In 2015 KATSU ushered in what was then dubbed the new age of drone vandalism, when his Icarus One drone defaced a giant billboard in New York. The first design was a reasonably primitive contraption involving a DJI Phantom 2. There was very little control over how the spray paint could be deployed resulting in the drone randomly spitting paint over the billboard but the proof of concept was dramatic. Drones could help graffiti artists get to previously inaccessible areas.
KATSU envisioned a world where drones could allow graffiti artists to tag objects like the Statue of Liberty's face or even act autonomously tagging an artist's signature around a city after they had passed away. Not everyone in the graffiti community was into the idea of drone-deployed tagging, with many claiming it took the adventure and spirit out of the exercise. "Maybe the drone thing will be exciting for a couple of nerdy graffiti writers," one graffiti blogger said to Vice. "But 99 percent of them will still hit the rooftops by all means necessary."
Depending on your feelings about street art and graffiti, the idea of drones flying around tagging our streets could either be frightening or exciting, but the technology was stillincredibly rudimentary.
For a few years now artists have been working on ways to integrate drones into the artistic process but precision has been the major hurdle they've faced. It's easy to load a drone up with paint and have it randomly spurt patterns onto a canvas or wall but achieving anything near the precision of a paint stroke has been a challenge.
Unsurprisingly the art of Jackson Pollock has initially offered drone artists their biggest reference point thus far with several groups creating drone generated works inspired by the famous abstract painter.
Drone Pollock was a project devised for Technica in late 2015, a hackathon based out of the University of Maryland. That project had a drone hover over a canvas with its paint splatters triggered by 200 different strangers from around the world through a virtual canvas on a website. In 2016 we then saw the Pollockocopter fire paint-filled water balloons at a wall creating messy drone-directed splatter art.
In all these instances the limitations of drone-controlled art was evident. Random splashes of paint on a wall was one thing, but anything resembling control or the ability to write words was dramatically absent.
Jesper Vestergaard, curator of the blog Drone Graffiti, compiled a rundown of the status of drone graffiti in mid-2016. "What seems like a simple idea at first, attaching a spray can to a drone and get going, has soon turned out to be more challenging," he concluded. "The initial obstacles have been overcome: drones are flying and walls are being painted. But, the precision required to enable truly successful communication is still lacking."
Vestergaard's video (seen below) examines several drone graffiti projects up to mid-2016 and shows that while the technology is quickly evolving it is still far solving the problem of achieving precisely targeted painting. We have seen some drones do some amazingly accurate things over recent years from autonomously building a rope bridge to creating stunning, fire-works inspired light shows in precisely choreographed swarms, but there has been a curious lack of action in the drone graffiti world.
With his anti-Trump demonstration New York artist KATSU has at least partially solved the problem of accuracy by creating a spray paint mechanism that operates independently to the drone. The paint-jet is controlled through a PC and can individually paint any letter programmed while the drone maintains a momentary stability by pressing itself up against the wall.
Constantin Clauzel from the Hackerloop collective recently utilized a similar technique to achieve stability creating an entirely custom-made drone system designed to press against a wall for a more precise painting action. Caluzel's system achieves a greater stability than KATSU's contraption, but it lacks the independent spray mechanism. It would certainly be interesting to see the two innovations mashed into a single device.
In the spirit of open-source development, KATSU is planning to release all the hardware and software specs for the Icarus Two. Whether graffiti artists will embrace drone technology or rally against it is yet to be seen, but the self-described artist/hacker/vandal hopes to motivate and inspire a new generation of young creatives through his work.