why drone graffiti artist katsu vandalized kendall jenner

A month after his graffiti drone painted a Calvin Klein billboard, we caught up with KATSU to explore technology’s impact on the future of art.

by Emily Manning
Jun 8 2015, 6:20pm

Last month, Kendall Jenner became "the first ever victim of drone vandalism," when prolific graffiti writer and multimedia artist KATSU tagged her Houston Street Calvin Klein billboard using a drone retrofitted with spray painting capabilities. But while a shiny new Kendall face has replaced the vandalized original, and the media machine has moved on to the exuberance of her ponytails and her inner cowgirl, KATSU's painting raises some meaningful questions about the future of art and technology.

KATSU's work emerged on New York City's streets in the late 90s. Blending traditional methods of graffiti writing with a conceptual focus, his approach to renegade artmaking has resulted in transforming fire extinguishers into graffiti tools and more recently, 3D printing crack cocaine. But the Kendall painting wasn't his first joyride with the drone; he's been using the tool to create canvas works exhibited with The Hole Gallery, and will soon be releasing his own drone model, the 'Icarus.' We caught up with KATSU to find out why Kendall and how artificial intelligence is impacting artistic expression.

How did you create the graffiti drone?
As a young artist, you look at the scale of the billboard around you and play with it like a conductor--touching things you can't touch. A bit of my art still has to do with the graffiti vernacular; using materials that can either be stolen or purchased easily and then hacked has been the story of mark making. The drone is really rooted in that. Fantasy technology was out of our reach, or at least out of our price point, but it's now everyday stuff in our pockets. Because technology is becoming faster, smaller, and cheaper, drones have become super affordable, mass consumer products. Now, the use of the drone is just like going to the art store and using any other type of new medium. Hacking it was a natural impulse because of this availability.

From KATSU's Dronescape series, courtesy the artist and The Hole NYC

Aside from reaching previously unreachable surfaces, what broader impact can drones have on the art world?
Drone technology is advancing alongside virtual reality hardware and the internet; I think it's all this story of artificial intelligence that we're telling ourselves. What if the things we created could create art? Would they create art? In terms of my own work, I first did an abstract series of paintings which examine the beginning of the relationship between me and the drone. Then I developed a more comical narrative with some of the Marilyn paintings, before a deeper, natural aesthetic with the Dronescape paintings. But it's really a look at the speed of progress. You can imagine a future where we don't leave our houses because drones take care of all the physical tasks we need done in the built world and all information is collected and streamed through the internet. The drone is just one piece of many pieces that show us where we might be headed, or some ideas of where we don't want to go.

But just because a drone can put paint on a canvas and a person can sit back and watch TV, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to replace the desire or power of a human being touching a canvas. The human brain and body are still so much more advanced than any technology we can create. I think the drone is a fun question about whether artificial intelligence would value the exploration of artistic expression just as much as it would a replication of science.

From KATSU's Dronescape series, courtesy the artist and The Hole NYC

So why Kendall Jenner and Calvin Klein?
I was looking at a few locations for the right stage to do the piece. Any billboard of that scale in a city like New York would probably have some shallow celebrity, but the Kendall Jenner billboard was appropriate because she represents this internet divine right. Kim Kardashian is constantly monitored, she's the number one most followed human being on planet earth on social media. Kendall Jenner is this attempt at handing the scepter. The billboard fit the use of the tool, but also made for a nice conversation and a nice painting. I work on smaller, gallery sized canvasses and that was the first time I painted at that scale and distance. It was really powerful to interact with and guide the drone in that setting.

What did you make of the piece's media coverage?
In some ways, I think the dissemination of the story represents the narrative of the piece. One of my friends was on a fishing trip in Monterey and another in lives in India. Both were having coffee and saw the story in their respective local newspapers. It's funny how media can be integrated into the exhibition of work in this day and age; we're so deeply connected to the culture of the internet and our desire to consume content.

What's up next for you?
With the hacking help of Becky Stern and Dan Moore, I'm working to release a drone called the 'Icarus One,' to be followed up by a more robust version, the 'Icarus Two' working in collaboration with Maddy Varner. It will be released completely open source, and while I hope to have as much involvement as the community would like, I really invite people to create and make it their own. I'd love to see kids in Africa or Brazil finding new uses for it and advancing it. It doesn't do any good to release the drone and have techmakers around the world building it in their backyards or used for some commercials; I want this tool to go to graffiti writers and artists who can utilize it and push it. I feel it needs to be released in that way, so the masses can consume and understand it.

Related: KATSU teaches VICE how to make a graffiti drone.


Text Emily Manning

Kendall Jenner
The Hole NYC