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Laser-Projected Graffiti Ads on Buildings

In yet another example of cyberpunk fiction turned to reality, the Graffiti Research Lab [1] has assembled a mobile unit that can project messages (“graffiti”) onto the sides of any large structure using a computer, laser projector, and a bicycle-powered generator. They recently tooled around Barcelona doing this up until the police apparently ticketed them and confiscated the projection equipment. Looking past the mischievous fun of the idea, could this be a new trendy advertising medium, about to take Madison Avenue by storm? Guerilla marketing companies seem to think so – click through for more of my thoughts on the matter.

Batman Bat Signal, laser light graffiti, Barcelona
The Batsignal, by Graffiti Research Lab, Barcelona, 2007


Laser Message on Building, Barcelona
“We Love Laser”

You may not’ve heard of the Graffiti Research Lab (G.R.L.), but they were likely the source of inspiration for the artists who “terrorized Boston [3]” with the little LED mooninite boards back in January. The G.R.L. first came up with what they call “LED Throwies” which are LEDs hooked up to batteries and magnets which can be thrown onto iron surfaces to form messages or decor. Apropos of their somewhat subversive goals, their manifesto reads:

“The Graffiti Research Lab is dedicated to outfitting graffiti writers, artists and protesters with open source tools for urban communication. The goal of the G.R.L. is to technologically empower individuals to creatively alter and reclaim their surroundings from commercial and corporate culture. G.R.L. agents are currently working in the lab and in the field to develop and test a range of experimental technologies for the state-of-the-art graffiti writer.”

Graffiti Research Lab Logo Insignia Badge

G.R.L.’s newest creation is much more dramatic and compelling. The ability to project messages up on the sides of buildings is redolent of the movie scenes found in the film Blade Runner [4], based on a Philip K. Dick short-story. This sort of thing can’t help but send the imagination soaring for subversive artists — it looks like a quick shortcut into shouting a message out to loads of people with relatively low budget! If I’m understanding correctly, they’ve designed a system system to allow people to draw messages with a laser-pointer in real-time, even, and added on software to create some stylistic touches to make the drawn lines “drip” digital paint down the walls.

It’s not going to take long before commercial interests grab hold of this idea and run with it. Just like the Boston Mooninite Scare (which was a promotional gimmick for Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie), it’s far more likely that commercial enterprises will sieze onto this medium and deploy it out in a massive way.

Are there any laws which ban this sort of thing?!? The GRL disappointingly didn’t share scans of their Barcelonan ticket with us nor explain what laws the police claimed when they were shut down outside of a Starbucks, so we’re left to presume that they may’ve been cited for creating a public disturbance, or hosting a public demonstration without a license (their demonstration had attracted a lot of people).

Here in the U.S., it makes me wonder if there are any existing laws which could stop such a thing… some might cite anti-graffiti laws, but those usually mention something like “unauthorized defacing of a building or public place”. “Defacing” would seem to have some overtones of actual damage involved, while this transitory medium leaves no marks and causes no physical harm. How is this materially different from shining a flashlight on a building, or swiping it with your car’s headlights as you drive by?

I’d somehow think that this would be protected by freedom of speach. It’s sort of like being allowed to say out loud anything you wish — you should be able to beam messages of light around, too, I would think. Not that I want to see the environment more spammed-up than it already is — I’m just thinking that technically, under our current law, it’s the sort of thing that good rights attorneys could argue in favor of.

Unsurprisingly, some companies have apparently done a bit of this type of light-projection advertising. Chase Bank was beaming their company logo out of their Manhattan branches onto the sidewalks, but they discontinued it [5] at the end of last year after getting fined for “defacing” the sidewalks: $50 per day. That fine is so low that I’d think it was easily absorbable — it’s much lower than many other advertising campaign costs. I think I’ve heard of Gap and other stores using sidewalk projectors as well, and I’ve seen some companies project their logos on their own walls — Google does this during the annual Googledance [6], for instance.

I predict we’re only going to see more of this sort of thing going on. Are people ready for it? You may be able to say that a sidewalk or a wall has been “defaced”, but what happens when these images are projected up into the middle of the air through 3-d holographic projection systems [7], or when pizza hut ads are projected onto the moon [8]?