What is Digital Graffiti?

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The first well documented use of the term “Digital Graffiti” was in 2008 and can be attributed to the Graffiti Research Lab (GRL) in the United States. Since then, several other organizations and companies have used the same term to describe their own new products or technologies. Almost universally, “Digital Graffiti” has been used to describe technologies which allow artists to create graffiti without damaging or “vandalizing” real walls on city streets.

The L.A.S.E.R. digital tag system created by the GRL made use of a modified spray can, which emitted infrared light instead of paint. The problem with that early attempt at allowing the creation of virtual graffiti was that it did not allow the artist to see their creation in front of them as they were painting. As technology has continued to improve and evolve, so too have digital graffiti systems.

The popularity and profile of street art has been on a seemingly unstoppable upwards trajectory for some time now, which has allowed artists such as Alec Monopoly and Eduardo Kobra to finally gain the recognition they deserve. Could 2021 be the year that digital graffiti goes mainstream, too? To find out, we looked at the latest steps in the evolution of this exciting technology.

Invisible Graffiti?

Cast your mind back to 2016, and you may remember the launch of an augmented reality game called “Pokémon Go”. A smash hit immediately upon release, Nintendo’s latest addition to its ever-popular monster catching franchise was the first time that augmented reality technology gained truly widespread mainstream popularity.

Witnessing this, it is perhaps not surprising that some people wondered what else this technology could be used for. It wasn’t long before somebody remembered earlier attempts at creating digital graffiti, and decided that augmented reality was the perfect medium through which to create new pieces of art.

Fast-forward roughly two years, and mobile publisher iDreamSky had partnered with developers SyBo to create their own take on the digital graffiti concept. Their description was simple – and intriguing, too. “Imagine a world that’s filled with invisible graffiti. Open our app, point your phone at the wall, and view or create new art”.

Mark AR

The app was called Mark AR and offered a variety of tools such as digital spray paints, stencils, and felt tipped pens. Artists were free to mix and match these tools on their smartphones or tablets, and the app would remember the location and placement of each piece so that others could locate them on a map to visit and view them.

That all sounds like a great start, but the need to use a smartphone or tablet to draw each piece seemed like an obvious Achilles heel when Mark AR was first unveiled in 2019. Developer SyBo must have thought the same, as in October that same year they took Mark AR to the New York Comic Con – along with several top-of-the-range 65” touchscreen displays.

Although many walls chosen for complex street art are likely to be larger than these screens, this was still undoubtedly a huge step forward for digital graffiti. Microsoft showed off a similar piece of software for their “Surface” table-mounted display back in 2012, but the largest touch screens available back then were just 32” – a working area four times smaller than what SyBo was able to find in 2019.

Both the general public and professional artists alike appeared to be having enormous fun experimenting with this new iteration of digital graffiti. Those who are less artistically inclined were able to take a virtual walk around the streets of cities including New York (USA), Bristol (UK), and Stockholm (Sweden), searching for artworks that had been drawn by other visitors earlier in the day.

Being able to view your work in progress in real time makes digital graffiti appear genuinely viable as a means of creating digital artworks. The ability to tag each piece to a physical location presents an interesting and exciting new potential distribution channel for artists, and the advent of Non-Fungible Token (NFT) technology could also mean that finished pieces can still be sold to interested parties whilst still allowing them to be viewed by people on the streets, too.

Summing Up

Those same “top-of-the-range” panels used in 2019 have since been superseded by 75”, 84”, and 86” models from Philips and iiyama, with the older 65” screens now selling for just $1,500. Interested parties would still need to buy the Mark AR software plus the accompanying input peripherals too, but at this price it is well within reach of any artist who fancies being among the first to embrace one of art’s most modern technological developments.

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