A lot has changed since 1989, when the cops busted graffiti artist Sweza for scrawling tags and drawings on Berlin's buildings. Almost 25 years later, he’s a conceptual street artist with a family, a day job and slicker technology to play around with, too.
Sweza has been experimenting with QR codes – the square barcodes smartphones can read to automatically open extra content like coupons, websites, audio tracks or video content.
Starting this spring Sweza began pasting posters of boomboxes around Berlin. He glues QR codes onto the face where the cassette would go. Passersby can hold their smartphones up to the code, effectively turning their high-tech mobile devices into an old-school tape that plays a song. This month he’s working to program the codes so the same boombox will play new music each day.
"I really like the connection between the real world and the virtual world," he says. "Until recently [the] Internet was just a desktop thing, now people take their internet with them."
His new street art tactics also allow him to relax while he works. "If you do graffiti they chase you, but putting up posters is more like a parking crime," he says. He wears a yellow construction worker’s vest and installs his art by day. With the costume, "you become invisible," he says. So far he has a symphony of about 100 working boomboxes ready to play all over Berlin.
The boomboxes are only the latest series of Sweza’s QR-based street projects. For his first round, Grafyard, he took pictures of graffiti around the city. When a piece got painted over, Sweza would put up a QR-code with a link to a picture of the painting that used to be there; a graffiti memorial, or "really cheap time machine," he says.
For his second series, he installed tiles under surveillance cameras with QR-codes stenciled on them. When a smartphone reads the code, the phone gets a message saying "Achtung! Sie werden überwacht!" or "Attention! You are being filmed!"
When Sweza started doing street art it was a way to break out of the graffiti mindset that values danger and volume over a piece’s interaction with its specific location.
"I think if you work in the street you should work with the street," he says. "Especially Berlin, there are a lot of guys that do nice characters and put them anywhere. I always try to do pieces related to the spot they’re on."
Now as his art becomes increasingly conceptual, he’s starting to break some street art rules, too. His boomboxes are the first project that he can put pretty much anywhere. He prefers they sit over ledges or boxes so they don’t just hover, and quiet lanes are better than noisy throughways, but more than his previous work, he says, “these I can just spread.”
The boomboxes may be spreading soon to a city near you. Sweza has already shared his files and digital strategy with a group in New York City, and he’s open to helping people in other places get in on it. He’ll even help folks load their own music.
"If anybody wants to join this thing," he says, "just drop me a line."
Photo credit of Flickr user ToolmanTim.