A Drone That Paints Graffiti, For Art And For Mischief

Sometimes you want to put a tag in a hard-to-reach place. Now there are drones for that.


Some drones are armed with weapons. This drone is armed with spray paint cans.


The invention, which you can see in the video above, is the work of Katsu, a famous graffiti artist who rose to prominence in New York City in the late 1990s. The Hole, the art gallery that presented Drone Paintings recently at the Silicon Valley Art Fair, calls the new pieces “a completely new type of painting that has never been made before.”

The results show a new type of mark, divorced from the artist hand though remotely controlled by it, and filtered through the nature of the drone and its tendencies. The semi-random line in the works has a choppy quality to one side of the mark, as the paint is whipped up in the drone’s propellers. The gesture of the mark is governed by the drone’s gyroscope as it tries to “right” itself from the paint payload and the spray propulsion. The result is semi-controlled chaos as the artist can control color and semi-control composition but not much else.

It’s not the first graffiti innovation Katsu’s hacked together. In 2011, in what was at once a contemporary art stunt and an act of vandalism, he customized a spray paint fire extinguisher to massively tag a wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

Courtesy of the artist and The Hole NYC.

To make these works, which are as large as 25 by 15 feet, Katsu created the hardware and software that allowed a drone to carry a spray paint can and a mechanism to depress the spray button. Then he had to get the details right, experimenting with different paints, surfaces, sprayer straws, air pressures, and flight paths.

The Drone Graffiti works are interesting as a thought experiment. It plays with what it means to create art in an age of advanced robotics and automation, and it extends the artist’s reach to larger canvases that most taggers can’t easily tackle. Visually, however, the paintings aren’t much to look at. With random lines and colors rather than beautiful cohesive artworks, it’s clear that drones aren’t going to replace muralists or street artists anytime soon.

Artistic merit aside, given Katsu’s plans to open-source his designs, the technology may play a role in escalating the battles between law enforcement and taggers way beyond artistic experiment.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire