First part of an extensive interview Evan Roth granted us last autumn. In this piece, we go through how he came interested in graffiti and the genesis of Graffiti Research Lab.
FC : How did you first became interested in graffiti?
I didn't get interested in graffiti in a serious way until I moved to New York. I always liked it and was aware of it in a very passive way, but I really came to graffiti kind of late. A lot of people get into it when they're young and then have long graffiti careers and have that blossom into other things. I kind of came from the other way around. I already graduated from undergraduate school, I was working in architecture in Los Angeles and decided I wanted to quit that and move to New York and do an Art school and it really came from giving up the car and moving to Brooklyn, becoming a pedestrian and going from Brooklyn to lower Manhattan every day. I think it was, in a way, a pretty good introduction because instead of getting into graffiti through the medias, I just got fascinated by the names repeating.
It started with a tag on my mail box outside of my appartment and realizing it was the same person here, and here, and here, and here, and all the way to school. That's how I started to want to meet those people and became more and more embedded in it.
FC : Can you tell us about the genesis of Graffiti Research Lab?
Picking where we left things with the previous question, I got into graffiti at the same time I got into code.
Moving to New York was really what made me fall in love with graffiti. At the same time, the program I was in was this 2 years masters program in design and technology at Parsons and even though I did some programming before, I was learning from people that really were making cool things with code. GRL is kind of about falling in love with both those things at the same time, and it reflected in my thesis at school which was called Graffiti Analysis and was at the beginning of a lot of work you see here in the studio. It was the first time I was making software as a tool for graffiti writers and with that work I graduated with, I applied for a fellowship in this non profit in NYC that deals with Media Arts which I got. Basically, it consisted in sharing a common space with 3 other artists with no specific obligations.
You just sat in this room and shared space and made stuff. One of the people that happened to get there when I was was that guy named James Powderly. He was coming from a similar kind of school I was, but his background was more in hardware, interested in robotics and these sort of things while mine was more code and pop culture. He and I just started brainstorming ideas. I presented a lot of my work and I think the graffiti side interested him and he realized he had a skillset that could match mine and that the two of us could combine them to basically, from a design stand point, make new tools for the graffiti comunity.
The graffiti comunity always had its tools built in. From the beginning, graffit writers would modify makers, spray paint cans and ink, all these things that I see as technological developpements through graffiti. I actually don't even like it when people put too much on GRL as us being new tools developers for graffiti writers because this is part of graffiti itself. The cats and mouse game between graffiti writers develloping new ways of getting up and authorities finding new ways to buff it was part of the process from the start.
James and I were thinking kind of pragmatically about these questions. The first project we built was the LED throwies and it was just about how to get pixels up in the city. How can we do it and do it in a way that is cheap enough for people to actually use it. We didn't wanna just make demos that were cool but that nobody could duplicate. We wanted to make things that people use because we were always, from the beginning, viewing ourselves more like Q to James Bond. We were not gonna be the guys running around with all the gadgets, even if sometimes we were, but we were really doing our best work while making tools for others to use.
And throwies was the first we did and I think we actually got lucky with it in a sense because it was a really accessible project, super, super easy to use and graffiti writers still saw something in it. The major problem was the fact that, as they are magnetic and you just throw them, sometimes super high, even if it's pretty efficient in terms of permanance/annoyment of removal, it still meant you couldn't comunicate with them really much, like write your name with it, which is kind of the game. So from there we developped a new tool which was this Night writer project that allowed you to spell in pixels, have a grid and spell words out and some of those stayed up a long time too for the same reasons, they are just magnets but they are up so high in these odd places that they tend to stick around for a long time, long after the batteries are out.
FC : But I guess that's a long way to get into GRL.
Basically the beginning of the project was just about how we took this felloswhip and this year or two to do whatever we wanted and decided to spend our time making tools for this specific community.
FC : What is the feedback you got from the graffiti community on these projects and from the public in general?
It changed over time. It feels like a long time ago actually. The initial reaction was an online reaction and was way bigger than we expected and also came from a different place than we expected. You need to understand the other goal of GRL, outside of graffiti, was all about spreading the opensource culture and free culture. So, aside from anything graffiti related, it was just a mechanism of spreading and circulating these open ideas. For that reason, we always made videos that we assumed would be the more viral element possible and we'd add something else, wether how-to guides or source-code or some elements of the project that were open and free and distributable.
Again, the first one was throwies and we had this video and this how-to guide and the video got plenty of views but the how-to guide ended up being this huge virtual piece and in a sense became one of the first "all over the fences" project on the website Instructable, which is this huge comunity for DYI people. That kind of scene was just blossoming and people just lauchted on to that how-to guide which was really perfect for us. If you look at it, in the beginning our audience was primarely an online audience and a DYI audience, even if we were still using it more in a graffiti context.
LED throwies Demo
I really see my work, graffiti wise or not, as pop art, meaning trying to make work that can make all these different comunities look at the same pieces. However, I still always feel that no matter how popular a project is getting, if the graffiti public hates it it's kind of a faillure. I think that's actually really good grounding in fact because even if it fails, when you are thinking that way, the work tends to be a little bit more sincere. For instance, I teach classes too and talk to students a lot and I kind of view that as a guide line, always asking myself "what would Banksy do?" and then "are graffiti writers gonna hate this?" and why?
Even from the beginning, the Graffiti Analysis Project, pre GRL, wasn't really a reaction against the street art scene, but it was coming kind of out of that time period in the mid 2000's when the New York Times was first starting to write about street art and when that was just coming to public counciousness. You would read all these articles where people would be sptitting on graffiti, on what is graffiti or street art. That time when that was the conversation and, although I love street art and I have friends that are street artists, I didn't like that idea that street art was something so different from graffiti that they had to distance themselves from it so much.
I guess that's why I was kind of really getting into the Graffiti Analysis Program and making software that wasn't just for public space but specifically designed for graffiti writers. It was a way to cast light on that community. It's understandable why the media reported so much on street art at that period because it was so big and blew up so fast and is a much more accessible art form.
Sometimes the work I'm doing I kind of view as giving other people a language for understanding the most hated parts of the craft which, to me, are the most interesting parts of the craft. Like tags. How many conversations did you probably have with people saying things like "oh I hate the tags but love the pieces" "I love the beautiful colors".
I think for people that are in the scene it always comes back to the tag. The tag is kind of the skeleton of any healthy graffiti career. I think coming up with projects that can allow people to have somekind of excitment when they come home and find tags on their door and be like "ok I hate that but I did see this cool piece" or whatever is what I try to achieve. I don't know if you saw the graffiti taxonomy piece I did but this grid of graffiti letters is a piece that really hits these 2 sides, where a lot of graffiti writers actually tend to like it because it's very much just about the writting but then also, people who are completly outside of graffiti actually like it too because it allows them to see the design and craft itself. They can look at it and say "ok, I can see how it's not only people throwing paint on the wall, I can see wether I hate it or love it how they can have very different ideas on how a single letter is crafted". Pieces like that where two communities can come and look and hopefully take away something from it are kind of the ones wether in GRL or in my solo work I try to focus on the most.
FC : Were you contacted by financial organizations regarding your research and what commercial applications do you see in what you do?
As in advertising? There was a time period where I really think that every single company that advertised on prime television in the US contacted GRL. Hopefully that time period has passed a bit because there's been a lot of digital projection and a lot of public spaces projects had come out since then, but at the time it was pretty new to be using new technlogy in that way. The hard part for me was knowing I wasn't getting personnally involve with that through Graffiti Reserch Lab or my solo work, which are both kind of reactions against advertising, but couldn't help it getting involved by itself. I mean the whole idea of making tools was trying to level the plain field of communication people have in the city. Throwies and laser tags are only ok if we can get cheap better tools to us and artists and activists and it would be better to see more activism in graffiti and less advertisment. So we knew from the beginning if we started an advertising branch, then we wouldn't be levelling that plain field anymore we would be doing the opposite of what we started for. The really hard part is we also wanna give away what we built for free, but how do you give everything away but meanwhile tell the advertisers they can't use it? It's really tricky. There are different licences, non commercial open licences, but those even get tricky too because of the thin line between what is advertisment or not.
And in the end all these laws matter only if you have money for lawyers, so it was just a year long learning curve of trying to deal with seeing people using the projects James and I created in way we weren't a 100% confortable with There was no easy way around that. We could have let it keep us awake at night but, at one point, we just had to develop thick skin for it.
Also, I still think the internet is really good at detecting bullshit. I think people can pick up really clear subtile clues when it comes to advertising and lack of honesty on it. And I believe a reason why people like cat videos and youtube videos is because they can tell they're real. When a company tries to fake them, you can tell it almost all the time. So when GRL would release a project and someone would rip it off, you could see it on the youtube view account. We would have a million plus views or something but views came back to us. It's conforting to see they can't really own ideas. I think we still own most of the pieces. So far, no one really riped us off so bad they really surpaced the original media at work.
FC : Where do you think graffiti is going in the future?
I think there is a lot more to be done with lasers and not just coming from someone having a mild obsession in that. But I also think the problem is it's gonna get regulated more and more. Right now people are still able to go on internet and order all these crazy lasers from China, but the problem is, once they'll get to the point where they can really be used to mark physically something, meaning of course if they can leave a mark on brick, they can leave an even bigger mark on flesh, it will become kind of dangerous. But there is still so much that can be done there. I don't know if that will turn into a big tool or not though. The problem being a lot of the more tecky ideas related to graffiti are also not going to be widely adopted by the community. And I like the fact that graffiti still is mainly about, "ok I went off the subway and saw your name on the wall" and it's there, it's not a projection, it's not a billboard hack or whatever that can put up my name up there for ten minutes. I like that the kind of old schlool model of graffiti is gonna last. I don't know how these traditions progress but I like that it doesn't turn into all the GRL projects for exemple. I never wanted that to be the future. I always thought of GRL like this little ademdum to graffiti. It was never ment to be moving to an all digital projections graffiti world. That would be my worst nightmare actually.
"Laser Knuckles" In collaboration with Julien Tèchoueyres for Graffiti Research Lab France.