Philadelphia becomes a massive radiator this time of year, its buildings and streets absorbing the sun’s energy and being stingy about letting it go at night. That “urban heat island” effect makes the city hotter than its surroundings. It also can raise tempers a few degrees.
Various research has shown a correlation between urban violence and heat, and that’s of particular concern in a city where the proliferation of guns has become a crisis.
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One West Philadelphia man is waging his own war against gun violence — and firing a few shots at the heat island. His weapon of choice: the Super Soaker.
Call him an aquatic Don Quixote, but Gabriel Nyantakyi, the founder of Waterarms over Firearms and organizer of the “WaterFight Philly Remix” event during last month’s shirt-soaking heat wave, believes he can change the perception of weaponry, particularly among the nation’s youth.
He started his basically one-man organization about four years ago and has convened a couple of mass water battles each summer since. About 100 people showed up at his last Remix battle, which he advertised through social media. And while a good time is a prime motive for these mass shootings, Nyantakyi says he’s taking aim at the subconscious.
“I want to shift the culture and people’s imaging of what guns can be," he said. No reasonable person would confuse a Super Soaker with a violent weapon.
Nyantakyi, who makes a living as a part-time contractor and doing odd jobs, runs the organization on a shoestring and a GoFundMe page. It helps that he has his own arsenal of Super Soakers (he says he has owned about 100 at different times) that he can lend to those who show up for battle unarmed.
The Super Soaker evidently has saturated his own consciousness. He sees it not only as a sophisticated plaything but as an educational tool with an inspiring backstory.
Nyantakyi is 36, which means he was the perfect age when the Super Soaker became popular in the early 1990s.
“I had generic water guns back in the day," he said. “None of them had their own identity.” Then came the Super Soakers. "The way they projected; they shot water 50 feet. It was like, wow! This is a great piece of technology.”
What he didn’t realize at the time was that the source of his infatuation was invented by an African American, Lonnie G. Johnson. That solidified his passion. Johnson, who helped develop control systems for space projects, conceived the idea for the Super Soaker in 1982, and received a patent in 1991.
Nyantakyi’s passion took a serious turn in 2012, he said, when the horrific saga of Joseph Kony, a Ugandan warlord who kidnapped 30,000 children in the 1980s to help him oust the nation’s president, gained international attention.
Nyantakyi recalls thinking, “Children should remain children.” He said that giving children Super Soakers and letting them engage in water battles could redirect their thinking. “A water war is a peaceful type of war.”
Super Soakers can also teach young people invaluable plumbing skills; the technology involves basic parts such as reservoirs, tubing, and valves. “If you can fix a Super Soaker, you can apply those skills to a plumbing fixture,” he said.
Water-fighting is an international sport, and Nyantakyi has witnessed it firsthand in Turkey, Ghana, and Thailand, the venue for the annual Songkran festival in mid-April and the mother of all water battles, with hundreds of thousands participating.
Nyantakyi said he does not want Philadelphia to become Songkran east. He prefers to keep his events informal, rather than getting into the permitting, crowd control, and liability universes.
But inevitably, he said, if his events become more popular he might have no choice but to impose more structure.
“It’s a factor that’s in consideration," he said. "It’s something I want to ramp up and prepare for.”