Street Artist Escif Is Using Augmented Reality to Challenge the Boundaries of Graffiti
Street art has long been a way to interrupt our surroundings with the unexpected. Escif, a native of Valencia, Spain, has worked for over two decades to execute graffiti interventions on the world’s walls. Sometimes, they are simple illustrations that beckon you to look up and consider them: a judiciously placed watermelon, a falling rock, a sculptural bust. In others, through muted color palettes and illustrative figures, Escif warns of the trials of modern life, from police violence to gentrification and consumerism.
He, and others, are now using technology to push their work in new directions. With the advent of augmented reality (AR), it’s now possible to intervene on street art itself, sharing digital easter eggs with those who seek them. U.K. artist INSA creates trippy GIF murals for his fans to hunt down around the world; Brazilian artist Eduardo Kobra has experimented with the technology, too. To see AR graffiti, viewers must download a custom app that stores the moving graphics associated with each work. (As one might expect, advertising agencies and social apps have also begun to recognize the potential of snatching up space in AR’s virtual landscape.)
This summer, Escif took AR graffiti indoors for an installation at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. The show, “Encore un jour banane pour le poisson-rêve”—or “Another Banana Day for the Dream-Fish”—explores the wonder, inventiveness, and anxiety of childhood, featuring works by over 30 international artists, including Keita Miyazaki, Kiki Smith, Ugo Rondinone, and Andy Warhol.
Escif’s installation for the show, entre l’amour et la peur (2018), at first resembles a series of black scribbles dashed on a large white wall, as if an unattended child had just discovered the potential of the Sharpie marker. In fact, children are responsible: The spontaneous marks are the result of a group of 6- to 8-year-olds engaging in “exercises in microvandalism,” as described by Escif, in which they drew on printed pictures of sculptures exhibited at the Palais de Tokyo. Those pictures were then uploaded to a custom-built app, Graffiti Yoga. Download the app and hold up your phone to a scribble, and the underlying sculpture is revealed.
Escif, ENTRE L’AMOUR ET LA PEUR at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
“I like the idea of collecting the naïve, intuitive drawings of child-tagger-vandals so as to link them structurally with the classical beauty of Greco-Roman art,” Escif wrote. The wildness of the kids’ graffiti marks might seem at odds with the refined marble sculptures, but AR technology, he added, “allows us to experience this dichotomy” as one unified work of art.
The app that makes this possible, Graffiti Yoga, was designed by Felix Artagaveytia, a 3D animator and modeler based in Valencia. He met Escif through a mutual acquaintance when the street artist required a 3D rendering for an earlier project. Artagaveytia had previous experience designing AR technology for construction sites, so his expertise was called upon again when Escif wanted to build an app for entre l’amour et la peur.
The installation was a departure for Escif, who, like many street artists, chooses to remain anonymous and typically eschews traditional gallery settings. He is arguably one of the most famous talents to come out of Valencia, a city with a historical center nestled inside of sprawling developments, its walls graced by both local and visiting graffiti artists.
Over the course of his career, Escif has gone from homegrown star to internationally sought-after muralist, painting large-scale works from Canada to Poland. He’s known for his politically charged imagery that advocates for the autonomy and power of ordinary people, and for taking on commissions close to his heart. In March, for example, he contributed two murals in the La Punta neighborhood in Valencia—of hands holding a mound of earth, and of a patch of lettuces—to protest further expansion of the Port of Valencia into the province’s fertile grounds, known for its historic orchards.
Escif, OPEN BORDERS at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.
The contemporary and historical issues of local communities are paramount to Escif, even while working outside of his own city. In Italy’s Susa Valley, he painted a passionate cry against the new development of a high-speed train; in Sant Feliu de Llobregat, west of Barcelona, he created a staggering depiction of the town’s victory in 1977 against the construction of a gas station in favor of a plaza.
That spirit of revolution was realized on an enormous scale at Escif’s first project at the Palais de Tokyo, Open Borders (2018), which spans the entire east façade of the building. The work, completed this spring, was inspired by the events of May 1968, a month of civil unrest during which worker strikes and student occupations against capitalism spread like wildfire throughout France.
Open Borders is part of the Palais de Tokyo’s LASCO Project, in which street artists (including collaborations between Lek and Sowat, as well as JR and OSGEMEOS), are invited to intervene in the museum itself. Some are secret projects that can only be viewed on a guided tour; others can’t be viewed at all. According to production manager Pauline-Alexandrine Deforge, some of the works “were realized in subterranean tunnels and canals closed by securized hatches, completely forbidden even for Palais de Tokyo employees.”
If the LASCO Project proved that the Palais de Tokyo was up for the unexpected, Escif had a surprise of his own: an additional, secret AR initiative planned during the making of his installation for “Encore un jour banane,” unknown to the museum staff until its launch.
As Artagaveytia noted, “there’s nothing typical” about Escif’s projects—“but that is the fun part.” Together, they designed what Escif called a “virtual vandalization” of the museum entitled “Tokemon Go,” which launched the opening week of “Encore un jour banane” and consisted of AR graphics hidden around the Palais de Tokyo. (The name is a riff on the AR mobile sensation Pokémon Go.) Using the Graffiti Yoga app, visitors could discover the 13 Tokemons placed around the museum.
“Tokemon Go” was inspired by the endless creativity Escif saw in the children who participated in the “Encore un jour banane” workshops. “Kids are usually more creative and spontaneous than we are,” he noted, “so it’s easy to get some crazy results from them.” He wanted to relight that spark within his own practice. “I tried to recover my [inner] kid and just play with installations from other artists.”
The Tokemons include shopping bags on a Kiki Smith sculpture; the cast of the Power Rangers posing under the words “Sorry for Fukushima” on a staircase; and a pastry, titled Security Brioche—a pun for “security breach”—hovering above Tomoaki Suzuki’s hyperrealistic miniatures of two men.
Though Escif has warned against the dangers of becoming absorbed in one’s smartphone, he said that AR technology does open the door to new modes of expression. “I like the way that augmented reality gives the chance to add some new shapes to reality, as graffiti does, without any authorization needed,” he explained. “Although technology can be a big limitation for expression, it also gives us some new tools for freedom.”