting bridges, overpasses, entire building faces, trains, trucks, and police cars," he explained. (He declined to say whether he had made any new outings with the graffiti drone since the Jenner tag). I asked him to name a place that he could tag with the graffiti drone that would have been impossible to reach by the traditional methods.
"Statue of Liberty's face," he replied.
Want to see how KATSU does it? Here's his exclusive demo for Motherboard:
"I predict a lot of intense mischief, and a lot of puzzled property owners," the prolific NYC-based tagger Seka replied when I asked his opinion of KATSU's project. Seka said that, although he is not sure he would build his own ICARUS, he definitely wants to experiment with one. He speculated that the challenge of building an ICARUS might dissuade a large portion of vandals. "Maybe if graff drones were available at Home Depot, and one could rack them, then people would probably be all about them. "
But even if it were available to be stolen from your nearest hardware store, not everybody in the community is excited to get their hands on the new technology. Some consider it unnecessary.
'Imagine sitting on a rooftop at night while your drone tags the building across the street,' said KATSU. 'You could paint a rooftop on one busy street corner then fly over and paint one across the avenue.'
"Graffiti writers have been hitting the top of buildings for years, and they need no drones," explained the founder of the graffiti blog bombingscience.com, who would only identify himself as "Fred." "Maybe the drone thing will be exciting for a couple of nerdy graffiti writers. But 99 percent of them will still hit the rooftops by all means necessary."
Others see it as antithetical to the spirit of the art form. For many, the physical challenge and peril of graffiti and vandalism is what it's all about, and the graffiti drone eliminates that element of the experience.
"At the end of the day, writers around the world will still be climbing and risking their lives for those highest spots," a representative from the blog Graffuturism, who refused to even give his or her first name, wrote in an email.
"I don't dislike the drone idea," explained Seka, "I just don't predict it having the same energetic punch and passion as a raw street tag."
"It's like the US bombing the Middle East," wrote the Graffuturism rep. "You are out of the line of fire."
But graffiti is also about putting as much paint on walls as possible in the shortest period of time. As a tool for what Brett Webb, who founded the formative graffiti site artcrimes.com, described to me via email as "pure vandalism," it's hard to deny the potential of the graffiti drone. To be sure, it replaces adrenaline and physical strength with cold, hard code, but the idea is to paint walls illegally on a larger scale than ever before.
In this respect, the graffiti drone appears to take after the drones that are transforming war, oil and gas, moviemaking, and online shopping, among a host of other industries. Just as KATSU hopes that ICARUS will enable artists and troublemakers to reach walls and bridges more quickly, efficiently, and safely than humans, Amazon and Google are investing considerable time and effort on a drone-delivery system that they hope will get you your iPad case, or whatever, faster than any man with a van. "I think drones will have a place in every facet of our lives," KATSU told me.
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Of course, just as with Amazon's delivery drones—which Audi compared in an advertisement to Hitchcock's The Birds—some portion of the hype surrounding the graffiti drone is based on the unsettling prospect of aerial robotics doing our bidding, rather than the reality, which is somewhat more pedestrian. Drones aren't harbingers of the singularity, they aren't all armed with missiles, and they don't always function as seamlessly as we'd like to believe (or worry).
Indeed, to some, like Webb, the ICARUS appears to have a ways to go before artists and vandals will be able to exercise the same control over their paint as they can when they use their hands. "What I've seen, has been extremely crude as far as quality," he wrote, and the drone "looks pretty tough to operate."
"The ICARUS ONE works quite well but takes mastering," KATSU conceded. "You will need much patience to learn to pilot with paint."
But this model, KATSU hastened to add, is only the Wright Flyer. In October, he and fellow FAT Lab member Maddy Verner plan to release ICARUS TWO, which uses computer vision to autonomously draw designs as one makes them in real time on an iPad. KATSU suggested that someday a departed graffiti writer could leave behind an ICARUS TWO to catch his or her tags in perpetuity, as long as someone charges its batteries.
Brett Webb described the graffiti drone as another step forward in the continuing automation of vandalism, a process that he says is long-standing and ongoing, and includes fellow graffiti artists Cost and Revs's innovations with the copy machine and the printed sticker, which allowed vandals to replicate their tags easily and cheaply.
While it seems somewhat unlikely that drones will become the new sticker of the graffiti world, it's not altogether impossible. As other sectors of the drone industry have demonstrated, open-source systems develop rapidly and remorselessly.
It remains to be seen whether KATSU's mad vision of swarms of ICARI swooping through city streets like banshees in the night, spraying every imaginable clean surface, will ever be realized. But if it does, this is how it all began.
Arthur Holland Michel is founder and editor of the interdisciplinary research and art group Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. He lives in Brooklyn, and is on Twitter.