The Fragile Art of Bullet Painting in Grand Theft Auto V

For most players, the walls of Los Santos are unremarkable. A dull patchwork of greys and whites, they blur into the background without any need for recognition. But for a small group of digital artists, these same walls are blank canvases waiting to be painted. Their art implement of choice: Grand Theft Auto V’s vast assortment of weaponry. Firearms equipped, these artists set to work spraying the walls of the city, their bullet marks etching out their masterpieces in stone.  

In Rockstar’s less than subtle satire of American society and its rabid obsession with firearms, the concept of bullet art seems like a fitting form of self-expression. However, it’s a more difficult activity than you may think, with players constantly fighting against issues like the game’s memory caps to create their detailed character portraits and images of pop culture figures.

Grand Theft Auto V
Lester, by Kerles

Ready, aim, fire 

The bullet artist Kerles — whose work illustrates the header image for this piece — first came across bullet art on the Rockstar Social Club half a decade ago. It was there that he discovered the artwork of Bee_1108, a Japanese bullet artist, who had started to post images of samurai he had carved into the city walls with his arsenal of weapons.  

“I saw that and decided to try my hand,” says Kerles, who wields a Combat PDW to create their work. “I went into it knowing nothing and thinking I’d just go shoot a wall and test things out, not really serious about making a finished piece at the time… Looking back I did almost everything wrong, but I learned quite a bit.” 

Since then, Kerles’ work has gone on to inspire other players in turn.

“I was playing GTA V normally, but I thought if I am playing the missions only I would get bored with the game,” recalls Japanese bullet artist aizakkuzan, who prefers the handgun and SMG as his tools of the trade. “One day, I saw the awesome #bulletart made by Kerles, EHOT_KOCMOHABIT, and bee_1108. I was so impressed by it…I decided to [give it a try].”

Grand Theft Auto V
Lincoln, by Kerles

But bullet art isn’t simply about finding the nearest wall and shooting at it. There’s a lot more to consider to ensure the conditions are perfect. For instance, bullet artists almost always work in the creator mode, to avoid any run-ins with the ever-vigilant Los Santos Police Department or griefing players — not to mention any of the skittish NPCs, who could get spooked by the gunfire and run into traffic, causing the artwork to disappear because of the way blood stains affect the game’s memory capabilities. 

The memory issue has always been a thorn in the bullet artist’s side. According to Kerles, the game memory reserved for bullet marks is also shared with decals like tire marks, blood, and muddy footprints, meaning any of these could potentially destroy the image should they appear. Not only that, but there are some walls that have an additional hidden layer where shots will double-mark, leading players with significantly fewer bullet marks to work with.

“What happens to most people when they try to do something very complex with bullet art,” Kerles explains, “is that they find that before they finish making what they want, many or all of the bullet marks just disappear.” 

Grand Theft Auto V
Cyberpunk, by aizakkusan

Close Calls

The memory cap issues mean that bullet artists can sometimes feel like they’re fighting the game itself. For instance, Kerles was once in the middle of attempting to sketch out a portrait of the character Lester from the game’s main story mode, when the 2800 shots used to create the project vanished before his eyes. It was devastating, but luckily, he managed to quickly snap a picture of the work in progress with his mobile phone.  

Since then, he has managed to create a number of successful portraits, including a highly detailed mural of a woman that utilizes some more obscure camera techniques. For this piece, he used the overhead lights from the creator mode and placed small props in front of them to cast a halo of rays around the character’s head.

Grand Theft Auto V
Minions, by opolchennyy

When I asked aizakkusan about their favorites, they pointed me towards a few portraits in particular. These included their recreation of Edvard Munch’s iconic painting Scream, their character portrait of GTA V’s Michael De Santa, and a recreation of the Doomsday Heist’s promotional art. Recently, however, they have also gained notoriety for their Cyberpunk 2077 mural, depicting the lead character V in profile. 

“Almost [everyone] who sees my photo gallery on Social Club is surprised to see my bullet art,” aizakkusan tells me. “Especially when I published the [Cyberpunk 2077] video on Twitter, [many people liked it]. In some cases, I’ve received requests from other players… saying ‘I want you to draw my portrait.’”

But bullet art isn’t all about portraits. Some artists, like opolchennyy, create scenes that meld the artwork with elements within the game’s virtual world, such as a paper boat being pushed out to sea or a puppet master controlling two player characters. 

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Grand Theft Auto V
Puppets, by opolchennyy

A Vanishing Art

Today, the bullet art community remains a relatively niche one within Grand Theft Auto V, in part due to several changes introduced to the game that have made it even more difficult to pull off masterworks. The first of these was Rockstar lowering the bullethole cap for low-caliber weapons from roughly 2800 marks to 2400, according to Kerles. But things got even worse when Rockstar completely overhauled the way bullet marking behave. 

“After several GTA V updates, the gun marking behavior was changed,” recalls aizakkusan, who today is one of the last active bullet artists. “The game doesn’t allow me to draw bullet art marking to normal walls in the game. For a long time, I was drawing [my] art in Textile City in Los Santos… but now I’m drawing art at LSIA (Los Santos international airport) [on the hangar] wall.” This is one of the few areas in the game where bullet art is still possible.

Grand Theft Auto V
Boat, by opolchennyy

In response to these new limitations, some creators started to experiment with other projectiles — namely snowballs. Kerles was one of the first creators to attempt this, using this new technique to create an impressive skull mural. However, just like bullet art, snowball art has its fair share of drawbacks too.

“Snowball art has most of the same potential issues as bullet art (vanishing issues, editor capture etc.) as well as its own problems and limitations,” Kerles explains. “Snow in GTA V has a very short time window, you can only pick up 3 snowballs at a time and only hold 9 total, you need a very big black wall (not many of those in Los Santos) and the snowball marks are huge compared to bullet marks. The available walls and large size of the snowball marks really limit what you can draw with them while having it look good.”  

As it stands, there are currently only two prolific members of the bullet art community still going: aizakkusan and opolchennyy. For aizakkusan, bullet art has been a way of making international friends and has led to them joining a number of virtual photography groups on Rockstar’s social club. It’s no surprise, then, that they have been so insistent on keeping the art form alive. As for Kerles, there’s a tinge of disappointment in what he tells me, but he can’t help but praise the game for offering players this exciting new way to interact with the world. Even if it does feel like the developers have unknowingly contributed to its downfall. 

“I think the small number of people doing it is due largely to the vanishing phenomenon that new people run into,” Kerles notes. “I’m sure there are many people who’ve decided they’d try to attempt it, had their work disappear multiple times and couldn’t figure out why, then just ended up discouraged and gave up. The current break just compounds that. A big part of the story of bullet art is overcoming busted mechanics, and yet, despite all its many problems GTA V seems to be the best game there has ever been as a medium for bullet art.”