May 22nd, 2006
Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Milan
Primary Advisor: Yaniv Steiner
Secondary Advisor: Fabio Sergio
Report Advisor: Philip Tabor
Directors and Chair of the Examiners: Neil Churcher and Heather Martin
Many thanks to my advisors, Fabio Sergio and Yaniv Steiner, for taking
this adventure with me, Philip Tabor as report advisor, Gilliam Crampton Smith
and all other IDII faculties, external reviewer and examiners for suggestions and
Thanks the object quartet: Alejandro Zamudio, Victor Szilagyi, Dana Gordon
and Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino , for participating in my crazy experiment.
Aram Armstrong for hip-hop education and other interesting music information.
My other IDII fellow students, for sharing the Milan-Ivrean experience with me.
Thank you D*Face, bo130, Vinnie Ray, Michael De Feo, and Wooster Collective
The prototypes could not be made without many helps from Maurin
Donneaud, Vinay Venkatraman, Patrizio Orlandi, Massimo Banzi and Gianluca
Title: Sonic Graffiti
Name: Chia-Ying Lee
Sonic Graffiti addresses music experiences for both creators and audiences. A
system of devices enables graffiti artists to create and geo-tag music in the urban
space with real spray cans. For general audiences it provides a listening experience
giving a sense of connection with the environment.
1 Introduction 8
2 Background Research 10
2.1 Musical-social Interaction 10
2.1.1 The old composer-performer-listener triangle 10
2.1.2 When machines join the mix 11
2.1.3 Sound-giver 12
2.1.4 Instrument-builder 13
2.1.5 Conclusion 13
2.2 Related work 13
2.2.1 Music experiences in the public space 14
2.2.2 Music toys 17
2.3 Outside of music 18
2.3.1 Lomography 18
2.3.2 Graffiti 19
3 Experiment: concerto with common/uncommon objects 21
3.1 Objects and Process 21
3.1.1 Post-it Composition 22
3.1.2 Improvisation 23
3.2 Findings 23
3.2.1 Interaction with objects 23
3.2.2 Using voice 23
3.2.3 Coordination 23
4 Initial Ideas 25
4.1 Percussion Kit: Boom box + Hitting pads 25
4.2 Punch Our Music: Public Music Box + Bookmark 27
4.3 Sonic Graffiti: Sound caps for spray cans 27
5 Sonic Graffiti 29
5.1 Overview 29
5.2 Sound Cap 31
5.2.1 Making Music 31
5.2.2 Changing Sounds 32
5.3 Controller 33
5.3.1 Listening and Geo-tagging 33
5.3.2 Timeline Positioning 34
5.3.3 Usage Flow 36
5.3.4 Collecting Sound Samples 36
5.3.5 Integrate with Current Devices 37
5.4 Boom box 37
5.5 Graffiti Subculture and Personas 37
5.6 Fruition 39
5.6.1 Radio Powered by Graffiti 40
5.6.2 Content Hosting 41
5.7 Evaluation with Graffiti Artists 41
5.7.1 Feedback 41
5.7.2 Questions and Answers 41
6 Technological and Economic Study 43
6.1 Technology Feasibility 43
6.1.1 Global Positioning System (GPS) 43
6.1.2 Sensor Technology 43
6.1.3 Communication Between Devices 44
6.2 Business Model 44
6.2.1 Marketing and Distribution 44
6.2.2 Legal Issues 44
7 Final Evaluation and Analysis 45
7.1 Collaboration 45
7.2 Design Considerations 45
7.3 Music Visualization Versus Graffiti Soundtrack 46
7.4 Extensions 46
7.4.1 Drawing Music In Other Contexts 46
7.4.2 Sound Tags In The Space 47
8 Conclusion 48
Appendix A: Excerpts from “Graffiti Culture Project Final Report”
A.1 Terminology 49
A.2 Why Do People Do Graffiti? 51
A.3 How Do Writers Work? 52
A.3.1 Tagging 52
A.3.2 Piecing 54
“Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to
far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that
moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash
to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing
noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D-
major (?), held for four beats. My wrists knocked a Ming vase
affair off its pedestal – E-flat, whole string section, glorious,
transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now, smashed a
figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milkmaid, then
Saturday’s Child – orgy of shrapnel filled the air, divine
harmonies my head. Ah, such music! Glimpsed my father
totting up the smashed items’ value, nib flashing, but had
to keep the music coming. Knew I’d become the greatest
composer of the century if I could only make this music
mine. A monstrous Laughing Cavalier flung against the wall
set off a thumping battery of percussion.”
– David Michell, Cloud Atlas.
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My exploration begins with music creation and urban experiences. Urban people
interact with the city everyday in countless ways, to name a few: walking through streets,
encounters with strangers, waiting for buses…etc. There are plenty of perceptions one
could receive just by standing at a train station: people talking, vehicles passing, the
smell in the air, the scene of various colored lights. This rich characteristic of the city has
inspired numerous composers hence provides a well set backstage for music creation:
“The city has long been an inspiration and site for musical expression, whether
as a metaphor in classical composition, a source of rhythms and sounds in jazz
and electronic music, a stage for street performance or the cradle of a walkman
generation. Music is inextricable from the life styles and textures of daily urban
Music has been recognized as a powerful yet subtle form of expression.
Collaborative music making fulfills participants’ satisfaction on both desires for creation
and social interaction. What kind of experience could it become if making music were
a serendipitous play among people? Would it bring positive influence to the social
relationship between participants?
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Current music experiences in the urban space are dominated by passive listening.
Portable music devices alienate us from the environment. Is it possible to connect
people and their surroundings with music?
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The background research is roughly divided into three parts: a social study
by Paul Lansky  about the musical-social interaction in the tech era, state-of-art
projects and other related fields where inspirations may come from.
2.1 Musical-social Interaction
As interaction designers bridge technology and the human, it is important and
beneficial to have an understanding about how technology has changed people
and the context we are designing for: in my case, music. Paul Lansky  proposed a
simple and elegant model to illustrate the difference of social-musical interaction
before and after technologies were widely adapted in music production and
appreciation, such as sound recording, synthesizers and computers. This theoretical
model may not be flawless. However, it is general enough to cover new musical
experiences happening today, yet accurate enough to serve as a reminder for
interaction designers to see the positions they may adopt, and the opportunities.
2.1.1 The old composer-performer-listener triangle
Composers write music. Performers play. Listeners clap, or not. This loop has
been carried on for centuries, forms the traditional triangular social network on
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2.1 The old musical-social relationship
music appreciation. Before sound recording was invented, this network could only
be realized in limited social contexts, usually concerts. What node for the individual
to be is quite pre-determined and unchangeable :
“From a certain perspective this view describes a very rigid social structure.
It is highly conservative in that in provides a conceptual framework which
discourages evolution and promotes institutional stability. The degrees of
passiveness and activeness of the individual nodes are relatively fixed and
the environments in which they behave are designed to accommodate their
habits without much fuss or bother…Art must be supported by its showcase,
and if it cannot survive in that showcase it must either find some other venue
or die. It must be added, however, that this framework is the arena in which
some of the greatest intellectual accomplishments of western civilization
have been born.” 
2.1.2 When machines join the mix
“The maelstrom of popular culture machines have had an immediate and
rather drastic effect. First, the respective roles of concerts and recording
have been switched. Recording is the norm and concerts are glorifications of
“It is significant here to note that automation has created a healthy swelling
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2.2 The new musical-social relationship
in the ranks of performing composers and composing performers and
shrinkage amoong the ranks of servant performers.” 
Paul Lansky added two nodes, sound-giver  and instrument builder , in
“the performer-composer-listener network to more accurately reflect the social
consequences of using machines.” 
“I want simply to add two nodes to the network, and contend that to take
these seriously is to fundamentally reassess the situation and broaden the
realm in which this music lives.” 
Sound-givers can be those of us who share Apple iTune libraries, the
underground DJs who make mp3logs, the backyard bands who sell their garage-
made CDs. No matter how the storage media changes, from cassette to compact
discs and files, giving and receiving sound has become such a frequent activity that
we take it for granted :
“…if you accept it (the concept of sound-giver) in the network the
consequences are very interesting. In adding this node I am making what I
consider to be a radical assessment of the social effects of technology. The
attributes of skill and genius are no longer the sole prerequisites for inclusion
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in the network as a sound generating node, as we are used to thinking in the
case of composer and performer. What is more the sound-giver is specifically
activating a musical-social exchange in the most direct and simple way.” 
Some sound-givers want to promote their creations; others merely want to
share musical experiences. In the later case, the sound-giver is not only a listener. He
who expresses his music ideas through sharing can also be regarded as a composer
and performer. 
Hardware and software technologies have made the cost for building
new instruments so cheap that those new instruments don’t necessarily involve
generalizations like traditional ones. The cost was too high in the past; those not
“sufficiently general”  would not survive. It is now possible to construct according
to arbitrary viewpoints or particular purposes. Designing instruments becomes
another form of musical composition. 
“More to the point, using Csound, Music5, Cmix, M, Performer, Ovaltune, Vision,
Texture, CMU Toolkit, is, to varying extents, adopting the musical vision of the
designer…In ways an instrument builder becomes a subclass of composer.”
”Playing someone else’s instruments becomes a form of playing someone
else’s composition.” 
“Both sound giving and instrument building are essentially independent of
social institutions. What is interesting is that it is now possible to incorporate
the design of a social context in these activities. Musical survival now depends
more on the appropriateness of this design to the music rather than the extent
to which the music successfully occupies traditional venues. Consider sound
installations, listening galleries, interactive systems, recording, intelligent
software, for example.” 
“…in a network with only three nodes there are fewer lines of communication
than in one with five. If we can begin to expand our musical-social
consciousness to admit a larger variety of nodes, then we and the music we
make and hear can only become richer in the process.” 
2.2 Related work
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In this section there are two themes I looked into:
• music experiences in the public space: besides listening to our iPods, what
else can we do with music on the street, in the bus, or at the train station?
• music toys: playful ways to make music even for grow-ups.
2.2.1 Music experiences in the public space
TunA  is a mobile application on handhold devices enabling users to access
the playlists of the surrounding other users, and listen synchronously to what they
are listening to.  In short, an Apple iTune shared library on the move.
By creating ad-hoc shared music experience, TunA focuses on fostering a
social dynamic in a local scale, and giving users a sense of presence of others in the
same physical space. It can be commuters discovering who they usually ride with
and what music they listen to. Or it can be a gang of teenage skaters listening to the
shared music when they skate together. 
220.127.116.11 Sonic City
Taking the urban environment as an interface, Sonic City  is a wearable
system for people to generate electronic music in real-time by body movement
and encounters with environment settings. It takes both body-related input (heart
rate, arm motion, speed, pace, compass heading, ascension/descent, proximity to
others/objects, stopping and starting) and environment-related input (light level,
noise level, pollution level, temperature, electromagnetic activity, enclosure, slope,
presence of metal), and maps these inputs to sounds. 
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This project emphasized individual experience. It proved that mobility could
mediate musical interaction between the user and his environment, and enhance
the user’s perception of and engagement with everyday encounters. 
18.104.22.168 Location33: A Mobile Musical
A path can be a song. Based on this idea, Location33  takes the city as the
storage for a music album. The music is stored as fragments in different locations.
When players walk around the city, they piece together these fragments; their path
creates songs.“Location33 is an attempt to rethink the way that recorded music and
songs can be created in the context of mobile music.”  It also encourages players
to discover the space in different ways.
Schminky  by Mobile Bristol is a music puzzle game set up in a café to
promote social interaction. Each player gets a PDA with the game and earphones.
The game starts with a continuous background melody and four other tracks. First
each player has to identify the mapping between his four buttons on the game
interface and the four tracks. The goal of the game is to see who can find the missing
track within five seconds to proceed to the next level. At each level the game gets
harder. The game can be played alone, but is meant to be a group activity. 
With this playful approach Schminky provides people in the café a social
opportunity to participate in a group. It can also serve as an icebreaker for strangers.
“No skills are needed, people can spontaneously join the mobile music gaming
group at the café table.” 
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2.5 Mobile Music Making
22.214.171.124 Mobile Music Making by Atau Tanaka
Mobile devices have a lot of potential to be light weight musical instruments.
The social network information they contain is also there and ready to be used for
new experiences. Mobile Music Making  is a system on mobile wireless networks
for users to create music with their friends remotely. It takes the mixer as metaphor.
Each participant is associated with a track of the mixer. He listens to the music sum
up from all tracks and creates music by manipulating his own track, such as time
stretching, filtering or time domain reordering. 
This system also addressed on permission and level of acquaintance. It has
permission settings to decide who can participate in the creation and in what level.
Close friends can play music together; not so close friends may have the permission
to listen; strangers are not able to access. 
2.6 Connecting Strangers at a Train station
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126.96.36.199 Connecting Strangers at a Train Station
This is an installation placed at Hoje Taastrup train station in Denmark.  It
is meant to establish communicative connections between strangers. Sounds are
triggered when two people in opposite platforms have corresponding movements
at the same time, so travelers can create soundscapes together across the rails. The
playful element is letting people figure out whom they are connecting with and
how they can control sound together. 
The installation uses motion tracking with video to translate movement into
sound. Two laptops are connected through WLAN to transmit control messages and
loudspeakers. Each laptop runs a Max/MSP plus Jitter patch performing the initial
motion tracking and the sound synthesis. 
2.2.2 Music toys
188.8.131.52 Hewlett-Packard DJammer
DJammer  by Hewlett-Packard is a handheld controller allowing DJs to
scratch and mix tracks “in the air”  by gestures. The device is linked to a digital
music library wirelessly and relies on a 3-D accelerometer to sense the scratching
motion. Researchers in HP plan to expand DJammer to support collaborative music
mixing. They are also researching how to use DJammer for mixing more than one
track at a time, including matching tempos from different songs. 
Electroplankton  is created by interactive media artist Toshio Iwai for
Nintendo DS. It contains 10 small games built around the theme of marine
planktons; players are placed in the underwater world. Most of the games lack
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of a definite goal hence makes them more like music toys. The play is based on
interaction with those planktons. The planktons react to players’ touch and voice,
and the game outputs different music patterns or modifies the sounds players
record. The output music ranges from atomic, single notes by piano or harp to pre-
composed groove loops and the classic game music from Nintendo.
From various polls of game review websites , Electroplankton is
well received as a new way to experience media art. Generally players think it is
innovative, fun and relaxing. The main criticism is the lack of recording function and
game purpose. However the later cannot really be considered as criticism since the
creator did not mean to create a so-called video game.
184.108.40.206 Sony BlockJam
BlockJam  functions like musical Lego. It allows players to construct music
phrases by arranging blocks. Several people can play together. The block structure
created also reflects the music structure in some degree. There are two kinds of
blocks, play blocks and path blocks. Each block contains sound. A music phrase
starts from a play block, traveling to the adjunct path block; it continues traveling
depending on the direction of the path block indicates, and ends at another play
block then loops back to the beginning. Multiple music phrases can be played at
once, which enables players to create complex music. 
Besides the tangible interface, BlockJam also has an on-screen interface for
overall control of the system, such as loading sound into blocks or interacting with
other players across the internet. 
Hyperscore  is a combination of “musical algorithms for automating the
compositional process”  and “an appropriate interface for human to interact with
the machine” . “The fundamental idea of Hyperscore is that anyone can perform
two key creative activities without musical training: compose short melodies and
describe the large-scale shape of a piece. Providing graphical means to engage
in these two activities forms the basis for Hyperscore’s functionality.”  Users
compose music by first constructing short motives in pitches, then drawing out the
music piece with these motives. 
Hyperscore also addresses on other elements of traditional composition,
like harmony. Users can add chords represented by droplets. The transition from
chord to chord is visualized with a central line. By shaping the central line users
can describe the harmony progression; the computer will then choose chords
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2.3 Outside of music
“Lomography is a commercial trademark of Lomographische AG, Austria for
products and services related to photography. The name is licensed from a
former state-run optics company LOMO PLC in St. Petersburg, Russia. The
35mm LOMO LC-A camera was promoted by enthusiasts from Austria with
international gallery shows.” 
“Lomography emphasizes shoot-from-the-hip photography. Over-saturated
colors, lens artifacts, and exposure defects are used to produce artistic,
abstract effects and are prized by practitioners. Others use the technique to
document everyday life because the small camera size and ability to shoot
in low light encourages candid photography, photo reportage and photo
“The lomography credo ‘don’t think, just shoot’ encourages spontaneity,
close-ups, ubiquity, and randomness. Film cameras are used. Typically they are
low-fidelity, and may be inexpensively constructed. Some of the cameras have
multiple lenses, colored flashes or exhibit extreme optical distortions or even
light leaks like the popular Chinese-made Holga.” 
“Your presence on their presence…hanging your alias on their scene.”
– Norman Mailer
What graffiti fascinates me is its spontaneity. Why people would take the risk
of breaking the law to put up their work?
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“Graffiti is a type of deliberately inscribed marking made by humans on
surfaces, both private and public. Graffiti can also refer to website defacements;
however, it usually takes the form of publicly painted art, drawings or words.
When done without a property owner’s consent it constitutes vandalism.
Graffiti has existed at least since the days of ancient civilizations such as
classical Greece and the Roman Empire. The word ‘graffiti’ expresses the
plural of ‘graffito’, although the singular form has become relatively obscure
and is largely used in art history to refer to works of art made by scratching
the design on a surface. Another related term is sgraffito, a way of creating
a design by scratching through one layer of pigment to reveal another one
beneath. All of these English words come from the Italian language, most
likely descending from ‘graffiato’, the past participle of ‘graffiare’ (to scratch);
ancient graffitists scratched their work into walls before the advent of spray-
paint, as in murals or frescoes.” 
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Experiment: concerto with
Using surrounding sounds to compose music is always an intriguing idea to me.
City itself is a giant sound machine from which we can draw a lot of materials for creating.
However turning these noise-like sounds into something meaningful and enjoyable is
usually considered as a job for professionals. Will general people also have a certain
degree of musical sense to express their ideas with sounds? And more importantly, will
this kind of creating process be delightful?
This preliminary experiment was intended to test out general people’s interests
and ability to make music with low-fi equipments. Another goal was to try out
collaborative music making and to observe the dynamic between players. There are four
participants from my fellow students in Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Objects were
selected to be considered least as “musical” from the household environment. “Musical”
here means the potential of being used as an instrument.
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3.1 Concerto with common/uncommon objects
3.1 Objects and Process
Oranges, candies, a hair dryer, a fork, a spoon, a lamp, plastic bags, four glass candle
holders, a water boiler, patio door, a pair of walkie-talkies, an air spray, these were objects
prepared for the experiment. Players were free to choose any number of objects from
Before the experiment started, players had some time to explore with objects on
what sounds could be generated. After 10 minutes of hitting, distorting, turning on and
off, rubbing, shaking, flipping, throwing, even eating, we proceeded to two sections of
music making: composition and improvisation. By adapting two different styles of music
creation, we may be able to find out which one is more engaging for a casual and playful
3.1.1 Post-it Composition
Each player was giving 10 post-its to notate sounds and stick those post-its on
a common timeline. Every post-it was counted as one unit in the composition to be
played about 10 to 15 seconds. One sound could be used on more than one post-it. One
post-it could contain only one sound or a sequence of sounds. After all the post-its were
Sonic Graffiti 23
placed, we shuffled them around to mix with each other’s, and formed a long piece of
The first trial of play was not very successful. Players were confused about which
post-it was playing and how long it had been played, so that we stopped several times
to figure out; eventually we didn’t even finish the whole composition. Players all agreed
that there should be a person served as “conductor + metronome” After I started
pointing the current playing post-it and counting the beats, the playing went well.
In this section players were free to coordinate how to play together. They quickly
agreed that one player should be the “base” who kept a stable and constant beat, one
player should be the “improviser” who could play anything to form a theme for the
music, and the rest two players as “accompanists” who kept on the same beat as the
“base” but could have variations on their playing.
They also decided on the order of players’ joining the music and starting to play.
The order was based on the roles: the “base” should start first, then came in the two
“accompanists”; the improviser should come in last. Players took turns to play different
roles in the three performances we carried out.
3.2.1 Interaction with objects
Most sounds were produced by very simple interaction. Hitting and rubbing
are the most chosen interaction by players. Hitting is especially dominant in the
improvisation section. There were also not many objects used in combination; most
players used objects one by one. A rare exception is that one player used different
speeds of the hair dryer and a plastic bag to produce different sounds.
3.2.2 Using voice
Another notable phenomenon is the use of voice. (In this experiment there was no
rule about the prohibition of using player’s voice.) Two out of three improvisers in the
improvisation section used their voices as instruments instead of objects. One player
reflected that the reason he preferred voice to objects is that he thinks he doesn’t have
good enough motor skills that can keep him on beats; also, using objects to make music
is something that has to be practiced, but voice he can control easily.
Sonic Graffiti 24
In the composition section, some nervousness could be felt from players when
shifting from post-it to post-it, for their anxiety about being unable to keep up the beats.
There was also less interaction between players when they were playing; everyone was
concentrating on the “conductor” or the post-its. Part of the reason was the post-its
were not very readable when putting on the wall.
Players were more relaxed and enjoying themselves in the improvisation section.
More laughing and eye contacts were noticed.
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4.1 Percussion Kit: Boom box + Hitting pads
Have you ever noticed that a lot of people consciously or subconsciously hit the
table hence produce rhythm? No matter what their intention is, hitting seems a very
satisfying physical action that also leads to music generation naturally. This idea is partly
derived from people’s enthusiasm about hitting, partly inspired by street dancing and
people carrying boom boxes around town.
“Percussion Kit” comes with several hitting pads and a boom box. Music is created
by hitting different pads. Each pad is associated with a percussion sound. Players can
select the sound attaching to each pad and stick the pads on any surface. The sounds
come out the boom box. Players can also use the boom box to record the music they
are making. This kit is good for collaboration and easy to be carried around for outdoor
performance. It can also be used as a sketching tool for musicians.
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4.1 Percussion Kit
4.2 Punch Our Music
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4.2 Punch Our Music: Public Music Box + Bookmark
“Punch Our Music” is a public installation that people can create simple melodies
by punching holes on bookmarks or postcards like piano rolls, and then use the publicly
installed music box to play the music. The music box will stamp the bookmark with the
date of playing to increase the value of keeping those bookmarks.
Because of the limited size of the bookmark, collaborative creation is encouraged.
The music box will be designed to play several bookmarks together in sequence or in
parallel. I imagine the music created would be short and simple, also suitable to turn into
ring tones for mobile phones.
There are also potentials to have mobile phones interact with the Public Music
Box. For example, people can send their creations to the music box by SMS and receive
the bookmarks representing their music after it is played.
4.3 Sonic Graffiti: Sound caps for spray cans
Imagine spray cans that could spray out sounds.“Sonic Graffiti” is a sound cap that
can be attached on top of a real spray can. When the artist makes graffiti with the spray
4.3 Sonic Graffiti
Sonic Graffiti 28
can, he can also spray out the sound to compose a piece of music to add on the visual.
Each can is mapped to different sound; overlaying different paint causes the sound
remixed together. The music can be composed layer by layer. Other people would be
able to listen to the music when they are near the graffiti.
Graffiti subculture has a strong connection with Hip-hop music. Hip-hop music
contains two main parts: DJing (audio mixing and scratching) and rapping (MCing). 
This leaded me to think about setting the music context around Hip-hop, especially
DJing, for being the main musical components of the two. What if users can do simple
sound manipulation like scratching with the spray can?
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After the first iteration of idea generation, I chose to proceed with Sonic Graffiti,
for my interests in associating music and visual elements. The context also fits well
with urban space. Considering music, visual, gesture elements, it seems like there are
numerous directions this project could go. However I am more interested in giving users
more freedom to develop their own style both in music and visual. (For the discussion
about other possibilities, please refer to Chapter 7 Final Evaluation and Analysis)
Sonic Graffiti started as a sound cap for the real spray. Users can spray out sounds
along with paint to make music. The music context is targeted on DJing for the close tie
between graffiti and hip-hop music. Users can also do simple sound manipulations (like
fade in/out and scratch) with gestures and spray cans. People who pass by the graffiti
will be able to listen to the music.
Later on I realized that the sound cap needs logistic support from other devices.
For example, creators have to be able to listen to the sound they are creating, both in
silence and in public, and geo-tag the music after they finish. On the other hand, in order
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5.1 Sonic Graffiti. Creating.
5.2 Sonic Graffiti. Listening
Sonic Graffiti 31
5.3 A system of devices
not to hinder the painting process, the sound cap should be small enough and easy to
operate with one hand. Crunching all the functions in the cap would make it too big and
too complex to use.
The system of devices includes the sound cap, the controller for listening, timeline
positioning and geo-tagging, and the boom box for shared listening among a group of
creators. The basic requirement is one sound cap and the controller. The boom box is an
optional devices depending on users’ interests. Users can have several sound caps used
with one controller.
5.2 Sound Cap
The sound cap enables users to spray out sounds and manipulate them with
gestures. Each cap can store up to 3 sounds so that users have variety on sound while
carrying only one spray can. The sounds are loaded by the user with wire or wireless
from computers or portable devices like iPod, mobile phone, PDA...etc.
5.2.1 Making Music
The method of composing music in Sonic Graffiti is by remixing various sound
Sonic Graffiti 32
5.4 Sound cap
samples together. Remixing sounds can create quite complex music. Some artists make
their music albums this way. 
To make the music more refined and interesting, Sonic Graffiti equips some simple
DJing techniques: fade in/out and scratches. These sound manipulations are achieved
by performing gestures when spraying:
• Fade in: turn the spray can from horizontal to vertical
• Fade out: turn the spray can from vertical to horizontal
• Scratch: scratch diagonally, from top left to bottom right and vice versa
The looping switch is for keeping the sound looping through the whole music
creation even if the user doesn’t keep spraying. If the switch is off, the sound only comes
out when the user sprays.
5.2.2 Changing Sounds
Each cap can store up to 3 sounds. Users change sound by holding the shift button
and shaking the spray can vertically for once. Each shaking will make the sound change
to the next.
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5.5 Gestures for the sound cap
The controller is an assisted device to be used during the music creating process.
It allows creators to listen to and geo-tag their music, as well as position the sound
samples on the music timeline. There is a clip on its back for wearing the controller on
the pockets of pants. The controller can also be held in the hand.
5.3.1 Listening and Geo-tagging
Through the controller users can listen to their music with earphones while they
are creating. The controller also serves as a geo-tagging tool. Pressing Record and Play/
Pause buttons together will start a section recording the created music; pressing the
two buttons again the section will stop and the music will be geo-tagged accordingly.
Users can preset the music to be public or private, and manage their music through a
While painting with the sound cap, users hear the music they are creating. If users
want to know what sound is in the cap, they can simply hold the spray can close enough
to the badge and the sound stored in the cap will be heard from the earphone.
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5.6 Controller. (Top) For listening and geo-tagging. (Right) Listening to the sounds in
the cap. (Left) Wearing the controller on the pocket
5.3.2 Timeline Positioning
Every piece of music has a timeline where sounds come in and out. For creators it
is necessary to have ways of specifying at which time point the sound should begin. In
the traditional musical scores we use meters and time signatures to notate the timing
of each sound.
Sonic Graffiti allows users to position the sound with the controller. Pressing Play/
Pause button will play or pause the music created so far. On the top of the controller are
the Forward and Backward buttons. The timeline is formed after putting down the first
layer of sound, and expands if more sounds are added. Users position further sounds by
moving forward or backward on this timeline.
In order to make the positioning easier conceptually and in practice, Sonic Graffiti
uses the start point of each sound already put down as a reference point. It allows users
to think like “I am going to put this sound after the beeping sound” or “this car crash
sound should go before the drum beats” A short press of the Forward or Backward
buttons causes the play head jump to the beginning of the next or last sound, and a
long continuous press for moving forward or backward at a speed.
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5.7 Positioning sounds. (Left) Forward and Backward buttons. (Right) Short press and
long continuous press.
5.8 Usage flow for sound caps and the controller.
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5.3.3 Usage Flow
The user starts a music making section by pressing Record + Play/Pause on the
controller. After spraying out the first layer of sound, the user positions the next sound
with the controller. When spraying the user can also add fade in/out or scratching
effects with different gestures. Upon finishing the user press Record + Play/Pause on the
controller again to indicate the end of the section and geo-tag the music.
5.3.4 Collecting Sound Samples
The controller comes with a recording interface on the side for users to collect
interesting sounds in their daily life. The sound samples can be uploaded to the
5.9 Recording sound samples. (Bottom left) Recording interface. (Top right) Recording
Sonic Graffiti 37
5.10 Integrate with current devices
5.3.5 Integrate with Current Devices
Mobile phones, PDAs, portable music devices (ex. iPods, mp3 players) and portable
gaming devices (ex. Sony PSP, Nintendo DS) have many functions overlapped with what
needed in the controller, mainly the listening, recording and geo-tagging. It would be
more economically sustainable to reuse those existed devices many people already
have. There can be a software interface installed in those devices and make them
function like the controller.
5.4 Boom box
The boom box provides a group of artists a shared listening experience in public
when they create music.
5.5 Graffiti Subculture and Personas
After doing some research on graffiti subculture, I wrote three personas to help
my design process. For more information about this subculture, please refer to Appendix
A. The first two personas are based on the two main different types of graffiti culture. The
Sonic Graffiti 38
5.11 Boom box.
third one was inspired by a story I read on a graffiti website, about how the author saw a
mid-aged white collar driving down the street, stopping the car, getting out and doing
a tag, then driving off quickly.
Persona 1: Tagger
Joey, 15 year old, high school student, part of the crew, tagger, from a wealthy
family but cannot stand his parents, so he usually hang out with his friends after school.
He started tagging because some of his friends introduced him into the crew. The crew
has about 50 people who Joey does not necessary know. They have a common tag
designed by a senior writer. Joey has been practicing the tag so he can write the tag
quickly when the crew goes out at night. Whenever Joey sees the tag on the street, he
feels like his “street family” is calling him.
Persona 2: Piecer
Jack, 24 year old, has several part-time jobs, piecer, not part of the crew but likes
to have companies when doing the piece at night. Before starting a piece, Jack usually
goes to the site and checks out the wall, then designs his piece on the sketchbook.
Sometimes he goes back to his previous works to see how they have become. Jack takes
Sonic Graffiti 39
his work seriously; he thinks his pieces give people something to look at. That is why he
cannot stand people who do ugly tags all over the city just for the sake of doing it.
Persona 3: Writer wannabe
James, 33 year old, a car salesman, gets much pressure from the competition
between colleagues. He lives a double life; at night he drives around and doodle his tags
with spray cans. For him the smell and the movement of using the spray can is relaxing
and addictive; he also enjoys the triumph of finding a virgin place where he is the first
person putting up. Doesn’t matter what he writes, it is his way out of the frustrating and
boring days. Due to lack of practice and design, his tags are kind of childish, but who
What kind of listening experiences can we offer for general people so that music
can provide a sense of connection between listeners and the environment? Technical
speaking, the music can be started by taking a picture of the graffiti, touching an RFID
tag on the wall, or streaming automatically to listeners’ devices when they are around
5.12 Fruition. Each graffiti is a small radio station.
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5.13 Personal sonic map.
the graffiti. The first two scenarios need people to initiate the experience, while the third
scenario saves the hassle of the input process, since it is quite common for city people
to pass various graffiti on their way.
The other advantage of streaming is that it enables music to trigger the visual
experience. You can imagine some people notice the graffiti because of the music.
5.6.1 Radio Powered by Graffiti
The fruition is designed as a dedicated software player to be installed in mobile
devices, such as mobile phones, mp3 players, PDA…etc.
The dedicated player is meant to be kept open when users walk in the city.
Imagine each graffiti is a small radio station, having a limited broadcasting range. As the
user passes through different graffiti, the player will tune into the music of the nearest
graffiti. In the player application, the user can also mark his favorite music and make a
personal sonic map.
Having a small broadcasting range for each sonic graffiti brings a sense of “remote
presence” for the listener. The listener does not need to be at the exact spot of the graffiti
to know its presence, hence has chances of accidental encounter with graffiti or music
Sonic Graffiti 41
he never noticed.
5.6.2 Content Hosting
In order to have the music stream to the player, each artist must specify where
he would like to host his music. Sonic Graffiti could provide hosting space, so do other
content hosting services. Locative RSS feeds can also be setup instead of a centralized
streaming server structure.
5.7 Evaluation with Graffiti Artists
I wrote to several graffiti artists for feedback. Will they be interested in adding
audio to their visual work? I am also seeking for opinions about the gestures and overall
5 graffiti artists replied my email; all of them think this is a very interesting idea
and would like to be updated about further progress.
One artist suggests also having sketch tools for sounds since most of the artists do
sketches before they paint.
“I like the idea of public and illegal graffiti having sound tags to not only do you
pick them up visually but audibly… This is REALLY interesting, the intervention of
public and personal space.”
5.7.2 Questions and Answers
This section collected questions asked from graffiti artists I contacted for feedback
about Sonic Graffiti, and my answers to them. It may also help readers to understand
better about Sonic Graffiti.
Q: Will the portions of music from the air caps only be heard during the
creation of graffiti or will the sounds somehow be imbedded into the
painting? How do viewers/listeners experience the piece?
A: The music will be geo-tagged on to the location where the graffiti is; viewers
can listen to the music while they watch the graffiti. Right now my idea for
listening will be a dedicated software player in mobile phone or mp3 players. The
player will act like a radio station and you can keep it open when you walk around
Sonic Graffiti 42
the city. If you pass the graffiti, the player will tune into the music attached to this
piece. I’m also thinking about playing with distance and stereo. If you’re further
from the graffiti, the music is quieter; when you walk closer to the graffiti the music
becomes louder, so you can explore what music is attached to which piece. We
can also use stereo to suggest which direction the graffiti is that the user can have
some fun of treasure hunt.
Q: Will the DJ music be created on the fly by the artists painting or will their
paint actions merely tap into a pre-recorded DJ stream?
A: The music is meant to be created on the fly with the sounds in the cap. That’s
why I am thinking of some gestures for manipulating sounds. However I can
imagine that some people will pre-record the music ready before they paint and
just tap the music into the piece. My intention is to design some gestures fun to
use so it encourages people to improvise the music on the site. (I believe graffiti
also has some improvisational flavor in it, isn’t it?)
Q: Is it really possible?
A: Currently the technology is already out there (like wireless chips, sensors for
motion detection...), so it’s possible to make it come true. Even if not now, it will be
a close future.
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Technological and Economic
6.1 Technology Feasibility
6.1.1 Global Positioning System (GPS)
Locative media rely on Global Positioning System (GPS) to identify the location
of content. The accuracy of GPS will affect the distance to separate different content
entries. Current GPS accuracy is “within 2 meters (6 ft) for compatible receivers. GPS
accuracy can be improved further, to about 1 cm (half an inch) over short distances,
using techniques such as Differential GPS (DGPS)” 
6.1.2 Sensor Technology
Accelerometers are used in the physical prototypes of the sound caps for motion
detection. The correctness of detection depends a lot on how the detection program
recognizes the patterns of motions.
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6.1.3 Communication Between Devices
The communication between devices can be achieved by Bluetooth or radio
frequency (RF) modules:
“Bluetooth provides a way to connect and exchange information between
devices like personal ditigal assistant (PDAs), mobile phones, laptops, PCs, printers
and digital cameras via a secure, low-cost, globally available short range radio
6.2 Business Model
6.2.1 Marketing and Distribution
Sound caps, controllers and boom boxes are meant to be sold among other graffiti
tools. The artist community built around graffiti subculture makes viral marketing most
effective. Advertisement on mass media is out of consideration because of the rebellious
spirit of this subculture. Graffiti magazines and portals will be main channels to reach
the intended audiences. Sales points can be internet, graffiti supply stores or hardware
stores besides spray cans. Some people may be interested in making some music when
decorating their houses.
For content storage and hosting, Sonic Graffiti can provide storage space for
graffiti artists with a web-based management interface. Artists can also use their own
space or other content hosting services.
To encourage people trying out the music, the dedicated software player will be
free downloaded from the website. The software can be made as open source to let
users maintain and improve features by themselves. In the future when the locative RSS
feed is widely adapted, the music can also be retrieved with general RSS feed readers.
6.2.2 Legal Issues
Graffiti is still considered as vandalism for most of the authorities. I would not
say there is no risk of this product being banned from selling for encouraging graffiti.
It may be safer to emphasize the product’s function in adding pleasures during home
decoration process, or for artistic and performance purposes. Attaching clear air/water
spray cans with the package of sound caps can also suggest that the product is not
meant to be used for vandalism to the authority.
Sonic Graffiti 45
Final Evaluation and Analysis
Sounds put on the same location is accumulable, hence allows a group of artists
to create music together either synchronously or asynchronously. It is also common for
graffiti artists to work on one piece for several days. In our scenario the artist can add on
some sounds everyday to complete a piece.
On the down side, accumulation of sounds offers the chance to overlay ugly
sounds on refined works maliciously. However the conventions in graffiti subculture
do not allow more polished works to be overwritten. For example, “tags” cannot overlay
“throw-ups” or “pieces”; “throw-ups” cannot overlay “pieces” It is considered as “toys” to
have this kind of behaviors and will be condemned by the community.
7.2 Design Considerations
The interactions with devices should not disturb the artist’s usual painting flow.
Both the sound cap and the controller can be operated with one hand to reduce the
Sonic Graffiti 46
chance of putting down the painting tools to switch between different devices.
The rebellious spirit of graffiti subculture is the main concern while thinking about
the appearance of the devices. Sonic Graffiti devices should suggest strongly the neutral
“tool” quality rather than attaching to any styles. Sound caps and controllers should fit
well with spray cans, stencils and other spraying caps in the artist’s tool bag. Black rubber
would work well to convey this kind of industrial touch.
7.3 Music Visualization Versus Graffiti Soundtrack
How to balance and relate the visual and musical elements is a complex issue to
think about in my design process, either music could be the focus supported by visual
or the other way around. The two extremes are:
Music visualization: each visual element is mapped to a certain music element. The
visual merely conveys the meaning or construction of the music; itself does not
have any additional visual signification.
Graffiti soundtrack: music reflects only the formation of the graffiti and nothing
else. Music is a byproduct of the graffiti.
Music is abstract to express visually; graffiti may be abstract, or not. Some graffiti
artists distort letters, design patterns to make abstract works; others do picturesque
ones. It is very tempting for me to address both qualities. On the other hand, I am very
curious to see whether music visualization could jump out of the abstract formation.
Especially the music context I used as ideal target, Hip-hop, has a lot of emphasis on
words and picturing real-life images. These thought leaded to linking sounds with
more free-style drawings instead of using fixed patterns mapping to different sounds.
Users can develop their own visual languages for music, representing their music with
abstract strokes, letters, pictures…etc.
7.4.1 Drawing Music In Other Contexts
Drawing music and turning objects into musical instruments by attachments are
two ideas behind Sonic Graffiti. As one could imagine these two ideas could be applied
to numerous contexts. Take the home environment for example, it could be music caps
for pencils or crayons for children to learn and play with music. For performances like
Sonic Graffiti 47
dancing or action painting, it could be attachments for lights or brushes that performers
could generate music with their movements.
7.4.2 Sound Tags In The Space
It would be very interesting to see how people use sound tags in the public space.
The invisibility of sounds makes it possible to customize public space without violating
regulations, and adapt different settings for different groups or purposes. For example, a
group of skateboarders can tag their music in the park as territory marks, while another
group of break dancers can tag different music at the same location for their activities;
these two groups can then retrieve back their music accordingly.
Sonic Graffiti 48
Sonic Graffiti enables graffiti to have audio meanings. For taggers it may be a
sound signature; for piecers it could be a complete music piece. Instead of regarding
graffiti as visual noise, people may start wondering how these graffiti sound like.
Zooming out from streets, these music pieces somehow reflect the vibes of the city.
Human has a long history of associating music with visual elements. “Ancient
Greek philosophers, like Aristotle and Pythagoras, speculated that there must be a
correlation between the musical scale and the rainbow spectrum of hues.”  To the
more recent “fulfillment in animated abstract films by artists such as Oskar Fischinger,
Len Lye and Norman McLaren”  Sonic Graffiti is a trial of putting this fascination into
a new social and cultural context. At the end of the day, what matters most is for people
to have some fun with music.
Sonic Graffiti 49
Excerpts from “Graffiti Culture
Project Final Report”
This appendix contains excerpts from “Graffiti Culture Project Final Report“ by
Mark Halsey and Alison Young.  The research crew interviewed 47 graffiti writers,
mostly teenagers and young males in their 20s.
It should also be noted that many of the individuals interviewed were identified
through youth training schemes, schools, and employment training schemes for early
school leavers. This would certainly influence both the average age of participants (16.8)
and also the average duration of involvement in graffiti culture. Some caution should
therefore be exercised in viewing these figures as thoroughly representative of graffiti
During the course of the report a number of terms common to the practice of
writing will be deployed. These centre mainly around different types of writing (tagging,
throw-ups, pieces), different associations (crew, gang), different skill levels (novice, toy,
Sonic Graffiti 50
king, pro), and different responses to writing (lined, toyed, whacked, buffed).
Tagging is the name given to words (often neologisms) or numbers executed in
condensed calligraphic form.
Throw-ups are characterized by ‘fat’ bubble style lettering. As is evident from their
name, they are done very quickly (in the order of 30 seconds) and therefore tend
only to exhibit the outline of a word (usually the person’s tag name).
Pieces or ‘murals’ are, by all accounts, the most complicated form of writing. They
are usually a highly stylised and colourful version of a tag or crew name. Most take
between one and six hours to complete. However, larger pieces - measuring many
meters in length - can take days (or, more accurately, nights) to execute.
Stay-ups are instances of graffiti placed in high or hard to access locations (such
as at the top of a stobie pole or on the side of a bridge). Much kudos is attached
to this form.
A crew is a group of writers who share a common tag (e.g. ISV or ‘Insane Salisbury
Vandals’). Crews can range in membership from 3 to upwards of 60 persons many
of whom may not be known to each other. When someone from a crew tags an
area they will write the commonly held crew name and their own tag name (as if
to communicate the message ‘my crew is/was here and/but I am the person who
has boosted the crew’s profile on this particular occasion). Often, but not always, a
crew will write with the object of marking out territory.
Gangs are best understood as groups whose overriding aim is to mark out and
defend territory by deployment of violent means (e.g. attacking someone with a
trolley poll for tagging or piecing in the wrong area).
Novices or toys are those who have yet to successfully master the particular type
of writing they are attempting.
Kings or pros are those who have gained respect from peers for their particular
‘style’ (where ‘style’ equates to the originality in form and content of a certain type
of writing and the subsequent recognition which arises as a result).
Lining or toying are names given to the process whereby one writer publicly
denounces another’s efforts to ‘get up’ or ‘put up’ (i.e. to write). In the first instance,
a line is drawn across a tag or, in rarer cases, a throw-up. In the second, the word ‘toy’
is written across the offending word or image. Lining and toying are very serious
issues amongst those who write. It can result not only in psychological damage
(from having, in effect, one’s self-esteem publicly attacked), but considerable
personal injury to those who toy or line - either knowingly or unknowingly - the
tag belonging to a crew or a gang.
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Style is the term writers use to describe an individual’s way of writing. For instance,
many people tag but each person who tags has a different style. There are, of
course, ‘good’ styles and ‘bad’ styles.
Whack is a term used to describe any form of writing that is below standard.
Buffed is a term writers use to describe the removal of words and images by
Writer is how participants of graffiti call themselves.
A.2 Why Do People Do Graffiti?
Just as primary involvement in illicit writing has a mainly gregarious nature and
is experienced by individuals as enjoyable, so their continuing participation in such
writing tends to be characterised in positive terms. Sensations such as pride, pleasure,
the enjoyment derived from sharing an activity with friends, as well as the recognition
obtained from the writing community are the overwhelming reasons for continuing to
write illicitly. Writers experience a sense of accomplishment upon completing a piece.
Writers take pride in doing something that seems to them to be of high quality, or
that reflects the planning behind writing (for example, the sketches and practice carried
out on paper before doing a piece). They also take pride in being able to improve the
quality of their writing. Most mentioned the satisfaction gained from developing skills
and perfecting technique. When asked what he liked about writing, one participant
remarked, ‘I started getting pretty good and I was getting better at it so I thought, oh
yeah, might as well just stick at it’. [p.12]
The pleasures of graffiti are various, but relate mainly to the physical experience of
writing (i.e. holding the spray can, seeing the finished work, feeling a bodily thrill, and so
on). Writers also often simply described the activity as ‘fun’. [p.12]
The sense of publicity that graffiti can provide for writers is another important
reason for participating in the culture...Writers refer most often to the importance of
recognition by other writers (in relation to their style, their prolific tagging, or for getting
up in inaccessible places)...AC spoke of taking pleasure in being known for his tag,
rather than his ‘real’ name (‘to let everyone know that it was from me...But like not really
have my name but it’s my name in different sort of saying’ (AC, 3: 22)). For some hip hop
writers, the writing community may even come to stand in for their families or for the
wider community. [p.13]
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The pleasure of shared peer activity is another important reason why writers
continue to engage in graffiti. AQ was motivated to begin graffiti through the
encouragement of friends: ‘Friends going c’mon man it’s heaps good, people can see
it and everything like, it’s out there’ (AQ, 4: 15). It is crucial to emphasise that this is not
a question of peer pressure whereby individuals give in to demands to participate in
something that they otherwise would avoid (although U did describe his experience in
those terms). Rather, it is a matter of developing activities that can be enjoyed by a group
of friends as a group. AT commented that he had in fact made friends through graffiti
(much as other teenagers might make friends through the computer club or footy team
at school): ‘It’s a good way sometimes to make friends... to make new friends through
graffiti... I’ve made a fair few friends through graffiti so... that’s how it’s been good’ (AT, 32:
21). Here, the gregarious nature of graffiti culture is enormously significant. [p.13]
In sum, the key theme to emerge from the interviews in relation to the respondents’
main reasons for writing graffiti is that graffiti is a positive, pleasurable experience for
them, on the whole unrelated to deliberate, ‘anti-social’, or negative motivations. [p.14]
A.3 How Do Writers Work?
Those who do tags are almost always in their teenage years (except that older
writers engaged in piecing will still incorporate a tag into the piece); [p.16]
Under half of the taggers interviewed were part of a crew (n=7). The most frequent
reason cited for crew membership was protection from rival crews (‘More people to
back you up if anyone started on you’ (U, 8: 20). Unless small in number, it is very rare
for the whole crew to be present whilst putting up. Where a very large crew exists, it
is also rare for any one person to know most or all of the members. However, several
interviewees spoke of most if not all members turning out in cases of serious inter-crew
rivalry (usually called ‘rumbles’). Estimates of membership size ranged from less than
a dozen to between two and three hundred (AF). Those that admitted to being in a
crew displayed a reasonably detailed knowledge of the operation of other crews and
where it was safe and unsafe to tag. At least two participants spoke of withdrawing
from ‘crew life’ with one mentioning that he grew tired of ‘hanging around with the
same people’ (AJ, 4: 9). Another commented that he went out tagging with ‘just a group
of friends’ not a crew (AT, 5: 3). This last point suggests that for some the term ‘crew’
carries a negative connotation. In turn, and somewhat ironically, most members were at
pains to distinguish their crew from the concept of a gang. And yet it is also clear from
interviews that crews (or certain members thereof ) often engage in serious physical
Sonic Graffiti 53
Tags are usually executed using spray paint although the use of text as (40 mm)
was said to be quite common (the latter being easier to hide or discard at strategic
moments). The majority of taggers are in their teenage years with most putting up
in public for the first time in the early years of high school. In the present sample, the
average age of taggers was 151/2 years. As previously mentioned, most tags take less
than five seconds to complete and are, to the untrained eye, often difficult to decipher.
But in contrast to the dominant stereotype, tagging is far from being a ‘mindless’ activity
(although the attitude of most piecers toward tagging suggests otherwise, see below)
According to several interviewees, a ‘good’ tag can take anywhere from ‘a couple
of months’ (Y, 4: 2) to in excess of a year to ‘perfect’ (L; AI, 17: 7). Nonetheless, what
constitutes a good tag resides largely in the eye of the beholder/writer. Some go for the
sound of the word over and above the look of it, whilst others place an emphasis on how
it feels to write a particular combination of letters. Some go for quality over quantity,
still others adopt the tag given them by a fellow writer no matter what its appearance
or sound. [p.20]
The majority of tagging activity - especially bombing runs - takes place at night,
although several participants spoke of writing during broad daylight,‘You gotta pick the
right moment, you just walk around ... act normal and just quickly write it up and then
walk off, it’s easy’...Several spoke of revisiting ‘the scene of crime’ to survey their work,
‘[I’ll] wake up at ten o’clock, you know, have a shower and shit and I’ll meet [a fellow
writer] near my house and we’ll go for a walk and see what we done’ [p.20]
...This said, the three main reasons why people tag are: 1) to feel accepted as
part of a group composed of significant others, 2) to gain recognition or make a name
for themselves, and 3) to have fun and/or pass the time (see above under ‘reasons for
writing’). The usual situation is that people who persistently tag do so probably for a
combination of all three of these factors… ‘[I]t’s all about one up-man-ship in terms of
where you put it, how well you’ve done it, how big you’ve put it, how many times you’ve
got it up. So every time you go out it’s like putting on a little bit of a show. You’re not
necessarily putting on a show to the greater audience of the community but you’re
putting on a show amongst your peers saying,“Right, I’ve done this here, look how good
that looks and you know, what are you going to do about it?” So you know someone else
will come by or add to that, put their’s there. It’s almost like name-chasey or something,
I’m not sure. But... .’ (G, 2: 10) ‘They see my initials there they’ll say, yeah, AA’s been here ...
It’s like a calling sign.’ (AA, 2: 19) [p.21]
Sonic Graffiti 54
In general terms, it is not unusual for those who piece to be in their late 20s or
early 30s. Most of those interviewed, however, began piecing at 15. There can be no
doubt that those who piece are substantially fewer in number than those who tag or do
throw-ups. Most of these writers are known to each other (either through their pieces
or from personal contact) and each has a good idea of what ‘fellow’ writers have been
‘working on’. [p.24]
Many writers piece on their own or with a trusted companion or two. Some,
however, also take part in piecing as a group activity either in addition to their solo
efforts or in preference to solo piecing. Groups who come together in order to write are
known as a ‘crew’...On the advantages of writing in a crew, AF says ‘you do a hell of a lot
more in one night, that’s for sure because you’ve got everybody, you know, if one person
doesn’t want to do it and three people do, that one person will still do it for the rest...’
(AF, 13: 3). Crews can involve large numbers of writers, many of whom are not personally
known to each other. T stated that his crew had ‘hundreds’ of members, including ‘old
school fellers as well, they’re like 28, 29 and they’re still doing it now’ (3:23). Membership
of a crew thus exposed the individual to a wide range of people, some of whom would
have different styles which could be studied and adapted. Other advantages include
being able to put up different letters (the crew’s initials); having someone to back
you up in a disagreement or fight; being able to do very large pieces in one night;
and decreasing the likelihood of arrest if surprised by the police while writing...Pieces
require a writer to remain in the one place for a lengthy period of time (perhaps two
hours, perhaps more, and sometimes over several nights) thus increasing the chances of
detection. Piecing alone was seen as making it easier to be taken by surprise by police,
security guards or property owners. [p.25]
Most writers who piece ‘put up’ from a plan or sketch. However, some interviewees
commented that a portion of their best work is done on the spur of the moment (for
example, AN) or, alternatively, when they happen to meet up with another writer at a
common location. Many of the writers interviewed said they took photos of their pieces
‘for posterity’ and for the purpose of comparing their ‘work’ against others’. AB said that
he ‘sometimes’ took photos and had in fact ‘sent them to a graffiti magazine’: ‘they...put
a little photo, shrank it down and put it in their magazine’ (AB, 4: 29). Those who did not
take photographs indicated they would rather take an ‘interested party’ to the actual
piece itself rather than have them view some secondary or mass produced image.
Participants also remarked that a book of photographs can be a major disadvantage if
caught by authorities (in terms of the linking of specific writers to particular pieces) (see
for example, AF who got heavily fined after photos were found in a police raid on his
house (AF, 11: 30)). It should be noted that pieces are often more than just words. They
Sonic Graffiti 55
can be made up of pictures and/or characters as well. Writers may well have preferences
for how such characters are represented: AN said ‘I just like to do heads’ (5:10). [p.27]
Often, the purpose of pictures is to communicate how the writer felt at the
moment of executing the piece. One participant mentioned the example of someone
incorporating the image of bucket into a piece to indicate it was raining at the time the
piece was executed. Similarly, a picture of a moon is sometimes incorporated to indicate
that the moonlight made it hard for the writer to successfully ‘fill’ the piece - to complete
the piece to the standard desired by the writer and those who may view it. Writers give
considerable thought to the composition of a piece, particularly with regard to the
relationship between letters and figures...Sometimes the image is intended to have a
message of a more serious nature, as indicated by the following remark of a writer who
felt a profound sense of alienation from the school environment...[p.28]
The technical difficulties of painting a mural, whether composed of figures or
words, usually by darkness, often under pressure of time and the fear of being caught,
should not be underestimated. For those writers who had progressed from tagging to
piecing, these technical difficulties contribute to the sense of accomplishment they
have when completing a piece. T stated: ‘there’s a lot to learn ... Cos it’s not just, you
know, doing, you know, block letter, you gotta, you gotta think, you know, you gotta, you
gotta add things on, you gotta do fill ins and stuff, you gotta make it look like you can’t
read it but you can’. [p.28]
Generally, writers who piece have little if anything to do with those who tag or
do other kinds of illegal writing. The exception to this would be those who engage in
tagging and piecing with equal dedication or veracity. However this combination, at
least according to the participants interviewed, is a quite rare occurrence. Accordingly,
it is probably fair to say that those who are ‘serious’ about piecing do not spend much
time thinking about other kinds of writers or what they may or may not be doing. On
those occasions when participants who pieced did speak about other writers it was
usually in the context of denouncing the activities of taggers in terms of their general
disregard for public and private property as well as their will to ‘get up’ at any cost to
the community. One writer summed up the general sentiment of those who piece by
commenting that the majority of taggers ‘just go out and destroy’. This participant was
adamant that ‘[t]hose kind of people give [...] art work [i.e. pieces and murals] the label
“graffiti”’ (I, 10: 35). Another commented, ‘I don’t actually like graffiti, I do pieces ... Cos
scribble, anyone can scribble’ (AQ, 2: 14). [p.30]
Sonic Graffiti 56
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