AMS Spring 2023

Grillz – New York-Based Artists Uses 3D Printing to Explore Hip Hop Culture

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New York-based artist, Roopa Vasudevan’s, latest exploration of American culture transforms the spoken word into 3D-printed reflections in polished gold steel. Vasudevan’s exhibition, “Grillz,” examines the polarities of hip hop music: References to poverty–drugs, prostitution, public housing or “the projects”–are opposed with those symbolic of wealth–jewelry, cars, money and so forth. “Grillz” considers the way in which hip hop colloquialisms infuse mainstream language, seemingly in manner lacking in nuance and steeped in misunderstanding.

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Vasudevan analyzed the lyrics of individual songs by well-known hip hop artists like the Notorious B.I.G. Specific words related directly to poverty and then, conversely, wealth were essentially mapped and scored, explains the artist’s press release, “according to relative distance from words of the opposite polarity.” She used PyGenius from Python to extract the key words from the lyrics and create a kind of linguistic landscape of oppositions.

The result was a sort of graphic landscape that was converted to a 3D shape using generative modeling (or landscaping)–Vasudevan used Geomerative. With generative modeling, a shape–let’s say, a triangle–is described by a series of

grillz displayedprocessing steps, in language, rather than with forms. The language of hip hop, of the specific key words that Vasudevan was marking, is translated into the language of geometry.

The New York artist, a member of the Queens-based collective, Flux Factory, took the specialized instructions from Geomerative and used Modelbuilder, an application that allows you to create, manipulate or edit, and manage models to build the objects that were central to her project: “grillz.” “Grillz” or “grills” are the vernacular terms for the usually removable inserts that cover part of the wearer’s teeth and are typically made from metal–platinum, gold, or silver. The more ostentatious ones have inlays of precious stones with prices ranging from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Grills were popularized by hip hop artists beginning in the 1980s.

Vasudevan’s “grillz” are 3D printed in gold and, while standard grills approximate the shape of teeth–more expensive ones can be custom-made based on molds of the wearer’s teeth–the surfaces of these “grillz” vacillate between grainy to dips and jagged outcroppings, like cliff faces. Some appear outright lethal to the wearer and are surely references to the dangerous underside of the hip hop lifestyle (which is by no means monolithic, of course)–glamor and wealth juxtaposed with extreme poverty and violence.

The digitally sculpted and 3D printed, gold objects, with titles like The Notorious B.I.G. “Juicy,” Fat Joe Featuring Lil Wayne “Make it Rain,” and Jay-Z “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” are displayed on crimson velvet pillows in clear boxes. Visitors to the exhibition are provided with headphones for listening to the songs that inspired each individual piece.

Let’s hear your thoughts on Vasudevan’s work, in the 3D Printed Grillz forum thread on 3DPB.com.

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