Austin Seraphin, 36, lugs his Braille writer down the stairs of his Bella Vista apartment and sets the typewriter-like contraption on a table. The machine’s bell softly rings from the impact. His friend Sonia Petruse, 27, says she has a sticker for him, and he grabs at the air in the general direction of her voice until his fingers pinch the Priority Mail label. He rolls it into the writer and types, creating raised dots the size of pinheads, barely visible to the eye. Seraphin hands the now-bumpy sticker back to Petruse for her part of this dual effort: writing down the bumps’ translation in the standard sighted alphabet. Like watching invisible ink reveal itself, a message emerges letter by letter as she writes: “Buy silver. Crash J.P. Morgan!”
Jackie O sunglasses perched on her blond head, Petruse scribbles “Braille street art” at the bottom of the sticker, along with some arrows, dots and x’s, then tosses it into a pile of others bearing messages like “Aaron Swartz died for you” and “Protect Snowden” glimmering in metallic Sharpie. Petruse, a painter, installation artist and social-media manager, will take these stickers with her as she tours galleries for First Friday later that day, slapping them up wherever there’s space — on newspaper honor boxes, street lamps, signs. She’ll place them low enough that anyone, blind or sighted, can run his or her hands over the message.
The duo started making Braille street art, as they call it, in March. Since then, they’ve put up roughly 60 embossed stickers around town. Recently, Petruse and the legally blind Seraphin, who can see some light and color but not much else, were jointly nominated for Philadelphia Geek Awards’ Visual Artist of the Year, the winner of which will be announced this Saturday at a red-carpet event at the Academy of Natural Sciences.
The idea was conceived in February at an Indy Hall art show, where a foam-board landscape by Petruse, was on display. “I didn’t intentionally make it tactile, but there were elements that you could feel,” she says. By tracing the indentations etched into the board, she says, Seraphin “could feel the two mirrored mountains of my hometown and Ryan Adams’ hometown. ... Unintentionally, I think Austin understood the work much better than anyone else who could see it,” says Petruse. “That work was a big connection moment for us.”
Their conversation led to Petruse’s sticker art, which she’s been doing since December 2012. Intrigued, Seraphin wondered if he could roll a sticker through his Braille writer. But with no concept of street art, he had to first look it up on Wikipedia. “It said that street art is a specifically visual art form,” says Seraphin. As a consultant and programmer who helps iPhone developers make their apps accessible to the blind, he took this as a challenge: “That was it. Now we have to do this.”
But unlike sighted people casting their gazes on everything they pass, the visually impaired don’t go around touching everything in case someone’s left a message. “I don’t encounter that much Braille in public — it’s not like you go around feeling surfaces. The Braille I encounter the most is at my elevator here, and there’s some at ATMs,” says Seraphin. Even if someone were actively searching for them, discovering the tiny dots scattered like bread crumbs throughout the city would be improbable; the likelihood that someone with the ability to read Braille would spontaneously discover the work is almost zero.
With this in mind, the project was not something Seraphin could do independently, nor could it be fully experienced alone: Both cases would require the combined efforts of a blind person and a sighted person. “We write ‘Braille street art’ on it because a blind person isn’t going to know to feel it. A sighted person will still have to point it out to them, but it’s something unexpected. It’s something unusual,” says Seraphin.
Although Braille tags had previously appeared in cities around the world, from Portland, Ore. to Moscow, they’d been made by sighted people, and the messages were written solely in Braille — accessible to few, and unnoticeable to nearly everyone who’d find meaning in them. By addressing themselves to both the sighted and the blind, Petruse and Seraphin’s tags attempt to make a connection between the two worlds.
Petruse placed their first Braille sticker, about the late programmer-activist Aaron Swartz, in front of Indy Hall, where it has since been removed, like many of their other stickers, says Petruse, who does the actual tagging. Depending on the location, either city workers or honor-box owners have buffed out the stickers. For those that remain, the elements have caused the Braille to fade. “You have to work under the assumption that this work is not permanent,” she shrugs.
They haven’t had to invest much money in the project: The Braille writer, which retails for upwards of $700, is something Seraphin has owned since age 5, and the stickers are free at the post office. Their expenses boil down to the cost of a few Sharpies.
Shortly after starting their project, Petruse began exchanging stickers and letters with Curly, the self-proclaimed “Banksy of stickers,” whose short messages, adorned with a trademark curlicue, can be spotted all over the city and whom Petruse credits as an inspiration. Petruse has repeatedly tried to meet him, even enticing him with free art-museum tickets, but he has declined all of her invitations. Nevertheless, he’s been supportive.
“I wish I’d thought of it, because it’s a whole new group of people who can appreciate the work,” says Curly, who prefers to remain anonymous to sustain his mystique. (“I’ve been told that people can’t tell if I’m a fucking genius or a pissed-off, sexually frustrated teenager,” he wrote via email. “As long as I’m anonymous, I’m both and everything else too, like a cat in a quantum-physics experiment.”) There’s a reason, he says, that Banksy supports projects working to restore vision and prevent eye disease: “It expands the market.”
Street art is typically a solitary experience for both artist and audience. But Petruse and Seraphin’s project, Curly says, with a hint of envy, has the potential to spark real-world connections between two groups of people who engage with the world in very different ways. And if a sighted person stumbles upon the project alone? “It’s like a smack in the face when you see that sticker,” Curly says. “It makes you realize that the fact that you’re even seeing the city is an experience that not everyone gets to have.”
Like Curly, Petruse and Seraphin often use humor in their stickers. On an early sticker, “Braille” is written out in print and “Print” is typed out in Braille so that blind and sighted friends will argue over the sticker’s meaning. Having recently learned that Braille is used on drive-through ATMs, something he finds inherently absurd, Seraphin imagines a bumper sticker in Braille: “If you can read this, you’re too damn close.”
Seraphin’s sense of humor is bound up with his religion: Discordianism, based on the worship of Eris, the Greek goddess of chaos. He’s been practicing this form of “Western absurdist Zen,” as he calls it, since high school, when an online friend gave him a copy of Principia Discordia, the faith’s sacred text. It’s unclear how many people practice Discordianism since followers rarely congregate, guided by the belief that they must “stick apart.” “Our society is very order-focused,” says Seraphin. “Discordianism is into overemphasizing the constructive chaotic element to help balance that.” Street art strikes him as being very Discordian, and he uses the Discordian symbol of two arrows converging on a single point (-><-), a representation of two opposing forces uniting, as his tag.
Petruse, a feline-lover, uses cat ears (^..^) as her symbol. Such emoticon-esque tags are common in street art, but nonsensical when translated into Braille — literally translated, her tag would be i e ‘ ‘ i e. — something that Seraphin says most people would see as gibberish. “Most blind people aren’t used to seeing Braille turned into art like that,” says Seraphin, grinning as he imagines the confusion.
“I keep forgetting it’s illegal. I really do,” says Petruse, who, as the one actually putting the stickers up, is who law enforcement would probably take issue with. “To me, this is another art form.” While it’s technically illegal, stickering is rarely reprimanded in Philadelphia (New York is a different story), and unlike Curly, Petruse and Seraphin have chosen not to remain anonymous. While they’re happy with their small-scale operation, they’ve considered pursuing more mainstream channels, either by applying for grants or submitting a proposal to the Mural Arts Program, to get their work more visibility (so to speak) and protect it from the buffing of everyday life.
Petruse worries about how her bosses might react to finding out about her extracurricular activities, but this hasn’t stopped the duo from promoting their work bare-faced — with a booth at Philly Tech Week’s signature event, for example. There, Seraphin invited a friend, a Braille proofreader, to help with translation, and the trio churned out sticker after sticker, distributing about 100. (Since then, Petruse has spotted some of them around town.) A few critics argued that this “wasn’t tech.” In jest, the duo printed out a sticker that read, “It’s technology.”
Even though Seraphin’s Brailler, invented in 1892, isn’t exactly cutting-edge, he argues that since it is being used in a way for which it had not been intended, it’s essentially a hack. Graffiti culture is full of other unlikely improvisations, says Curly — using walls, the transit system or free Priority Mail labels as canvases rather than confining creativity to private property.
This subversive quality is partly why the two were nominated for a Philly Geek Award. “We love highlighting somebody challenging the status quo with their passion project,” says Tim Quirino, a member of the awards committee and interactive designer at P’unk Avenue. “Austin can’t change anything about not being able to see, but he can change the way people perceive art just by bringing Braille into the conversation.”
When the nomination was announced, Seraphin was surprised. He had never thought of himself as an artist, though his mother is a watercolorist and his father runs Seraphin Gallery at 11th and Pine. He opted for computers from an early age, first learning how to program at age 7. Recently, though, he’s embraced this new side of himself, experimenting further with quasi-visual mediums. At a recent Indy Hall Drink and Draw sketching session, for example, Seraphin was cutting foam-board etchings that he can feel and others can see — somewhat like that first picture of mountains that brought him and Petruse together. He’s gleeful when Petruse is able to recognize what he has drawn: hieroglyphics, a landscape and a spiderweb.
Without each other’s support, they wonder if they would have advanced to this point. “It really does take a special partnership between a blind person and a sighted person,” says Seraphin. “Maybe that’s why it hasn’t been done before.”
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