HomeThe Drone That Will Change Graffiti: An Interview with KATSU

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ARTHUR HOLLAND MICHEL

KATSU is an artist and a vandal and a clever hacker too. His work pushes our idea of what can be achieved with the graffiti artist’s limited tool-set. Having established himself as one of New York City’s most prolific and imaginative taggers in the 1990s, he garnered admiration from the arts community (and condemnation from the authorities) when he pioneered the fire extinguisher spray can, which has permitted him to expand the scale of his art by orders of magnitude. He famously demoed it at “Art in the Streets,” a 2012 show at the the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, when, without invitation, he left his multi-story calling card on the side of the museum.

His new project is not fake or hypothetical, though it does elevate his work to new heights. He has developed a system to attach a spray can to a quadcopter, creating the world’s first true graffiti drone. The drone is capable of spraying canvases or walls hundreds of feet high, granting the artist access to physical spaces that were previously inaccessible. At the Silicon Valley Contemporary art fair, which opens April 10, KATSU will show a series of canvasses that were created with his graffiti drone. The drone is capable of spraying canvases or walls hundreds of feet high, granting the artist access to physical spaces that were previously inaccessible. The video above, produced with The Hole NYC, his gallery, shows the drone in action.

Motherboard: What are you actually going to do with the drone?
KATSU: A lot of my work comes out of demonstrating and experimenting with different technologies for creative use. Basically, drones have lowered in cost enough that they are attainable, so I got my hands on some DJI Phantom 2s, and I have been experimenting with the idea of using drones to accomplish the same things that drones are beginning to be used for in broader society, but in this case for crime, vandalism, art. I really want to look into the way that a person and a drone could connect. I thought, ‘I could go out into the city and spray paint using a drone wherever I wanted to, in basically unreachable spots and in unusable areas.’

IT’S LIKE 50 PERCENT ME HAVING CONTROL AND 50 PERCENT THE DRONE KIND OF LIKE SAYING, ‘I NEED TO TURN THIS WAY TO ACCOMPLISH WHAT YOU WANT, BUT STILL MAINTAIN MYSELF SO I DON’T JUST FLY INTO THE WALL AND EXPLODE.’ WHICH IT DOES, ALL THE TIME.

How much is up to the drone, in terms of the ultimate form? Do you find that you have pretty strict control over how the piece looks, or does the drone do its own thing?
To a large degree, it’s up to the drone. It’s like, I’m telling this device to basically accommodate this new attached payload that has an unusual shape, which then changes the drone’s shape. The drone is suddenly trying to adjust in real-time to the decreasing weight of the paint as the can empties. The flight patterns, the gestures, are my control.

BLACK MAGIC, 2014. ENAMEL ON CANVAS.

THE UNDERCOVERS DROVE BY IN A CAB, AND THEY WERE LOOKING AT ME AND LOOKING AT THIS DRONE AND YOU COULD JUST SEE IT ON THEIR FACES THAT THEY WERE REALLY MESMERIZED AND CONFUSED AND SCARED AND EXCITED, ALL AT THE SAME TIME.

So at some point you might want to actually put a program into the drone, so that it flies up and does the whole thing without any of your intervention?
To a certain degree. The use of the drone needs to be half a project of innovation and half a project of expression. In no way will I think programming the drone to go and execute or render a pre-programmed image will ever have more value than these canvases in this painting series that I’ve created now with my direct input, but 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.

Part of the idea is that you want to get your tags to more inaccessible places, then? The work with the fire extinguishers was part of that desire. I mean, with a drone you’re going to be able to really get the paint to places that no one would really be able to with the previously existing means.
I think that’s part of the point of creating this: pushing the possibilities. Finding ways to further monitor and explore the situation with technology, drone technology. Because we’re in this weird period where people don’t know what drones really are, the general public doesn’t really understand the implications of what drones are and what they can do. There aren’t any clear laws right now.