Tagging Air Force One: How the stunt worked

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. At twenty-five frames per second, Mark Ecko’s recent two-minute clip of him spray painting a graffiti tag onto the side of a US Air Force presidential transport Boeing 747-200B is worth over 3,000 words every time it’s viewed. And the maxim stands true if you count the amount of column centimetres dedicated to his stunt on internet sites and newspapers around the world.


Flightglobal.com ran the video of the prank last week. We were sceptical; there’s no way anyone can get within 100 metres of the aircraft. Also the video’s jump cuts smacked of footage cobbled together rather than a real video.

This didn’t stop the USAF from checking both aircraft in the fleet, however, with the Air Mobility Command’s 89th Airlift Wing confirming it had looked into the matter (before concluding that no tag was on either aircraft).

Our poll also showed readers’ initial willingness to believe their eyes, with 65% believing the video showing a real threat to presidential security within the first three hours of the story appearing.

Real credit, however, is due to our readers’ close attention to detail. Dozens emailed in detailed reasons why it had to be a fake. These included the wrong engines, the wrong font used on the fuselage, wrong paint colour and even the velocity of paint coming out of the spray can.

Ecko claimed to have tagged the engine cowling of the 747 as a protest over the erosion of free speech in the USA. A noble sentiment; it may be over 20 years since the case of Michael Stewart (a young, black graffiti artist who was strangled to death while in the custody of eleven white transit police who had arrested him for writing graffiti on a subway wall in New York City), but real curbs on urban art are coming back.

In Joe Austin’s book Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City, he chronicles the draconian measures Mayor Ed Koch brought in to curb the spread of graffiti in the 1980s. After the Stewart incident, during which the coroner ‘lost’ the inquest evidence, most states repealed laws. Ecko, however, pointed out that regulations are coming back.  In New York now it is illegal to buy a marker pen until you’re 21 years of age and carrying a can of aerosol can be reason to be stopped and searched in many US cities, Ecko says in his video explanation of his acts.

But Ecko is no revolutionary. His script-reading attempts sound unconvincing. Despite calling graffiti a recognised American art form, he fails to differentiate between tagging (surely a simple act of vandalism) and the art found on the walls of Harlem, Bed-Stuy or Englewood, described in Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City by Ivor L. Miller.

Far from it, in fact. Ecko is the multimillionaire owner of Ecko Ultd clothing range and Complex urban lifestyle magazine. Crucially, however, he has just launched his d饕ut video game, Getting-Up: Contents Under Pressure, in which the characters score points by spraying name tags on well-guarded public buildings. No surprise, then, that a day after the video appeared, Ecko put a disclaimer on his site admitting it was a fake.


He has now released further details on how the elaborate hoax was achieved. His company rented a 747 freighter at San Bernardino airport (formerly Norton AFB) in Southern California.  Mechanics there leaked details to us of having painted one side of the aircraft to resemble the VC-25As. Computer graphics then added the fence and enhanced the tag.

Ecko refuses to say how much the stunt cost, other than to admit it was a costly venture. But by all accounts it was a good investment. Since Flightglobal first ran the story last week, it has spread around the web like wildfire. It has also become Flightglobal’s best-read story ever. For Ecko, the publicity received is worth far more than any amount of above-the-line advertising and again shows the power of the internet.

For traditional advertisers, the writing’s on the wall.

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