Arts /

Why you may have seen ‘typed’ letters above Philadelphia yesterday

A public art project by Dave Kyu of the Asian Arts Initiative used blue skies as a big canvas, showcasing messages from hackerspace Hive76 and two other Callowhill groups.

For Dave Kyu, the messages hovering over Philadelphia would represent almost two years of work. But his masterpiece would literally fade away in minutes.

Midday Sunday, five World War II-style aircraft took off from Long Island to make the 45-minute trip to Philadelphia to realize Kyu’s project, Write Sky.

The planes would spell out three messages, composed by teams of people who live and work in Philadelphia’s Callowhill neighborhood, above the entire city.

One of the messages.

One of the messages, “Still here.” (Photos by Chris Thompson)

“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” said Kyu, a resident artist at the Asian Arts Initiative.

For each of three dates they had to cancel over the past year-and-a-half, he said, there had been four others considered. The sky Sunday was a little bit cloudier than ideal but Kyu had given the pilots the verbal OK to take off.

This was the last possible date this year, before the planes fly south for the winter to perform at airshows.

“And I just couldn’t go on, emotionally, next year,” he admits.

The planes would not perform what most people think of as skywriting, i.e. a looping airplane trailing a continuous message. The GEICO Skytypers perform what’s called “sky-typing.” Flying in formation, the five planes spell out words, as if typed out by a dot matrix printer. They “write” in bursts of canola oil, injected into their exhaust.

The cost for this would normally run about $16,000. Chief Skytyper Larry Arken, who Kyu says has a day job as a pilot for American Airlines, had cut Kyu a generous deal, donating the airmen’s time.

(Photo by Chris Thompson)

(Photo by Chris Thompson)

The watch gathering on the grassy spur of the Reading Viaduct had the feel of a neighborhood block party. Kyu’s mother was on the grill, making hot dogs and hamburgers. Representatives of the three teams that had composed the messages over a year ago had arrived.

“Everyone has a book of ideas and skills,” said Chris Thompson, “which don’t match up.”

Thompson, the secretary of Callowhill hackerspace Hive76, worked with a group of artists from another of the neighborhood’s converted industrial buildings, 319 N. 11th St. In this case, he had the collective resources of Kyu, who had the planes, and the artists, who helped craft the perfect message.

Rejected ideas included: the hexadecimal code for blue and “WHEEE.”


After much anticipation, the Skytypers appeared in the sky around 12:40 p.m. They make two big loops over Center City, revealing the secret messages to Philadelphia one letter at a time.

Friends of the Reading Viaduct, a group organizing to create a park on the old railroad viaduct, chose:


Teachers from Roman Catholic High School and the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) in Chinatown North had composed a message in three languages, Latin, Chinese and English.

And the team of Hive76 members and the artists had finally settled on a phrase they imagined might be sent as an intimate text message:



Companies: Hive76
People: Chris Thompson

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