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".

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