Without a Trace: How Charleston is leading the way for graffiti's next generation

From the Oct. 22 issue of the Charleston City Paper:

If you met Brian Muller and Zach Thomas at a coffee shop, as I did last week, you might not associate them with the gritty, subversive underworld of graffiti.

Muller, in a plain T-shirt and cargo shorts, is a student at MUSC. His interests are in the field of bioinformatics, which is where medicine and data-mining meet. Thomas, in a T-shirt, jeans, and black chunky Ray-Ban reading glasses, studies at the College of Charleston. He’s picking up where he left off after seven years as a computer engineer.

“We’re total nerds,” Thomas says, wryly.

These nerds are on the vanguard of an art form as old as the pyramids. Using new technologies, they are spanning a divide between dialectic views of graffiti — one that says it’s an art, one that it’s vandalism.

In spanning this divide, Muller and Thomas are changing not just how graffiti is done but how we think about it.

They are, in essence, trying to forge a new sensibility among graff artists — from one that’s illicit, solitary, and egocentric to one that’s lawful, social, and egalitarian.

Though some graffiti is illegal, Muller says, it’s still art. It needs to be preserved as a work of art before being whitewashed by a rightfully angry property owner.

So he and Thomas started Tag Record (www.tagrecord.com). They have cached hundreds of photographs of graffiti found around the city. Even graffiti long painted over has been given a new virtual existence.

Muller and Thomas believe in the rights of property owners. They also believe in the power of art.

(In the case of graffiti, it has the power to monopolize our vision, forcing us to experience and reckon with it.)

By documenting all manner of street art, Muller and Thomas separate one from the other, celebrating the art form without endorsing or participating in vandalism.

But the website has done more than that. By creating an interactive forum, they say, they have elevated the quality of graffiti.

“Graffiti artists work in isolation, at night, and they don’t know how they’re being experienced by others,” Muller says. “Now they know what people are thinking.”

Perhaps graffiti is an expression of a primal human instinct. At its core is a spirit that longs for validation, that asserts in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, and doubt that “I was here.” It says, with defiance: “I am.”

Muller and Thomas say that they honor this spirit, that they believe in that spirit. But scrawling on a billboard is only one way to leave one’s mark.

With so many new kinds of technology available to them, they decided to innovate new methods for leaving a mark on the world. But they also wanted to change how we think about leaving that mark.

From this came Street Level Lab (www.streetlevellab.com), a local collective that aims, according to its mission statement, to “create new open technology and free methods to assist in the creation and promotion of nondestructive street artwork.”

One of these is software that Muller and Thomas affectionately call Blobber.

With Blobber, you can “laser tag” any flat surface. All you need is a computer, a light projector, a camera, and a laser pointer (or an empty spraypaint can affixed with LEDs, but that’s another story).

The software tells the projector to follow the laser beam, leaving virtually any kind of mark you’d like. But unlike the old graffiti, laser tagging is gone when you’re gone.

Muller and Thomas got the software from an open-source nonprofit in New York City called the Graffiti Research Lab. It didn’t work the way they wanted it to. It would only run on Windows, and it was “bloated” with non-essentials like music and video. So they rewrote the program. Once perfected (they plan to release it later this year), Blobber can be used on any platform by anyone with the imagination to make it grow. The only stipulation is that it remain open-source, or free and available to be tinkered with.

Muller and Thomas agree Blobber is to graffiti what Wii is to video gaming.

It’s simple and intuitive. It breaks down barriers of knowledge and culture. And it now features easy-to-use games similar to Pong and Space Invaders.

The biggest difference is that it’s social.

Graffiti is done by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons — artistic, subversive, criminal, insane. But what’s constant is that it’s done for the most part alone, in secret, and under cover of night.

With Blobber, graffiti and other kinds of street art can be more flexibly understood as a social act rooted in the pleasure of innovating and creating art with others. Muller and Thomas are already slated to “perform” at next month’s Kulture Klash. They have applied for next year’s Piccolo Spoleto, too.

“We want this to be for everyone,” Muller says.


“Because it’s awesome!”

November 6, 2008 8:54 AM | | Comments (0)


Leave a comment


About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by FlyOver published on November 6, 2008 8:54 AM.

The Partisan Imagination: Does being an artist make you a liberal? was the previous entry in this blog.

Rhythm Nation: New street performance group brings back the carnivalesque is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

AJ Ads

AJ Blogs

AJBlogCentral | rss

About Last Night
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Artful Manager
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
blog riley
rock culture approximately
critical difference
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dog Days
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Life's a Pitch
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
Mind the Gap
No genre is the new genre
Performance Monkey
David Jays on theatre and dance
Plain English
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Real Clear Arts
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
Rockwell Matters
John Rockwell on the arts
State of the Art
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Straight Up |
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude

Foot in Mouth
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Seeing Things
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...

Jazz Beyond Jazz
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...

Out There
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Serious Popcorn
Martha Bayles on Film...

classical music
Creative Destruction
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
The Future of Classical Music?
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Slipped Disc
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
The Unanswered Question
Joe Horowitz on music

Jerome Weeks on Books
Quick Study
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera

Drama Queen
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
lies like truth
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world

Aesthetic Grounds
Public Art, Public Space
Another Bouncing Ball
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary
Modern Art Notes
Tyler Green's modern & contemporary art blog
Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.