KATSU: Transcending Graffiti

KATSU is an artist and graffiti writer whose approach to his work has blurred the lines between the physical space and the digital space. While still maintaining an exceptional standard in what is considered ‘traditional’ graffiti, KATSU has often veered in his line of attack. His methodology has included the hacking of various public spaces from the phone booths of New York to the walls of the MOCA, pseudo-realistic videos uploaded onto streaming sites that left viewers in shock and curiosity as visuals of KATSU tagging the White-House and over a Picasso surfaced the web, early adoption of the customized fire extinguisher for vandalism purposes, the use of drones within the space of graffiti, iPhone applications and much more. KATSU’s endeavors as a contemporary artist have led to designing alongside the late great Virgil Abloh, working with high-fashion houses the likes of Off-White and Alexander Wang, as well as solo-shows at The Hole displaying his drone paintings and Ai portraiture.

In 2011 The Powers of Katsu played with the idea of how things can be drastically scaled. The film showed the one-liner KATSU skull growing progressively in size, with the time it took to finish each tag ticking in the bottom right hand corner. Beginning with a tag smaller than a single grain of rice (1/20 inch), completed in 9 seconds. The film then moves forward from tags done with small pens to ink markers, from ink markers to skinny-cap spray paint cans, from spray paint cans to fire extinguishers. Finally culminating with a tag measured at 1,440 inches (120 feet) done on the top of a roof with an unidentified paint applicator. This tag took a total of 10 minutes and can be viewed from Google maps, or a helicopter. The film was based on the 1977 classic “Powers of 10” by Charles & Ray Eames.

“KATSU”, black marker on orange gun. Hanging on a wall in his private studio.

With the advent of the internet, the scale at which information, visuals and news could spread was raised to the 10th power in a flash. However, the roots of graffiti are far removed from the digital world. The movement that started in the train yards of 1970s New York had the highest aim being: to be all city, to have your name on all train lines running across all boroughs of New York at all times. The goal was to accumulate fame and to be seen by as many people as possible. Everyone from the general public to other graffiti writers would see your name as the train passed them by, physically. Yet this same aim can be garnished, emphasized, and ultimately scaled with the use of the digital space. KATSU was a pathfinder of such techniques, using the megaphone of the internet to spread what he is doing in the physical space of the city. While many have tried to emulate this approach since then, few if any have duplicated the results.

KATSU’s applications begin in the physical world with style-writing at its root. On Manhattan streets lay his printed stickers, marker tags and throw-ups. Weathered remains of KATSU tags done with fire-extinguishers can be spotted from Ludlow st. to the West Side Highway. KATSU largely popularized the use of the fire-extinguisher within the context of graffiti, releasing an instructional on filling the extinguisher with enamel bucket paint, mixing it with water in varying ratios depending on what consistency you are looking for, pressurizing it with air and sealing it ready to go. Effectively hacking a tool originally designed for fire safety and repurposing it for vandalism. KATSU hacks various tools and technology for use within the space of graffiti, most notably his drones.

‘A drone is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems. Essentially, a drone is a flying robot that can be remotely controlled or fly autonomously using software-controlled flight plans in its embedded systems, that work in conjunction with onboard sensors and a global positioning system (GPS).

-Tech Target ‘What is a Drone?’

KATSU’s “graffiti drone” was created through trials with a quadcopter drone, alongside Becky Stern, they brought into existence a ‘prototype mountable remote sprayer.’ KATSU uses his drones paired with common spray paint, and videos can be seen of the drones making paintings and vandalizing property. In 2015 KATSU allegedly used the graffiti drone to vandalize a Calvin Klein billboard in SoHo. Like much of KATSU’s work, the drones use within graffiti carries within it a conceptual element; questioning the reality of technologies ever increasing place in our lives. The unbounded nature of the technology that humans are creating and the power or lack of thereof that will come with it.

Graffiti was always for graffiti writers. It was done to gain fame within the realm of graffiti and very little importance was placed outside of this realm. However, KATSU’s unorthodox approach to graffiti has served to transcend graffiti and gain attention from the general public ranging from street-wear aficionados, high-fashion, fine art and skateboarding scenes alike.

Below are photos from inside KATSU’s private studio. The full range of photos are featured within KATSU’s feature, inside issue 6 of Living Proof Magazine.

Issue 6 of Living Proof Magazine is available on our online shop and Patreon.

*Patreon members on the ‘Living Proof Magazine’ tier during the month of June 2024 are guaranteed a copy.

*Photos by Wes Knoll. Words by Angel Cheng.