By Alec Banks
On the day that I’m scheduled to speak with KATSU, 760 flights and 110,000 people saw their travel plans abandoned at Gatwick Airport in the U.K. over what Sussex Police said was a “deliberate act” of disruption by flying drones. It would seem a rather trivial piece of news when poised to interview a fine artist. But KATSU isn’t your run-of-the-mill, ink-on-paper type of creator. In fact, he’d probably be at the top of a most-wanted list (should something like that actually exist), given his interest in drone usage, hacking and, of course, vandalism — words that a decade ago wouldn’t ever be used in the same sentence.
For as long as people have been writing about graffiti — and attempting to understand the thought process behind it — it has become quite commonplace to use a superhero analogy. Not only does it describe the duality between who the artists are during the day and who they are when the sun goes down, but it also speaks to the idea of existing outside of the legal norms that society dictates.
KATSU is probably an amalgamation of Superman and a hacker version of Lex Luthor. As a hero, he has literally taken graffiti to new heights by introducing aerial vandalism into the medium using a custom-made drone. And as villain, he has seemingly defaced the White House, sprayed over Picasso’s “Girl Before a Mirror” and in fact used a fire extinguisher loaded with paint on the exterior of the first major graffiti retrospective, Art In The Streets.
But as with anything in art, it’s all about perspective.
KATSU’s interest in art pre-dated his graffiti career. He cites basic art classes in school and videogames as having a strong impact on him. The latter he believes fed the emotion he felt when he first picked up a spray can.
“I think escape and experimentation has always been my pursuit since I can remember,” he says. “I’ve always had to fabricate or draw ideas I had that just didn’t exist. I think videogames played a huge role in my early artistic development . . . maybe the escape and addiction aspects.”
Whereas many people think of the graffiti they see every day as an eyesore, KATSU was intrigued by the motivations behind the scrawls he saw in bathroom stalls, on the train and in alleyways.
“I just couldn’t understand what would drive individuals to work so hard and with so much talent to render these graphic paintings,” he says.
Perhaps what is often lost when examining artists who have transitioned from vandalism to fine art is an appreciation of the act of spray painting itself.
“All explanations about graffiti aside, that thing is pretty much one of the [most fun] devices a human can play with,” he says. “It’s like a magic bottle that can project bright colors and produce this amazing chemical fragrance. You can fill a bag with them and go create whatever you want.”
That exuberance has taken many forms. In an attempt to illustrate the power of scale in graffiti, KATSU riffed off the classic Charles and Ray Eames film Powers of Ten with his own short video, The Powers of KATSU, showing what a tag looks like on something as small as a grain of rice (1/20 of an inch) and as large as the diameter of a warehouse rooftop (120 feet). He followed up that success with viral videos of him “tagging” the most famous address in America, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and a Picasso masterpiece from his surrealist period.
It would later be revealed that the White House and Picasso tags had been created using digital manipulation techniques. This laid the foundation for KATSU’s desire to marry graffiti and technology.
“I wanted to create fun and weird ways of thinking about vandalism,” he says.
This outside-the-box thinking has certainly paid dividends. KATSU was the first graffiti artist to arm a drone with a spray can. Naming the pilot vessel ICARUS ONE, the artist was ironically inspired by Germany’s plans to deploy mini drones — capable of heights of up to 500 feet and speeds of 33 miles per hour — to catch vandals who defaced commuter trains.
KATSU’s drone took flight above the intersection of Houston Street and Lafayette Street in New York City in 2015. The target? A Calvin Klein billboard featuring Kendall Jenner.
What would simply be impossible to execute without an elaborate harness system was carried out with the fluidity and grace of an insect out for an evening flight on the Lower East Side.
“I fantasized about its use on public billboards and found an appropriate one in NYC to use,” he says, adding, “I had no anticipation of this story becoming as big as it did. In many ways, I could have probably just quit pursuing tinkering with drones and moved on to new mediums.”
The artist believes an underappreciated aspect of his drone usage is the innovation and engineering that needs to occur beforehand.
“You can’t exactly go buy a robotic spray system and just tape it to a preexisting drone and fly it,” he says. “The systems that I’m using have taken years and years of engineering, failures and collaboration with other people that I know.”
KATSU is also bringing these autonomous systems into his studio practice, starting a conversation about outsourcing the painting process itself. Given our new desire to delegate everyday tasks like driving, shopping and navigating to inanimate objects, he believes the same thing will inevitably occur in fine art.
But rather than bemoan an inevitability, KATSU embraces the notion that these technologically driven systems will eventually help his fellow artists.
“I think graffiti writers — and artists in general in their practices — are often trying to look at ways to demonstrate reach, whether it’s creatively, essentially or physically,” he says.
One way KATSU achieves this sense of cohesion and reach — between his vandalism and his fine art — is with a series of studio-made drone paintings, which he says are an expression of autonomous art making.
“They allow for me to push technology between my intention and the finished works,” he says. “Though I teeter between symbolic/figurative and abstract works, the alien process of the drone paintings results in micro and macro expressions on the canvas. I like to draw what my drone allows me in cartoon color. [It’s] an attempt to debunk the idea of authenticity and authorship.”
While this is certainly evident in the drone paintings he makes, KATSU applies this same ethos to a series of AI-generated portraits, painted with the help of a self-learning system that relies on an archive of vintage criminal mug shots.
“Conceptually they’re all about the bias in sophisticated systems and artificial intelligence systems that are being implemented and accepted and used right now,” he says. “There’s a lot of adoption of these self-guiding, so-called AI smart systems, whether they’re police body cams that can detect facial expressions, retina expressions or just general profiling. Or they’re AI algorithms that judges are using to rapidly determine whether to give a person bail or not, to release them from jail or not, whether they’re flight risks — all these types of things. Basically, we’re moving toward this society that’s entirely managed by these systems.”
If you could derive an actual mission statement from KATSU’s past and present exploits, one gets the sense that he wants his fellow disruptors to follow his lead. And while his examples are actionable, he wants to lay a tangible foundation by releasing instructions on how to build the ICARUS ONE drone, as well as plans for a fully autonomous drone system for artists called the KATSURU.
As devoted as it may seem that KATSU is to pushing the boundaries of what is possible when combining technology and art, he’s equally committed to championing an analog practice.
“I am constantly drawn — and being ripped toward — more digital mediums,” he says. “But the use of spray paint is really important to me.”