For The Open Source Graffiti Movement, Digitized Tags Are Just The Beginning

How The Open Source Graffiti Movement Is Hacking Culture

Whether old school graffiti artists like it or not, their craft is being open sourced. The mere act of writing a tag has already been hacked and if Jamie Wilkinson has his way, the resulting data will be easily shared and plugged into a variety of applications.

Wilkinson, a software engineer and Internet culture researcher, is the technical brains behind #000000Book, an open repository of files coded in Graffiti Markup Language (GML), a file format that stores a sort of digital recording of graffiti tags being written out. The database, pronounced "Black Book", contains over 40,000 tags from amateurs and legendary graffiti writers alike. The user-submitted collection of tags serves as a public record that can be used in all sorts of digital graffiti projects. As it turns out, it also has cultural implications that go well beyond what its creators intended.

"GML is premised on the idea that sharing all this stuff is good for creativity," says Wilkinson. "It would be interesting to see what more sharing does for communities like this."

That curiosity is precisely what Wilkinson is trying to satiate in his collaboration with Evan Roth, Theo Watson and other members of the Free Art & Technology (F.A.T.) Lab and its offshoot, the Graffiti Research Lab. Collectively, the team is responsible for an array of innovative digital graffiti projects, all of which are now linked together by an open data standard anyone can use.

The movement to digitize graffiti tags borrows heavily from the spirit behind open source software and the Internet itself, something that comes across very clearly when Wilkinson talks about it. 


Installation view of  'Every GML' by Theo Watson and F.A.T. Lab #000000Book's 40,000 digitized tags from the recent F.A.T. GOLD exhibition at Eyebeam Art & Technology center. 

"GML is the technical glue that brings together all of these graffiti projects," Wilkinson says. "The best part about it is that you can upload it to a Website and share it with anybody."

The cultural value here is, first and foremost, as an archival tool. By capturing the action of a graffiti artist writing their tag, GML and #000000Book effectively immortalize that motion, storing it forever in a format that can be reused in any number of creative ways. Tags from well-known writers like KATSU, TEMPT1, AVONE, 2EASE and SKI are already included in the database. As the project and its various input tools evolve, the roster of street-famous artists will inevitably grow.

"In the graffiti community, there's a lot of respect for these guys," Wilkinson says. "This is kind of like a living archive of their work."

One of the most interesting things about the files in the #000000Book database is how they got there. Many were hand-drawn using an iPhone app that records handwriting motions and translates them into GML. A number of them were scrawled onto walls using hand-held lasers that do the same thing. Some were drawn by artists using only their eyeballs.

GML and #000000Book were born out of the fact that one man couldn't use his hands. Tony Quan, better known on the streets of Los Angeles as TEMPT1, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's Disease a decade ago and is now paralyzed from the neck down, able to move only his eyes. Working with Quan, the artist-hackers from the Graffiti Research Lab developed EyeWriter, a low-cost eye-tracking system that allows its users to write using only their eye movements. The same team had created L.A.S.E.R. Tag, a method for projecting light-based replicas of tags and animations onto buildings from a distance using high-powered lasers.


Installation view of the EyeWriter and TEMPT's tag at F.A.T. GOLD.


"We realized that if we could implement GML in both the Eyewriter and L.A.S.E.R Tag we could make it so TEMPT's eye tags could be written out across a whole building," says Theo Watson,  an artist and programmer from the Graffiti Research Lab. "Within a day of working with Jamie we had a working pipeline from The Eyewriter to 000000book to L.A.S.E.R Tag."

Suddenly, a paralyzed graffiti writer was emblazoning his tag across surfaces upon which even the most brazen street artists wouldn't dare scrawl theirs. The project both empowered Quan and won considerable notoriety for Roth and his associates, whose work made a big splash in the press and has been featured by art museums around the world, including New York's Museum of Modern Art.

It was that initial need to connect EyeWriter to other systems that led to the creation of GML and, ultimately, the #000000Book database, which has since evolved into a vast repository from which other projects can freely draw. In addition to creating a massive record of tags, the radically open nature of the database opens up a host of new possibilities, both within the graffiti world and beyond.

Thanks to GML, graffiti tags can be written with lasers, 3D printed turned into interactive art installations or just plain analyzed. But these use cases are just the beginning.

SYAN, a Hong Kong-based graffiti artist and rapper plans on using the technology for a linguistic hack of sorts, altering the meaning of Chinese characters by changing the order of strokes with which they're written. Meanwhile, at least one artist is using GML to document a dead language, in this case a pre-Spanish writing system from the Phillipines called Baybayin.

"Anything that could be drawn in 2 or 3 dimensions could be translated into GML and uploaded to #000000Book and served to other people," explains Wilkinson. In theory, you could use it for anything. You could tap out a chess game or you could draw architecture."

Indeed, the principle behind GML is already being applied to other art forms, such as music. As part of Art Hack Day in New York earlier this year, Wilkinson and two coconspirators built a working prototype using ScratchML, a derivative of GML designed to capture, analyze and reuse DJ scratching motions and the position of the fader on a turntable. At Music Hack Day, the team used ScratchML to create live visualizations based on a DJ's scratches and created a video game that can be controlled via scratching. Eventually, Wilkinson wants to see ScratchML used to program robots to scratch.

"I think it speaks to the idea of GML as an open format for trying to make this link between something that's very geeky and something that's really cool like graffiti or scratching," says Wilkinson. "That's kind of the mission: to make technology cool. We do that by doing projects that are relevant to people.