Interview with IRL, anti-tech graffiti artist

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FC
February 22, 2015

I'd been seeing anti-tech graffiti around my town for the better part of a decade. Over the course of months it would appear in bursts, then slowly fade as the authorities cleaned it. Some places, images, or slogans only seemed to appear once, while others were clearly contested territories where cleaning and painting happened regularly. For years I wondered who the vigilantes that made my walks and bike rides so much more exciting could be. In a funny synchronicity, I finally met “IRL” through a mutual friend the same week another friend of mine started an anti-technology journal. We wandered for an hour all over town, behind warehouses, down train tracks, and beneath bridges discussing this very particular subset of graffiti. Some edits have been made for clarity. — Renzo

Renzo: So, you're an anti-technology graffiti writer. What's that mean?

IRL: I'm a graffiti writer who believes that technological society is the greatest threat to human freedom and that's reflected in my art or vandalism or whatever you wanna call it.

Renzo: What kind of graffiti do you do?

IRL: I play with everything I can. Tagging, scrawling, stenciling, stickers, billboard defacement, wheatpaste posters. It really depends on the image or message and the surface or neighborhood.

Renzo: Why graffiti and not flyering or literature or a webpage?

IRL: Well first off I'm a graffiti writer, not an author or web designer or whatever. But also I think there's an information glut these days and you need to be aggressive to break through the clutter and get people's attention. Companies use billboards and outdoor advertising because it works. They're constantly trying to figure out how to put their messaging on every flat surface. So am I.

Renzo: Why are you “IRL?”

IRL: Ok, so I guess it's not just that outdoor advertising is effective, it's also outdoors. When you find graffiti you find it in the real world; a person's hands put it there and you can touch it with your own. My graffiti is a reward to those who leave the house and implores them to do it again. My best stuff you'll find while traveling on foot. The photos for this article are the first I've submitted for online display, although I'm aware of photos of my work being posted by other people and becoming popular. When I found out that there was a cyber world abbreviation for the real world I lived in, it felt so gross I just couldn't let it go.

I also have a weird fantasy that once the government/corporations have nearly every aspect of people's lives tracked in real time–through smart phones, social media, bank accounts, gps, and so on–that they will then have a list of people who don't appear in most or any of these places (that's not the fantasy, that's a prediction from the CEO of Google), those people will derisively be called “Irls.” Although, probably they'll just be called potential terrorists and painted as anti-social.

Renzo: Can you talk a little more about graffiti being in the real world and maybe about how it relates to wildness?

IRL: I think the ways I interact with the city are fundamentally different from the ways that a lot of people do. I climb, I explore–not just for places to shop or work, but for places to paint, hide, watch from… I am hunted by police and similarly I observe them to achieve what I want. When something changes like a parking garage, housing development, or store front, I think about how it changes this process. I'd like to think it's a less domesticated way of interacting with my world.

Also, a lot of graffiti happens in abandoned spaces, which, because nature is aggressive, quickly become wild spaces. I wind up hanging out and exploring rotting houses, crumbling factories, tunnel systems, empty warehouses, underneath bridges, old foundations in the forest, shut-down medical facilities… And these are the same places that kudzu, poison ivy, and virginia creeper crawl over and crack. Lamb's quarter and mullein push up through the floors. Raccoons, rats, opossums, and all sorts of birds build their nests. Homeless humans as well.

Renzo: Why not find these things in wilderness spaces? Why stay in the city if what you want is the wild?

IRL: Well, I'm also a product of my environment. I had to accept a few years ago that I actually get more excited by ruins than wilderness. I grew up in a place with no redeeming value, where the few undeveloped spaces were paved in my early and mid-teen years. My perception of wilderness seems to be, correctly or not, a place that industry hasn't destroyed yet. It gives me no hope. But a place that is regenerating from industry gives me hope for the future. That's not a thing I was excited to realize about myself, but it is what it is. I feel more comfortable in fight than flight.

Renzo: Let's talk a bit about some particular projects. Tell me about “Facebook is Boring.”

IRL: That was impulsive. I was walking and there was a long blank wall that needed something and I had just had a conversation with a friend about all the pressure to get a Facebook and all the reasons I hadn't. I wrote “Facebook is fucking boring.” It seemed like the meanest thing one could say in 2013. Everybody knows that shit destroys your privacy, reduces your friendships to shallow gestures and makes people narcissists, and nobody cares. But the accusation that it simply fails to entertain… That's harsh. A friend of mine who uses social media showed me a couple days later that it was going around on facebook, instagram, etc. It felt good, like somebody had finally said it. So, I wrote it a dozen more times in our town and then in cities all over the US. One of my favorite things about graffiti is it can break silent consensus like that. I dropped the "Fucking" cuz you shouldn't curse in public; it's rude.

Renzo: So you're not on Facebook?

IRL: No online profiles. I do have an email address. But I'm only represented IRL.

Renzo: “Industry is a death culture?”

IRL: That was a sticker campaign. Using the method where you write on the sticky side of a sticker and then put it on the inside of something transparent. I put them in every free newspaper box in my town (about 70) where the headline appears on the newspaper so that no matter what pointless headline is on the actual paper it just says “Industry is a death culture.” Industry makes living things into dead things, redwoods into timber, animals into packaged meat, fields into parking lots and so on. During occupy I met somebody who, later when we had become good friends and I mentioned the stickers, said “I'd been having a rough time and had left town, coming back and seeing those was one of the first things I saw that made me think there were people here that could make this place livable for me.” That's pretty much the best case scenario for my work–messages to people secretly thinking things they think nobody else believes.

Renzo: Stencils?

IRL: I have one with the FBI sketch of the Unabomber that says “Ted was right.” That is pretty prominent around town, and a “Food Riot” stencil that uses the logo from the southeastern grocery store chain “Food Lion” with the lion masked up in black bloc. It's by far the most common stencil in town, I also made like 75 Food Riot tote bags and gave them away at local events anonymously. I see random people carrying them around town and it makes me smile. The cops in this town have a hard-on for graffiti writers and I like to think seeing the bags around town is frustrating for them, but I don't really know.

Renzo: Other stuff?

IRL: I try out random anti-tech slogans like “Blow up the internet” or “Desert the digital utopia” and I like defacing billboards for green tech and other false solutions.

Renzo: Do you address other subjects in your graffiti?

IRL: Yeah.

Renzo: Like?

IRL: Let's not connect too many dots in case the local law reads it, but yeah.

Renzo: Do you have any future plans?

IRL: Yeah, I'm working on a series of Stencil Facebook logo modifications like “[F]BIbook” and “[F]ucking Creepy.” I wanna do some really big roller paint billboard style stuff along the highways against video games and virtual reality. Those are like the heroin of my generation. Well, that and heroin.

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