Mapping Ephemeral Street Art

Note: While not an official process blog, I wanted to throw this out there since picking a topic for this project seems to have brought out some challenges obstacles in and of itself)

A few weeks ago I was asked to write an article about the “eyewriter”, an attachment that was designed for LA graffiti artist, Tony Quan who lost the ability to use his muscles due to ALS in 2003. The resulting eye writer uses open source eye tracking software that allows graffiti artists and artists in general to draw using their eyes. Inspired by this transgression, as well as work done by the Research Graffiti Lab, the idea of mapping graffiti in NY seemed like an interesting idea for a couple reasons.

Graffiti is a sort of ephemeral authorship that is entirely site specific. It demarks neighborhoods, tells stories, and wears with its surroundings. It is something that is at once personal, communicative, and inherently involves society since its very presence is, illegal.

I was initially interested in figuring a way to cartographically represent graffiti in NYC, because as a generative medium, it would be interesting to see what kind of narrative it would reveal, mostly since graffiti and street art in so dependant on place.

The first dilemma is that the amount of street art in NYC is enormous, and aside from analyzing archives of arrests in relation to graffiti, there seems to be no documentation of graffiti aside form curated shows in galleries, and personal narratives, which often are not documented. I still think it’s an interesting idea, and mapping street art- something that has such strong narratives but little documentation could help generate an interesting history of communities in New York. My question then becomes, when it comes to mapping phenomena on this scale, when do ideas get too big? How to you document authorship when much of the actual artifacts are either gone or undocumented? I may not use this as a topic, but the question stumps me.


  1. Hi Laura, I’m actually really tempted to pursue this subject too after I came across the data set New York City maintains and makes available. It includes all the graffiti “tagged” for clean up in the city. The data set can be found here:

    They don’t provide photos, so that may make for fun some foot work. I was thinking it would be interesting to run image analysis software on the photos of the tags collected to perhaps uncover patterns that can lead to potential arguments about urban media.

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