Drone Vandalism begins

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IN THE EARLY hours of Wednesday morning, the age of robotic graffiti was born. KATSU, a well-known graffiti artist and vandal, used a hacked Phantom drone to paint a giant red scribble across Kendall Jenner’s face on one of New York City’s largest and most viewed billboards. By all accounts, it is the first time that a drone has been deployed for a major act of public vandalism.

In April last year, KATSU made headlines when he demonstrated that he had figured out how to attach a spray can to an off-the-shelf DJI Phantom drone. At the time, he was only using the drone to paint canvasses for white-wall galleries. But he assured the world that soon he would take his mad invention out into the streets and create enormous tags in places that were previously inaccessible to even the most daring and acrobatic taggers. Now, he appears to have made good on his promise in grand fashion.

“It turned out surprisingly well,” said KATSU, whose previous stunts include using a hacked fire-extinguisher to vandalise L.A. MOCA. “It’s exciting to see its first potential use as a device for vandalism,” he added, cheerfully.

The Calvin Klein billboard, one of New York City’s largest, sits at the busy intersection of Houston St and Lafayette St. The graffiti drone’s potential for troublemaking on an unprecedentedly grand scale is obvious. The billboard, which was previously graced by a topless, (perhaps) digitally-enhanced Justin Bieber, is absolutely gigantic, about six stories tall. It would have been almost impossible to tag Jenner’s face using the traditional methods. One could rappel off the top of the building or use a cherry picker, but neither option is exactly safe, or subtle, or quick enough that one could do it without cops on regular patrol spotting it. With the drone, by contrast, it took less than a minute. Still, the artist admitted, “It was a bit tense.” (Needless to say, the stunt was extremely illegal).

As the domestic drone industry grows feverishly, and multicopters like DJI’s Phantom become cheaper and more powerful, artists have been eager to experiment with the technology. It was only a matter of time, then, that people would figure out that the drone has enormous potential for subversive acts on the streets, where defying the laws of gravity is the whole point. Given the enduring privacy, safety, and legal concerns around the technology, conceptually it makes a certain amount of sense that it would find uses at the peripheries of what most people (let alone the law) would consider acceptable. KATSU’s scribble high above SoHo might not look like much, but it represents the potential that drones have to transform graffiti forever.

Still, police departments across the country probably don’t need to start panicking quite yet. This is, after all, graffiti drone 1.0. KATSU said that it can be temperamental and unpredictable, especially when it shifts perpendicular to the surface that its painting. The controls can be twitchy. “Seventy percent of the concentration is in maintaining this equilibrium with the two dimensional surface while you are painting,” he explained. We have a ways to go until drones are capable of autonomously blasting tags while their artist masters relax at home.

But that is the plan, and KATSU’s stunt this week was proof of concept. He is also gearing up to release a new, more user-friendly version of the graffiti drone “very soon.” While he refused to give me too many details, he did say that it would have some element of computer vision to help with stability.

Still, even graffiti drone 1.0 is something to be reckoned with. It has made what was up until yesterday an impossible tag look easy. KATSU himself seems to have been caught a little off guard by how powerful the drone has proven to be. “It’s a bit frightening.”

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