In 2007, a team of scientists and engineers based at the English research company Surrey NanoSystems made an extraordinary breakthrough.

Using a new technique involving so-called “vertically aligned nanotubules”

  • tiny carbon-based structures that can be specifically arranged on their end
  • the Surrey scientists produced the darkest, blackest substance known to science.

They called their discovery “vantablack,” basing its name on their “VANTA” nanotubule technology. Over the years that followed, they continued to improve and refine its production, adapting it into a usable, sprayable pigment, and honing their technology to such an extent that one billion of these carbon nanotubules, — tiny, microscopic strands of carbon, standing upright, essentially like blades of grass — could be crammed into one single square centimeter.

The reason that the pigment appears so black because photons (that is, individual particles of light) strike the surface of the vantablack and are unable to escape this sea of light-absorbing nanotubules, and so their energy is simply absorbed and converted into heat. Almost every wavelength of light, from infrared to ultraviolet and everything in between, is affected in the same way, meaning vantablack absorbs an incredible 99.965% of all visible light. Looking at it is like looking quite literally into a black hole as it appears blacker than any black you’ll likely have ever seen.

Envisaging that their pigment could have countless real-world applications —from lining the optical chambers of deep-space telescopes to improving the performance of infrared cameras, the Surrey NanoSystems team announced their discovery to an eager scientific community in 2014. When happened next, however, could scarcely have been predicted.

With the darkest synthetic substance known to man now on the market, the laboratory soon began fielding calls from potential investors and clients all over the world who were all keen to utilize Surrey NanoSystems’ discovery. And among the calls they received was one from contemporary British-Indian artist Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor has been exploring color, shape, and space in his extraordinary artworks since the early 1970s. He is the artist behind the giant reflective “bean” (properly called Cloud Gate) in the middle of Chicago’s Millennium Park and the remarkable twisting, helter-skelter-like observation tower (known as Orbit) that became one of the centerpieces of the London 2012 Olympics. Awarded the Turner Prize in 1991 and knighted by the Queen in 2013, Kapoor is one of the art world’s most famous and respected artists. So a phone call and a business proposition from him was something Surrey NanoSystems could scarcely ignore.

As a result, in 2014 Kapoor signed a contract with the Surrey team that granted him and his art studio the exclusive world rights to vantablack. The entire global supply of the darkest pigment known to science was now the exclusive property of one sole artist.

Needless to say, Kapoor’s exclusive rights deal to the vantablack market did not go down too well with his fellow artists, and the move was quickly seen as uncharitably monopolizing and then shutting down an entirely new and exciting technology. On social media, campaigns were started to try to convince Kapoor to reverse his decision. Newspaper editorials around the world questioned just how acceptably ‘right’ was it for one artist alone to own something it would be impossible for any other artist to access or replicate. Others, meanwhile, questioned whether Kapoor’s controversial actions were themselves a form of performance art.

But artists are a creative and reactionary bunch, of course, so it was not long before contemporary British artist Stuart Semple stepped into the fray with a take of his own on Kapoor’s controversial move.

Stemple, who is known for his pop-art inspired works in a variety of different forms and media, reacted to the uproar surrounding Kapoor by creating an exclusive pigment of his own, which he named simply “PINK.” According to a disclaimer on his website, Stemple claims that anyone can buy a supply of PINK so long as they are not Anish Kapoor.

“We all remember kids at school who wouldn’t share their coloring pencils,” Semple later explained. “Anish can have his black. But the rest of us will be playing with the rainbow!”