ON THE BLOG: Digital Calligraffiti one year on

Digital Calligraffiti was developed as a way of giving young refugees living in camps in Berlin a public stage to share messages and views.

Virna Setta (Future DiverCities/Public Art Lab) and Eleanor Pender look back at the first year of Digital Calligraffiti, which is supported as part of Cooperation Project Future DiverCities.

Tell us about Digital Calligraffiti

"An artistic movement sweeping across Germany, Poland, Netherlands, France, Italy, the US, calligraffiti combines western characters with Iraqi, Arabic, Taiwanese and Tunisian influences. 

“Mixing traditional calligraphy with graffiti and new media art, Digital Calligraffiti is a community project realised as part of Creative Europe project Future DiverCities. It was started by the cultural NGO Public Art Lab and co-curated by Don Karl / From Here to Fame Publishing. 

“Under the theme ‘Urban Screens are our Walls’, Digital Calligraffiti brings together young refugees from migrant communities in Berlin with new media artists, traditional calligraphers and calligraffiti artists who work together to create tags with meaningful messages.” 

How did Digital Calligraffiti begin?

“It started with the first Digital Calligraffiti lab at Retune Festival, Berlin, in October 2016. At the core of Digital Calligraffiti is the Infl3ctor, a light table that captures the calligraphy as it’s being written on tracing paper. 

“The first prototype was created by the artists Michael Ang and Hamza Abu Ayyash for the first Digital Calligraffiti lab at Retune Festival. Mang met with calligraphers to observe their techniques and realised the system would have to allow calligraphers to use tools they are familiar with. 

“[Digital Calligraffiti] puts the brush into the hands of those whose chances to affect urban infrastructure fades over time, like writing on a wall.”

“With the Infl3ctor, the artists draw on tracing paper with their usual tools (marker, paint, etc.) as it is being shot from below. Image processing inverts the black writing into white for projection, thus "tagging" a surface. The challenge for the two artists was to create a system that could take a centuries-old tradition that spans many cultures and recontextualise it into the urban space using current technologies.”

Why was it developed?

“Digital Calligraffiti was developed initially in an effort to give young refugees living in camps in Berlin a public stage to share their messages and views on current topics. The co-creation project puts the brush into the hands of those whose chances to affect urban infrastructure fades over time, like writing on a wall.  

“The project offers the chance to craft a beautiful and personal message, with the artistic guidance of renowned calligraffiti artists. This format focuses on facilitating dialogue, introducing many social groups to calligraffiti and new media artists. Bridges are built, diversity is celebrated, and the medium brings us closer. Projecting the messages in public spaces gave a voice to both the refugees and the artists that let them reach people in the city." 

Tell us about Digital Calligraffiti events so far

“Calligraffiti is both a form of artwork and a communication tool. These attributes came together for the project in the Urban Media Art Campaign (transmediale / CTM Vorspiel). 30 messages had been produced by the collective during the second lab with refugees in January 2017 and displayed on 12 screens over Berlin, giving visibility to the work and, for the refugees, a sense of belonging in the city. 

“Working together with the artists, the young refugees learned how to draw calligraffiti and animate their 2D artwork to showcase them on digital advertising screens in the Berlin subway. The calligraffiti tags produced were also used as a design for clothing and accessories. With the calligraffiti tags on t-shirts, jackets and more, this makes each wearer a message bearer for the project, and their clothing becomes a piece of art telling its own story. 

“Bridges are built, diversity is celebrated, and the medium brings us closer.”

“Jumping to June 2017 and Digital Calligraffiti swung back into action at teenage internet convention TINCON, hosting a three-day workshop with artist and project engineer Michael Ang and the calligraffiti artist Drury Brennan. Audiences at TINCON were invited to join the workshop and explore possibilities created by the combination of calligraffiti and new media to take over the walls of the Kraftwerk complex.

“The most recent Digital Calligraffiti event took place at Collegium Hungaricum, Berlin, in a networked performance with Beirut. Artists in both cities created a trans-local dialogue, sending calligraffiti messages back and forth via a networked live performance to celebrate the opening of the new Goethe-Institute Beirut. 

“In Beirut, Digital Calligraffiti was also part of the White Wall 2017 Festival curated by Don Karl (From Here To Fame Publishing house) and Goethe Institute Beirut. Famous artists including Schriftzug, Niels Shoe Meulman and MOE calligraffiti were invited to paint large scale calligraffiti on buildings in a street art celebration. The performance was a fabulous success, with Berlin and Beirut meeting for a celebratory evening combining cultures, art and diversity.” 

Future DiverCities was awarded €2 million in Cooperation Projects support in 2016. The call for 2018 Cooperation Projects is now open. 

Image: Virna Setta and Eleanor Pender

Virna Setta and Eleanor Pender