Graffiti is in the eye of the beholder

Artist struck down by a form of motor neurone disease learns to draw again using revolutionary glasses

The American graffiti artist Tony Quan has not being able to move a muscle to create his distinctive street tags since being diagnosed with a degenerative disease in 2003.

The illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease, left him totally paralysed and only able to use his eyes. Until recently, he had little hope of ever spraypainting the streets of Los Angeles again.

But then he received a visit from a group of five New York designers, who said they could develop technology which would allow him to create graffiti with just the movement of his eyes using vision-tracking glasses and laser beams.

The team of designers carried out their pledge. Last August, he drew his first graffiti art in years with just eye movement. Quan was utterly overcome, telling the team: "It was like taking a breath after being held under water for five minutes."

The designers who created the EyeWriter – a cheap adaptation of technology that usually costs $20,000 (£13,100) – have just received a £10,000 British innovation award from the art and technology group FutureEverything.

Quan began creating graffiti in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. His art fused the city's indigenous writing culture with New York stylewriting, and his tag name, Tempt1, was recognisable on the city's streets. Then he was diagnosed with ALS.

James Powderly, a designer who worked as an aerospace roboticist for Nasa before helping to create the EyeWriter, said he heard about Quan's plight through a friend, Mick Ebeling.

The team travelled to Los Angeles and decided they would try to create the technology at no cost to help Quan; while they were working on it Powderly spent five months sleeping on Ebeling's couch. Describing how he had been struck by Quan's predicament, Powderly said: "He was able to communicate with us with someone moving their hand over the alphabet. He also looked up for yes, and down for no."

Powderly said seeing Quan's first graffiti tags was an emotional moment for the designers. He created a number of drawings from his hospital bed in Alhambra, California, which were transmitted over the internet to the team in downtown Los Angeles. They then projected the images in real time onto a 10-storey building beside the Santa Monica freeway.

"The first thing he drew was a tag of his father's name, Ron, and then his own graffiti tag, Tempt1. Then he drew his crew's names and our names. We were all pretty choked up and pretty amazed that it would not just enable him to create again, but others too," he said.

He added that the glasses, at around $50, are a far cheaper adaptation of technology that normally costs $20,000. His team have encouraged companies to create more affordable equipment for those who are paralysed, but still want to pursue creative endeavours. The team set out to create a "Do-It-Yourself" version of the eye-tracking equipment, using a cheap pair of sunglasses and a camera which they took apart and installed with better hardware.

The EyeWriter was chosen as winner of the British award following an online vote. Drew Hemment, director of FutureEverything, said the designer's creation "demonstrates extraordinary creativity, imagination and ingenuity".

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea