Introduction: Smell Graffiti

As a part of my artist residency with Paraflows/Monochrom and Quartier21 in Vienna, Austria I've created a new form of street art using scent.

Step 1: Theory

Graffiti as a medium has remained largely unchanged since early humans were painting cave walls. The style and purpose has evolved over the centuries, but still nobody has successfully broken free of its visual nature. From this line of thinking smell graffiti has emerged. Harnessing modern chemistry and appropriating technology invented for industry I am working on a new way to make a statement in a public space.

Scent is interpreted by the limbic system which is very closely tied to emotion and memory. This leads me to believe that interacting with people using scent can potentially be a much more powerful medium than paint since people experiencing it can't help but react to it. The goal of this project is to realize the potential of smell as art and to explore different ways of using it to interact with people.

Step 2: Chemicals

First you'll need to get your hands on some scent compounds. There are a few ways to do this. The easiest way is to do what I have done so far which is sourcing off the internet. There are an assortment of companies that sell scents for aromatherapy, candle and soap making and amateur perfumery. Mass produced esters can be quite affordable. I've purchased from The Good Scents Company and, both of which worked out well.

Another way to get scents is to make them yourself. If this is something you are interested in, i'd suggest reading up on creating your own essential oils, or preparing your own esters by combining an alcohol and an acid.

In addition to the esters, I add isopropyl alcohol to make them thinner and atomize more evenly in my spray setup.

NOTE: Take care to read and understand the handling instructions on any chemicals

Step 3: Spray

I had thought of a few ways to release the smells, but to stay true to the graffiti aspect I have been mostly using refillable atomizing spray cans. They are generally used in industry for lubricants and coolants. The particular cans i've been using are made by a company called "Sure Shot" and they come in stainless and aluminum. These cans are great because they are refillable and are pressurized up to 200psi using a standard schrader valve. That means you can just pump it up with an air compressor or a bike pump.

Step 4: In Practice

The scents don't last very long. On the order of 20 minutes to a couple hours if you spray an object. I have found that this is plenty of time though.

As part of this project I've been sourcing natural scents like dirt and freshly cut grass and spraying them in urbanized public spaces where these scents are never encountered.

I can imagine many other ways of using scent as a powerful medium. For example places where scent is strategically used to the advantage of an advertiser can be jammed by overwhelming it with a second, foreign scent. I've heard of vending machines wafting the scent of chocolate to lure in more customers. What if instead of chocolate, the vending machine smelled like smoke.

Another very intriguing possibility I have been playing with is to create synthetic synesthisia by hacking my cans to spray both paint and scent simultaneously.

photo credit: