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Graffiti artists ditch spray paint for lasers and magnetized light bulbs

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James Powderly shows his support for Peter Berdovsky, one of the artists arrested for his part in the Turner advertising hoax in Boston in January. (Courtesy of Graffiti Research Lab)

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The laser tag system allows artists to write on buildings from distances of 100 yards or more. (Courtesy of Graffiti Research Lab)

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"LED throwies" decorate a bridge in Rotterdam. (Courtesy of Graffiti Research Lab)

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Theo Watson (left), who developed the software for the laser tag system, and James Powderly write with laser pointers and light. (Courtesy of Graffiti Research Lab)

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James Powderly (left) conducts a training session with fellows at the Graffiti Research Lab. (David Fusaro/CNS)

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The images from Jamie O'Shea's flashbulb-and-stencil device stay with viewers as if they had just stared at the sun. (David Fusaro/CNS)

In a parking lot in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, graffiti artist James Powderly prepares to leave his mark. His canvas, 100 yards away, is a building 150 feet high and 120 feet wide. Powderly intends to cover all of it. His tool of choice is not a can of Krylon paint but a laser pointer and projector connected to a laptop. As he scans the building with the pointer, the projector follows his script, imprinting his ephemeral message in pale green light.

Powderly is a promoter of a new wave of graffiti art. He and his partner, Evan Roth, are founders of the Graffiti Research Lab, a year-old artist’s collective in New York dedicated to expanding graffiti beyond spray paint to new but accessible technologies. But not all established graffiti “writers,” as they are known, agree that the lab’s work deserves to be called graffiti.

Powderly, 30, and Roth, 29, are the first to admit they’re not traditional graffiti artists. Their backgrounds are in the tech world, not in train yards or subway tunnels. Roth holds a master’s degree in design technology. Powderly worked for a company that was contracted to work on the Mars Rover project.

The two formed the lab to infuse contemporary technology into the world of graffiti. They share their innovations free of charge with anyone who’s interested, running workshops at the lab and posting information on their Web site, graffitiresearchlab.com, to help artists around the world recreate and expand on their work. None of their work is copyrighted.

The lab’s innovations include a laser-writing software program, a contraption that shoots light from flashbulbs through a transparent stencil to create an image or message on the viewer’s retina and light bulbs attached to magnets that can be attached to any metal surface.

The stencil device, developed by artist-in-residence Jamie O’Shea, consists of a row of flash bulbs hanging from a copper frame. When the bulbs, attached to a pair of 6-volt batteries, are set off simultaneously, their light flashes through a stencil, imprinting an image on a viewer’s retina. The effect is much like the glowing circles that stay with you after you stare at the sun or take a snapshot in the dark.

The magnetized bulbs, known as “LED throwies,” are also simple to create. Using a lithium battery, electrical tape and a magnet, graffiti artists can attach light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, to metal surfaces.

The devices have already become popular around the world. Artists in Rotterdam placed glowing hearts around the city for Valentine’s Day. Disciples of the Graffiti Research Lab have begun decorating their cars with them. And Roth says he’s heard from graffiti artists in Los Angeles who stick their glowing tags on overpasses around the city.

Roth and Powderly say the throwies give individual graffiti writers a chance to create a display as eye-catching as flashing commercial billboards. “You can go out there with your tape and LED, this old technology, and put it together and you can do it for 50 bucks,” Powderly said.

But some of the technology’s biggest fans appear to be marketers. The magnetized LEDs recently gained notoriety in Boston, where corporate advertisers triggered a bomb scare by covertly planting throwie advertisements on subway stations and highway overpasses. Turner Broadcasting and the advertising company hired to implement the stunt came forward and agreed to pay $2 million to the city in compensation.

Powderly and Roth say their mission is to help street artists, not corporations, by co-opting the technology that advertisers traditionally use “and trying to give a little more access to us lower-down crooks and nobodies that wouldn’t be able to do it on a billboard in Times Square.”

Despite their anti-establishment bent, the Graffiti Research Lab is more evidence that graffiti, a once-underground art form, has gone mainstream. The lab and its parent, the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, receive funding from well-established sources like the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Time Warner Youth Media and Arts Fund and the New York State Council for the Arts.

Traditional graffiti artists question whether the lab makes graffiti at all. Chris “Daze” Ellis, one of New York’s seminal graffiti artists, got his start the old-fashioned way: painting subway cars as a teenager in the 1970s. Although he has moved from the rail yards to the studio and his work is displayed in galleries worldwide, Daze still sees himself as “old school.”

“Graffiti to me is letter-based and spray-paint-based,” he said. While he finds the lab’s work interesting, “it’s more street art, and that distinction should be made. It’s definitely not graffiti.”

Other traditional graffiti artists aren’t so sure. Hector “Nicer” Nazario, who also got his start in South Bronx in the 1970s, embraces new technologies. “If you were to ask me 20 years ago, 25 years ago, that I could design a graffiti piece on a computer, color it in, distort it, filter it, print it out, take it to a wall and paint it, I would have looked at you like you’re on mad drugs,” Nicer said.

“But it’s a normal thing now. It’s part of the actual revolution.”

No longer painting in subway tunnels, Nicer has formed Tats Cru, a group of professional graffiti artists who have lectured at the MIT and have displayed their work at the Smithsonian Institution.

“Who’s to say what graffiti is nowadays?” he asked. “It’s not who does it. It’s not even about how you’re doing it. It’s about getting your name up there however you can.”

E-mail: dcf2110@columbia.edu