Elon Musk stole Tom Edwards’s drawing of a unicorn farting into an electric car last year. Now, thanks to automated drones and blockchain technology, that drawing is prominently displayed on a wall in Mexico City’s busy Roma Norte district.
Edwards’s farting unicorn is not only visible to thousands of daily passersby at the crossroads of Durango and Mérida in Mexico City. Directions for its drone design are also preserved eternally on the Aeternity blockchain, the protocol behind The Drone Graffiti Project. During Mexico City’s Art Week, which took place from February 8 to 10 this year, three artists were chosen to submit designs they’d like displayed on the city wall. Then, using an app created by SPH Engineering, The Drone Graffiti Project programmed drones to spray paint those artists’ designs.
Edwards’s farting unicorn art was chosen in particular to make a statement about copyright. In February 2017, Musk tweeted an image of an Edwards mug (Edwards is a career ceramicist) with the text, “maybe my favorite mug ever.” The mug featured a unicorn farting into an electric car. “It’s actually making fun of people who drive electric cars because they don’t understand where the electricity comes from,” Edwards tells BREAKERMAG. “Like, a lot of electricity comes from coal fired plants, and that was my joke.”
Regardless, Musk liked Edwards’s drawing so much that he appropriated a slightly different version of it for Tesla. It appeared as an icon in Tesla’s operating system and even showed up on the company’s Christmas cards. Though Edwards appreciated Musk taking such an interest in his work, he didn’t feel that it was right for the tech billionaire to take it without giving Edwards any credit. After Musk ignored a letter from Edwards saying as much, a Twitter confrontation ensued in which Edwards’s daughter, Lisa, got Musk’s attention. “Over the next 24 hours,” says Edwards, “they had this back and forth that made [Musk] look really stupid with regard to copyright.”
The Guardian wrote up Edwards’s story in June 2018, and it spread like wildfire on Twitter, in part thanks to an influential retweet from Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. “I think [Musk] needed a win from that whole cave divers thing,” Edwards says, because shortly after his copyright dispute got mass attention, Musk’s team finally responded to Edwards with good news.
“I got a really good settlement,” he says. He can’t disclose the amount, but he did tell us it’s significantly more than what a professional ceramicist usually makes in a year.
The Drone Graffiti Project reached out to Edwards not long after because of what blockchain technology has to offer copyright. It’s not just the image of a farting unicorn the project wanted to showcase in Mexico. “It’s what it represents,” says Edwards. Once his directions for spray painting his work via drone are inscribed in the Aeternity blockchain, no one can steal them, and they can’t disappear. “It has a nice little sort of symbolism,” Edwards says.
Ironically, after Edwards won his copyright suit, Tesla removed the farting unicorn icon from its cars. Meanwhile, because of the contract he signed, Edwards can put his farting unicorn design anywhere (including a public wall in Mexico City) other than an automobile.
The other two artists who participated in The Drone Graffiti Project’s February installation are KATSU, a New York City-based graffiti artist who once used a drone to spray paint Kendall Jenner’s face in a building-sized advertisement, and Ricardo Gonzalez, a Mexican mural painter and commercial designer.
Yanislav Malahov, Aeternity blockchain founder, creator of The Drone Graffiti Project, and early Vitalik Buterin collaborator, tells us the main drone graffiti event will take place this April. During the event, anyone from around the world can “get a little bit of drone time and draw whatever they want on the public wall in Mexico City,” says Malahov. Their designs will be preserved in a smart contract on the Aeternity blockchain.
That means even Elon Musk can contribute his own farting unicorn.