Commercial art gallery

Can VR graffiti make the metaverse cool?

Graffiti is an art form traditionally rooted in physical and urban space – but is it mandatory? Shanti Mathias interviews an artist taking her work into the metaverse.

I found the Metaverse, and the Metaverse is in Epsom. In the small downstairs room of a house on a leafy avenue near Auckland’s Cornwall Park, artist Bobby Hung walks me through his work in Kingspraya virtual reality application designed to create a realistic graffiti experience.

“Hit the button that’s flush with the controller,” explains Hung, who is a patient man; I’ve been wandering around its landscape tagged with urban decay for at least 10 minutes, and I’m lost. It’s disorienting, wearing a VR headset, watching my disembodied hands clutch cans of spray paint, and knowing that at the same time I’m stumbling into someone else’s guest room. I try to relax in the metaverse and stop thinking about my body, ignoring the yelps of Hung’s dog (adorable, tiny, named “Latte”).

I manage to spray virtual paint on a virtual wall, next to one of Hung’s most elaborate works. The wall has bold letters, its label – “Berst– in elaborate letters. I do a little scribble, then lean closer, trying to draw the shape with black. I finish my “work of art” – it honors my visual ability too much to call it that – and continue to follow Hung’s instructions to take a photo of my doodle and send it to Facebook.

This is why journalists should only be allowed to spray in the metaverse (Image: Supplied)

Facebook, really, is why we’re here; since renaming Meta, the company has been desperate to show what is a metaverse and why it might be useful. It’s a tough proposition, given that much of what’s promised about the metaverse – a digital world seamlessly integrated with the real world – is based on the enthusiastic proclamations of tech billionaires who have everything to gain from that the Internet is more integrated into our lives. To support the proposition that the metaverse is a good idea, Meta released an app which allows your avatar to walk around in a virtual world (but without legs), Microsoft is working on an app that will allow your Teams meeting to take place in virtual reality, and many many many companies promised that metaverse technologies would change digital art.

I’m talking to Hung at the request of a PR firm that works with Meta. They gave him a Quest 2 VR headset from Oculus, also a Meta company, and they gave me the opportunity to talk to him and try it out, presumably hoping to work on that factor. buy-in, to show more people why the future digital world of Meta will be transformative.

Hung, a long-time graffiti artist who does commercial design as well as teaching and research at Unitec, is excited to use a virtual reality app for graffiti. He is passionate about this art form and tells me a brief history of graffiti and what “post graffitimight resemble the practice of artists in traditional fine art and commercial spaces.

From a graffiti artist’s perspective, there are many reasons why working virtually is an advantage. Hung enumerates them for me: it makes it possible to collaborate with artists abroad. It facilitates the documentation of graffiti, giving permanence to an ephemeral form. It allows artists to plan and practice large-scale projects. And above all, it is not illegal.

Bobby Hung, wearing a black cap and jacket, adds the finishing touches to a blue and yellow mural
Bobby Hung is an accomplished artist in the real and digital world. (Picture: provided)

Hung is particularly passionate about how digital graffiti can make the art form more accessible. “I started tagging when I was 17,” he says. The cost of a can of spray paint, about $10, is a lot for a young person with no source of income. While an Oculus Quest headset costs around $700, publicly available units — in schools, for example, or libraries — could make graffiti practice more accessible, while allowing artists to view artwork from around the world. .

From an environmental point of view, digital graffiti is less wasteful – no empty aluminum cans left under colorful paints, no health hazard paint fumes. “I could paint a 10-story wall without burning hundreds of cans of paint,” Hung explains.

On these practical considerations, digital graffiti has a lot to offer. But graffiti is an art form designed to interact with physical space; what does it mean to translate site-specific works of art into a digital landscape?

“Digital graffiti will never replace graffiti, just like digital painting will never replace oil painting,” says Hung. There’s a spontaneity to real-world art – you may never know who sees a piece of art you’ve hidden at the entrance to a train tunnel, or what happened to a tag left in a building slated for demolition. But making art with others embodies the almost realized possibilities of the coming metaverse, Hung says: If technology takes off, there will be a way to connect with other artists beyond the superficiality of mutual followings. .

bobby hung wears a VR headset in a hallway lined with artwork
Bobby Hung is used to making art in different spaces with different business realities (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

There is also profit to be made. They can simulate the real world, but unlike the real world, metaverses are built by companies with commodification built in from the start. Even though Meta keeps its open metaversehe wouldn’t have invested $10 billion (so far) in the business if there was no money to be made from games, Material, digital skins, and world trade. NFTs embody this, turning works of art into inherent commodities with encryption built into their ability to be traded over and over again.

For Hung, this is not a problem. “It’s impossible to live in a world without capitalism,” he says: he’s comfortable teaching at Unitec, selling books, painting commercial murals, making documentaries, collecting oral histories about graffiti in New Zealand and mark where and when he wants. , free. Although Hung hasn’t ventured into NFTs (yet), he has had friends who have made money selling their collections. “The art market system is quite imperfect,” he says. “You should be able to determine what your value is, not a gallery.”

Graffiti is just one of many art forms taking digital possibilities into account. Sotheby’s – the world renowned fine art auction house – has launched a metaverse for his NFT. Locally, Glorious intends to do the same for New Zealand art. While many NFT projects are questionable shit shows produce art destined to become a very average profile pictureother projects help artists get paid and enrich the physical space.

a colorful label on a brick wall from the game Kingspray.  It's relatively realistic, but the sky isn't quite the right color;  the stage is a bit empty and desolate
Berst’s vibrant art decorates a wall in the virtual reality app Kingspray. (Picture: provided)

While the smooth rendering of the VR graffiti app is realistic enough to be disorienting, it’s also weird. Kingspray uses the aesthetics of a post-industrial western city – brick walls, desolate rooftops, subway stations where trains don’t run. As immersive as it is, the app also feels generic, nowhere in particular: the streets don’t have names, the buildings don’t belong to developers I hate. There is no one: it’s just me and my digital hands, alone in a fake metropolis. In the void, the graffiti is a reminder that other people have been in this pixel universe before I got here, that even in the metaverse people want to leave their mark.

“Imagine no limitation to space,” Hung says dreamily; space, after all, is a graffiti artist’s motto. “You could label the Empire State Building with ‘Berst’,” says Robert, the public relations representative. But this game is not set in a city with recognizable landmarks. The aesthetic of graffiti – the brash lettering inviting to think of urban space differently – translates well into the virtual world, but in doing so it loses some of the specificity that makes the art form unique.

Virtual reality, NFT, social media companies reinventing themselves as they are rapidly losing market share in the crucial youth sector: Is the emerging concept of metaverse sufficient to federate these disparate digital trends? While the Kingspray graffiti app is great technology and fun to use, it’s not exactly the metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg promisedwhere you can feel “like you’re right there with people, no matter how far away you really are”.

In our interview, Hung describes the metaverse as “interesting” again and again. He’s not wrong: it’s interesting that the visual aesthetic of graffiti can be recreated so faithfully in virtual reality. A global public art gallery that anyone could contribute to would be great. The idea of ​​a digital simulation so realistic that you feel like you’re with someone even when they’re very far away: interesting. “There are so many possibilities,” says Hung, whose art exists in physical space as he thinks of graffiti on digital street corners. Hung embraces these possibilities: who else will put on the headset, buy the app and explore them?