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The story behind the Facebook Graffiti

I first joined Facebook in around 2007. I don't know how many people reading this will remember what Facebook was like back then, but it was largely browsing through photos of people, what they were eating, their children, what their children were eating, memes, adverts and so on. Not like today where it has evolved into a completely different animal.

I remember initially thinking 'What is this, and why on earth do people like it?', then before I knew it, finding myself gawping at for hours on end and thinking 'How did I ever live without this?'. Fortunately it didn't take long to find something that was a bit less inane than harvesting coins from the potato patch of an imaginary online farm.

Facebook started becoming a development platform for certain types of program. One of the more interesting was called Graffiti, which was set up by a small group of students in the US.

The concept was simple; you install the application and this gives you a 'Wall'. You can go onto other people's wall (not your own) and write something or draw something. Once you posted a graffiti on someone's wall, it would then go in a big list of all the graffitis posted and people could like it, comment on it etc. The drawing application was quite simple. You had to work within a small 'wall' which was about the size of an iphone 7. You could control the size of the dot, and the opacity (how see-through it is) and also the colours; initially from a limited pallete. Initially that was it. Later, some features were added like 'save' and some clever people worked out how to zoom etc. but initially it was a very raw tool. The concept of painting on others' walls was cool though. Initially a lot of people seemed to just be writing basic messages on each others' walls, simple slogans 'Hi', 'Yo!' and countless obligatory drawings of penises.

I was living on my own at the time and commuting to work and wanted something to do in the evenings. I'd not done an oil painting for several years as it was too time-consuming and seemed too antiquated, so I thought 'What if i took this seriously?' and shared some cool images. So my first graffiti I tried to do a copy of a turner painting, 'The fighting Temeraire'

The inimitable "The Fighting Temeraire", by Turner

My imitation of the inimitable 'The Fighting Temeraire', by Turner, by Me

In trying to realise that image, I was finding a limitation with my hardware (though, you can buy pills for that nowadays). I was trying to draw on a laptop touchpad, and it was really difficult to get any kind of natural shapes. Straight lines were almost impossible, and it was really prone to accidental dots (which is annoying if you only have an 'Undo' button or white colour to correct mistakes). So I developed a technique of just layering up colours using dots. Thousands of opaque dots of colour, built up a little bit like you would with a watercolour, or pointillist oil painting. While the temeraire wasn't exactly a perfect replica, it was good to practice. So then I started trying to do some animal portraits, like this elephant and this fish.

This is an elephant

This fish was the third drawing I did on graffiti

This was number 4

I should point out that most of these were just replications of images I found on the internet. I wasn't trying to create some new piece of art, I was trying to find techniques to make photorealism using a simple vector drawing app on a laptop touchpad.

Something quite cool then started to happen. I came into contact with others who also decided to try and take graffiti seriously. There were some terrifically talented people throughout the world, some who were in the design/graphics business, others who were just messing about, but there began a it of competition, as well as a community of people.

The graffiti guys started to run competitions, and if you won you would get a prize, such as a tablet (a digital pen and pad that you can use for drawing on applications like this - much better than a laptop touchpad). I entered the following into an 'objects come alive' theme competition and won a tablet.

Thereafter it was a bit easier to produce more and more realistic images, so I started to try and capture specific effects, like fire:

Facial detals

I also found that there was a glitch where if you put too much data in the application it started to make these grey splodges. I thought it looks like the mould on some blue cheese so used that to make a picture of blue cheese (the blue/grey parts were made of glitches)

I got pretty good at replecating ideas from other images, so I started to try to create more unique images that were genuinely my own creations, and more just exploring little ideas I had while driving home from work.

This was about creating a more detailed small scale image within the already small window of the facebook graffitiapp

Same as this one,

This pretentious pic was about the importance of micro decisions and human involvment in the sustainability movement.

This was the pattern some balsamic vinegar made on my plate after it dried out. Lots of people thought it was a synapse, or a representation of the connection between mother and child. Nope. It was what happens if you leave plates out too long.

This I did in a direct 'battle' with another guy called Paul Yan, who did some beautiful drawings. Sadly, the person whose wall I did this on deleted it and then asked for another one.

This was the view out of my windscreen on a rainy evening commute home from work.

At around this time I had a big following on Facebook. Some people set up a fan club on my behalf and I had followers in something like 100 countries. People would send me videos singing happy birthday to me. People would also ask me to design tattoos for them, and also draw pictures of partners for wedding gifts. I was doing the drawings for people for free, no obligations. For the most part (99%) people were actually expressing appreciation back, which was actually a lovely thing to experience. The problem was it created a burden, because there was a fan base to maintain; and when someone does something like takes the time to send you a 'happy birthday' video to you, for no benefit to them, I felt the need to respond and thank them.

I then found myself in a position where I would finish work, commute home, be exhausted and either create a new image (they took 2-4 hours usually), or respond to fan messages. I also was tending to stay at home and sink a bottle or two of wine in the evening, trying to keep up with my graffiti admin outside of my already busy day job. Somehow i'd gotten myself into a situation where I was feeling stress and pressure but without any real benefit other than recognition and appreciation that in turn created stress and pressure! I didn't have too many reasons to continue like this and so thought it'd be better to retire from facebook graffiti.

There were a couple of whimsical competitions such as 'stick men' that I did a few pictures for and they allowed me to be quick and be a bit funny, but ultimately I went back to normal oil paintings.

Looking back almost 10 years later, I did realise a couple of things that I learnt through this experience, I learnt quite a lot about how to construct images, messages, visual techniques, and even using visual clues in still images to hint at narratives. I learnt a lot about publicity and dealing with customers. I also learnt a lot about the complex perception of art, through people's attitudes towards technical skills, originality, abstractness etc. It was great fun at the time, but it got too much for me to manage for a while, but I think they're useful to share.

This was for a 'Stick Man' themed competition. I think this one was the eventual winner, or came close

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