If you met Brian Muller and Zach Thomas at a coffee shop, as I did last week, you might not associate them with the gritty, subversive underworld of graffiti.
Muller, in a plain T-shirt and cargo shorts, is a student at MUSC. His interests are in the field of bioinformatics, which is where medicine and data-mining meet. Thomas, in a T-shirt, jeans, and black chunky Ray-Ban reading glasses, studies at the College of Charleston. He's picking up where he left off after seven years as a computer engineer.
"We're total nerds," Thomas says, wryly.
These nerds are on the vanguard of an art form as old as the pyramids. Using new technologies, they are spanning a divide between dialectic views of graffiti — one that says it's an art, one that it's vandalism.
In spanning this divide, Muller and Thomas are changing not just how graffiti is done but how we think about it.
They are, in essence, trying to forge a new sensibility among graff artists — from one that's illicit, solitary, and egocentric to one that's lawful, social, and egalitarian.
Though some graffiti is illegal, Muller says, it's still art. It needs to be preserved as a work of art before being whitewashed by a rightfully angry property owner.
So he and Thomas started Tag Record (www.tagrecord.com). They have cached hundreds of photographs of graffiti found around the city. Even graffiti long painted over has been given a new virtual existence.
Muller and Thomas believe in the rights of property owners. They also believe in the power of art. (In the case of graffiti, it has the power to monopolize our vision, forcing us to experience and reckon with it.)
By documenting all manner of street art, Muller and Thomas separate one from the other, celebrating the art form without endorsing or participating in vandalism.
But the website has done more than that. By creating an interactive forum, they say, they have elevated the quality of graffiti.
"Graffiti artists work in isolation, at night, and they don't know how they're being experienced by others," Muller says. "Now they know what people are thinking."
Perhaps graffiti is an expression of a primal human instinct. At its core is a spirit that longs for validation, that asserts in the face of uncertainty, tragedy, and doubt that "I was here." It says, with defiance: "I am."
Muller and Thomas say that they honor this spirit, that they believe in that spirit. But scrawling on a billboard is only one way to leave one's mark.
With so many new kinds of technology available to them, they decided to innovate new methods for leaving a mark on the world. But they also wanted to change how we think about leaving that mark.
From this came Street Level Lab (www.streetlevellab.com), a local collective that aims, according to its mission statement, to "create new open technology and free methods to assist in the creation and promotion of nondestructive street artwork."
One of these is software that Muller and Thomas affectionately call Blobber.
With Blobber, you can "laser tag" any flat surface. All you need is a computer, a light projector, a camera, and a laser pointer (or an empty spraypaint can affixed with LEDs, but that's another story).
The software tells the projector to follow the laser beam, leaving virtually any kind of mark you'd like. But unlike the old graffiti, laser tagging is gone when you're gone.
Muller and Thomas got the software from an open-source nonprofit in New York City called the Graffiti Research Lab. It didn't work the way they wanted it to. It would only run on Windows, and it was "bloated" with non-essentials like music and video. So they rewrote the program. Once perfected (they plan to release it later this year), Blobber can be used on any platform by anyone with the imagination to make it grow. The only stipulation is that it remain open-source, or free and available to be tinkered with.
Muller and Thomas agree Blobber is to graffiti what Wii is to video gaming.
It's simple and intuitive. It breaks down barriers of knowledge and culture. And it now features easy-to-use games similar to Pong and Space Invaders.
The biggest difference is that it's social.
Graffiti is done by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons — artistic, subversive, criminal, insane. But what's constant is that it's done for the most part alone, in secret, and under cover of night.
With Blobber, graffiti and other kinds of street art can be more flexibly understood as a social act rooted in the pleasure of innovating and creating art with others. Muller and Thomas are already slated to "perform" at next month's Kulture Klash. They have applied for next year's Piccolo Spoleto, too.
"We want this to be for everyone," Muller says.
"Because it's awesome!"