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Hektor is an aerosol man

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

Hektor, a graffiti-painting machine, packed in its suitcase.

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(CNN) -- Meet Hektor: He paints graffiti, and he's a machine.

Compact and elegant, Hektor fits in a suitcase, but can paint a wall-sized design. He is driven by two motors mounted at the upper corners of his "canvas." Between those motors hangs a can of spray paint, and a mechanism to press the cap.

Hektor has a digital brain, and specializes in the gliding paths that reside in the guts of Adobe Illustrator, a popular design program. He is the brainchild of two students in Switzerland: Jurg Lehni and Uli Franke.

But if you happened upon Hektor scrawling away on some wall, you might ask: "Why does that spray can hanging from all those wires know where to put the paint?"

Well, it's executing a digital drawing. Lehni and Franke envision Hektor as an alternative computer output device. For them, any computer work is essentially abstract and unavailable unless put on a screen or a printer. Hektor is intended to be a new tool, with its own aesthetic -- a different form of hard copy.

There are other graffiti machines, with different capabilities. There is Graffitiwriter, which is a robotic activist from the Institute for Applied Autonomy. Graffitiwriter paints what looks like electric light panel lettering in a straight line, at pretty high speeds on the ground. It turns five paint nozzles quickly on and off.

Streetwriter is a van that does the same thing with larger letters, large enough to be seen from the air.

Hektor is a political animal as well and his medium is a message. If he paints a picture of Cuban guerrilla hero Che Guevara, that indicates a purpose. Hektor as street painter is a greeting from the aerosol universe.

Hektor renders an image of Cuban guerrilla Che Guevara.

That universe, the low-tech, hand-rendered graffiti universe, has existed for a long time. Now it has an additional high-tech apprentice, who by the way is not commercially available.

But what is the effect of turning a computer illustration into graffiti, into persecutable wall art? It depends on your relation to wall art per se.

A common answer: Graffiti is a threat and a menace, something that makes us feel as if there's no social control over our walls, our neighborhoods, our buildings.

That's an opinion that finds brutal confirmation in this quote from a graffiti task force investigator, which appeared in the Los Angeles Times: "When a gang member shoots another gang member, most people don't see that and may not even care. But they can see the graffiti on their walls, and they want something done."

Whereas those who have a softer place in their heart for graffiti "vandals" write books, publish magazines, devote Web sites to photography and to interviews with artists.

That's why it's significant that sophisticated machines exist to paint street art: because the inventor applies engineering, adult attention, to something that we might allow ourselves to see as childish.

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