S.Alt City is a mural for downtown Syracuse that simultaneously celebrates Syracuse’s industrial past and its current status as an artistic hub. At first glance, the image is historical, depicting a pump house and brine distribution center. On closer inspection, viewers realize the image is a mosaic composed of dozens of unique QR code tile, each linking to a contemporary arts organization in the greater Syracuse region. How did we make this project? Follow the steps below to consider how you might make a similar interactive QR Mural
Step 1: Site Selection
For our project, it was important to select a blank wall--a large canvas that would have the greatest visibility. We also took advantage of a funding opportunity; the "Connective Corridor" which sought art projects that would increase the value of a route that connected the two most prosperous locations in Syracuse; the downtown and University areas. Biking and walking along the route we surveyed all of the walls and evaluated them for visibility and viability. Visibility included proximity to bus stops and public amenities. Viability included the amount of preparation that would need to be done to the wall to make it "mural ready." In other words, the better the condition of the wall -- the more mural ready it was. If a wall needed to be sanded or cracks filled, that would eat into our total budget limiting the mural feasibility. What ultimately helped us finalize the wall that we selected was a business owner that saw a mural as a benefit to his company, which in this case was Lemp Jewelers a family owned local business.
Step 2: Photo Selection
To choose an image that can be "pixelated" into an image that's still readable, requires an image with relativey clear silhouettes. In other words, the image needs to be able to be abstracted into a nearly iconic state. During this process, we wanted an image that spoke about the particular site, which was adjacent to the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal Museum was gracious enough to open their photo archives. We reviewed literally every photograph in the archive for feasibility, choosing a small handful that we then tested by pixelating to see how well it would read both close up and from far away. Finally, the selected image was made into a realistic rendering that approximated what the QR code mosaic would look like.
Step 3: Paint Tests
Our next step was to test various painting techniques. QR code needs to be fairly clear, with approximately 30%contrast to be readable with most of the phones we tested. We did a series of paint tests just to see how articulate we could make the paint edges. There were two competing goals: making the QR codes as clear as possible while allowing us to paint as fast as possible. Tests included various laercut materials as well as what we ultimately chose: a vinyl cut template that was temporarily rubbed onto the wall. Once the vinyl was rubbed onto the wall, we painted it with spraypaint and finally removed the vinyl. Other painting methods such as painting with a roller were tested, but ultimately the spraypaint over vinyl transfer was the cleanest and fastest method.
Step 4: Image Production
The image was pixelated and divided into a grid. We came up with a pixelation system that allowed a variety of grey values which combined a foreground QR Code and background primer color. To make templates for the entire wall, we had to divide the image into a matrix so that every location had a specific combination of letter and number. This allowed us to paint in small sections. As we got faster, we would have several sections in process as once. Vinyl sheets were made in areas large enough to contain several pixels, but that we small enough to be handled by a single person. We included numbers on these templates.
Step 5: Site Preparation
We began by cleaning the wall with bristle type brooms to remove dust. Then the whole wall was primed. Finally, once the wall was primed, a pencil grid was applied to the wall so that we could stay square for the entire time, which we estimated would take about a month.
Step 6: Pre-Production
On site, we continued to test and refine our method developing an on site ad-hoc spray guardthat kept the spraypaint from going outside of the inteneded area. In the image to the right, you can see various spray tests before and after the vinyl template had been removed.
Step 7: Production
One of our cardinal rules: write a list of everything that you needed, but you didn't bring to the site, each day that we were working. This allowed each day on site to be more productive than the last, so our speed continued to increase throughout the weeks it took to produce the mural. Tools included: a vertical lift, harnesses, camera, tripod, paint, blue tape, paint guards, x-acto knives, Molotow German Brand Spraypaint (which can last up to 10 years), rulers, pencils, vinyl QR Code sheets, and several levels.
Step 8: Automation
As we worked on the mural, we developed several methods to automate our process. Applying blue tape allowed us to prep areas quickly, while the slower work of applying vinyl was completed. As well, since we could only afford one lift (which we all needed to get certified on), we supplemented this with ladders which allowed one person always to be working from the ground.
Step 9: Completion
Even though our team was fairly small -- myself and 2-5 Architecture students (mostly from Syracuse University), we maintained a high level of quality. Everyday we'd check our work, to make sure it worked, that there weren't any drips, and that it read from close and far away. Similarly, we periodically tested the QR code from our phones from various distances.
Step 10: Opening and Aftermath
To celebrate the completion of the mural, we held an opening which brough together the many communities that were involved from the architecture school to the historical organizations involved, to the arts communities that are linked through the QR Code. One of the inventions of the project was that the QR codes, while static, have a "back end" that is dynamic. In other words, as arts organizations in the community change, we are able to change the links that the QR codes link to.