On the possibilities of interactive graffiti and street art

From culinary practices to painting, over time the work that creative people and organizations produce, not to mention the context in which it is made, changes. How does this happen?

Actors, artists, chefs, musicians, etc. integrate new ideas and perspectives in to their practice, experiment with different techniques, and practitioners enter and exit the creative game.

The field of contemporary graffiti and street art is no different. Since the late 1960s graffiti writers and street artists have experimented with new markers, paints, materials, etc. and they have applied their work on an increasingly diverse array of public surfaces. Some of this signage involves the integration or adoption of new technologies.

For example social media websites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have subtly effected how some graffiti writers and street artists practice their craft. No longer are graffiti and street art images and messages simply ephemeral (i.e., here today and gone tomorrow), but they can be seen anywhere (throughout the world) by anyone who has access to the internet, almost in perpetuity. At the very least, social media has extended the concepts of “all city” or “all country” to the field of graffiti.

Currently selected members of the graffiti and street art community are experimenting with creating and selling their work through Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs). As the relationship between graffiti and street art and NFTs gets clarified, we are bound to notice subtle shifts in the way graffiti and street art is created and the reasons why people may are attracted to this medium.

Also important have the been the brief experiments with the use of drones as a technique to apply graffiti on surfaces.

One of the areas that graffiti and street art, and selected types of visual art have struggled with, however, is the static nature of the medium. In general, unlike a mobile, graffiti and street art does not move nor respond to its immediate environment, including its audience.

Although this begs the question should graffiti and street art respond to direct (and nonstructural – like a nearby building) external influences, and if so, in what manner, how so, and how long?

Nevertheless, we have some clues with respect to how graffiti and street art may be developed to enable it to be more interactive and respond to its immediate surroundings.

Over the past few years a number of companies have pioneered digital graffiti. Currently a handful of vendors rent air graffiti walls, which primarily consist of interactive computer vision systems that are used at events and parties. Guests or party goers are given devices that resemble spray cans, that emit a low level LED. When activated the light sensor in the can is recognized by a large digital screen, which enables users to create simulated electronic graffiti walls. Although this kind of exercise looks like a fun activity, it is at the periphery of what we commonly consider graffiti and street art to be.

Similarly there are a number of individuals and organizations that are pioneering interactive wall and floor projections or video and sound immersive art installations. These are available in selected museums like ARTECHOUSE in Washington DC. Unlike most graffiti and street art, however, this requires a place (and surface) where permission is granted and the technology is quite costly.

Finally an alternative system relies upon a mobile phone “coupled with the emerging pervasive technology of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID).” This allows people who use this system to post messages on designated spots from remote locations.

Although this technology is interesting and important, the system and process that has yet to be built, however, would enable the creator and audience to directly and quickly interact and engage with an existing piece of graffiti or street art. And this interaction might also enable these constituencies to produce subtle shifts in the piece. This co-productive technology would also need to be relatively cheap for both the practitioner using it, and the audience responding. Moreover it would also need to be light and portable so that it could be placed somewhere relatively quickly to enable the practitioner to protect their anonymity.

When this technology gets paired with graffiti and street art the possibilities for real time interaction, creativity, and engagement will be awesome.

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford
Someday I’ll Be An Interactive Art.
Do not dream, just be!

Do the signs of our time work?

If you live in an urban, suburban or even exurban environment you will encounter a number of signs.

Signs may be so pervasive like the ones that are placed in subway cars or they may be intermittent, such as those placed beside interstate highways. Although signs are part of the visual landscape, most people ignore them until they have specific needs. In other settings, however, signs may overwhelm us, and our perception of our surroundings.

Take for example, New York City’s Times Square, where numerous billboards electronic or otherwise, compete for our attention, along with the distracting street culture (including other people standing, walking or performing) in this area. Alternatively, again taking NYC as an example, the Lower East Side and East Village is inundated with graffiti and street art. These items incorporate numerous messages competing for attention and often in dialogue with each other. In these locations it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with the visual information.

The purpose of signs

Signs are supposed to help, to assist, to instruct, and to influence. The most common ones provide directions for pedestrians, cyclists, or motorists to enable them to make decisions regarding their movement. Most of the other signs are advertising. The person or organization that created them wants you to buy something, purchase a service, or influence your religious, political or social beliefs. Still other signs, such as graffiti or street art, can provoke. Signs are meant to signify, to tell the reader to pay attention to the communication.

Types of signs

Predictably not all signs, regardless of the type are equal, not just in their placement and messaging, but in their size, and design. Sometimes signs are text based, whereas others are primarily symbols or images, and still many incorporate all of these elements.

Signs can be simple, recognizable and universal. And the message is rarely open to interpretation. Visual art, on the other hand, which incorporates signs, symbols and imagery, typically means different things to different people. Alternatively signs can be complicated, where their message is unclear, confusing or open to interpretation. Sometimes this is by design and at others by accident.

What’s a good sign?

Predictably not all signs work equally well. Although the message might be clear, the sign may be placed in the wrong or an improper place.

Alternatively the person who wrote it did a poor job, the medium chosen was suboptimal, and the reader of the sign lacks the knowledge or skill or visual literacy to deconstruct what it means.

If a sign it going to be effective then it typically needs to communicate a message that will resonate in the mind of the reader and it must be placed in a location where the observer will see it.

We can probably distinguish how good a sign is by its’ ability to force viewers to distinguish between the signal and the noise. More specifically a question that needs to be asked is how much labor does it take the viewer to figure it out.

The problem is probably not what makes a good sign, as the field of graphic design has a number of good criteria, but why are so many good signs placed in poor locations.

What’s a bad sign?

Most signs, however are not that helpful. The design, size, and placement are poor. Some environments are better than others for placement. A poorly placed sign in an airport, for example, can lead travelers to miss their connection. A well designed sign placed on the high point of a bridge spanning a gorge or river, offering free counseling services to people who are suicidal may be located in the wrong position. What is the solution?

How can signs be more helpful?

There are numerous ways to increase the likelihood that signs are effective. These include

• Securing the services of a qualified and experienced professional to design the sign; someone who is on top of their game.
• Asking a number of people for their input on what is the best place to put the sign. In other words, don’t simply rely on the installer to make this decision.
• Always keep the audience in mind. If the message is too high brow, few people will understand the meaning.
• Take into consideration the context (where it is placed) and juxtaposition (i.e., what it is next to).
• Seek feedback from users early into the design and placement process, to minimize costs of fabrication where we have to go back to the drawing board.

These recommendations seem deceptively simple, but either because of a lack of resources, or exhaustion appear to be frequently ignored. All in all the proof is in the pudding. Individual concerned with the efficacy of signs must constantly ask themselves, does the sign work, why does it work, (and why not) and how can the sign be corrected or improved.

David Jones 大卫 琼斯
Painfully Unhelpful Sign, Greenwich Park, 12-05-2006

Does where scholars live affect the subjects they choose to investigate?

What motivates academics to choose certain topics, fields, issues, and questions for intense study?

Numerous factors are typically at play here.

Although serendipity may be an important motivation, in some cases the place where and circumstances under which a scholar grew up may affect investigators choice of research question to ask, answer or explore. Thus the socio-economic class in which an academic was raised, not to mention their race/ethnicity, gender, and dynamics connected to the place of origin (e.g., city, suburbs, county, region, country, etc.), can have subtle or direct effects on the range of topics that they wish to explore.

Alternatively a prospective scholars’ experiences during their graduate training (e.g., a supportive mentor, rejection from a particular program or college, etc.) can motivate them to choose certain topics to investigate.

Access to grant funding may also be an important reason why academics choose one subject or another to focus on. In other words, in this context “research interests” are less of a concern than proposals won versus those lost.

Then again, some disciplines are more appealing to some scholars rather than others.

More importantly, assuming academics are still active researchers, does the place that they currently live have an effect on the questions they investigate?

Although these interrelated questions can be applied to different types of investigators and fields, the relevance of where an academic lives to the question investigated may be more relevant for scholars in the social sciences, in particular Criminology/Criminal Justice.

Why might living relatively close to a research site/or population under study be preferable?

There are numerous advantages of living close to the research site or population under investigation. To begin with, living in or next to the place or population where you also conduct your research, means that the expenditure of resources and access may be relatively low. Physical proximity may also sensitize investigators to subtle issues of context. This is especially true of ethnographic research and related types of “insider” research where lived experience could be useful.

Why living close to a research site/population may not be possible or advisable?

Living in or close to a research site, such as a prison, barrio, favela, or ghetto however, may not be possible or advisable. The place might be unnecessarily dangerous, putting ones health and life on the line. In the case of carceral institutions, many are located in remote areas, and thus living nearby is almost next to impossible.

This proximity can also minimize the objectivity one needs to do thoughtful and unbiased scholarly study. Thus it may hinder “insider” researchers to being open to accepting alternative and important insights. For example, one or more of the ex-patriot Lost Generation writers, who moved to Paris during the 1920s, like Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, often remarked that it was much easier to write about life back in the United States, in a detached and objective manner. Thus, you don’t have to live in an impoverished area to write with an authoritative voice about what occurs there.

On the other hand, conducting research about a place that is a considerable physical distance from where the scholar lives presents numerous challenges.

This is especially true if an investigator has chosen to conduct an ethnography, where access to the research site may require long hours of travel on a regular basis.

The reality however, is that researchers may have little control over where they live. Many scholars are significantly bounded by geography. Why? Universities are located in a variety of locations; inner cities, suburbs, college towns. And not all faculty can afford to or want to live in the same neighborhood or city where they teach (e.g., San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, etc.), thus they have to live relatively far away from their work. Scholars may also be tied to a city, county, or region because of the needs, wants and desires of a spouse, children, or eldercare responsibilities.

If researchers can’t live close to a research site or population, what options do they have?

Unless the majority of your research is quantitative, analyzing data collected by others, or primarily theoretical work, then it’s probably important to have to visit your research setting on a regular basis. For a scholar this may be on weekend, holidays, and during the summer when they do not have to be in class or have on campus obligations.

The next best alternative is to have either knowledgeable and trustworthy insiders, whom you are in contact with on a frequent basis.

No research setting is perfect. Cost benefit decisions always need to be made. The challenge is to carefully weigh the predicted benefit (i.e., quality of the study, probability of completion, etc.) against the expenditure (e.g., time, money, necessity of securing a grant, etc.). This is rarely an easy decision for most scholars to make. But one they must carefully consider.

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