by Karl Young

In many, if not most cultures, people are given simple names at birth, often relating them to their families in one way or another. Later in life, they take special names, either chosen by them or earned by achievements or stages of initiation, or given to them by the community or someone of importance, for ritual purposes. Likewise, many cultures use basic forms of scarification and tattooing for talismanic, tribal, and family reasons. More may be added or earned as the bearer takes on more individual characteristics. The individual's body markings usually become associated with the bearer's name.

Perhaps such names played an early and vital role in the development of language. Tattoos and scarification probably formed one of the earliest forms of visual poetry, and the human body provided the original ground for book art, and still, thousands of years later, a more dynamic and more inventive bookform than many now considered as such.

In the more affluent strata of the mainstream consumerist cultures of Euro-America, personal names become reduced to simple identifiers, and body art disappears in a cross between disdain and trendyness. The usage of names in consumerist cultures reveals a lot about those cultures. Most family names originated at least a century ago when people were assigned names by arms of government, most often for tax collection and military conscription. Names moved from a means of expanding identification, and, indeed, identity itself, to modes of control and exploitation. The state needed to keep track of you so it could tax you and force you to fight its wars. This happened to different groups of people at diferent times in Europe. Elsewhere at this site, in Robinson Crusoe, Barbara Einzig explains that her family name means "only" because her ancestors were the only Jews in a district of Hungary when a tax man came through, and he gave that name to the family without consulting them, or even trying to see if he could get them to bribe him to give them a name that carried prestige or luck, such as "Goldberg" or "Silverstein." African-Americans were often given the names of their masters or of presidents after the U.S. Civil War. During the long period of chattle slavery, many first names were assigned by the children of slave owners, who often chose the funniest sounding names they could find in the Bible or in mythology. This degradation reinfoced the status of the slaves. Many sub- and micro- cultures included earned and resonant names from their beginning and through the entire course of their history. During the 1960s, many African-Americans adopted Moslem names, and Feminists, Anarchists, and activists of various sorts started giving themselves and their children new names. Sweden was one of the last countries in Europe to be "civilized." At the time that that took place, a great, great grandfather of mine was named "Johann," and his son, quite naturally, was called "Johannson." When my father's father came to the U.S., he kept his first name, Axel, but changed the last to "Young." The opening sound "Yo" carries over from one name to another, but more importantly, he wanted to have a name that suggested rebirth in the New World, where he would take part in creating the ideal society in which all people were equal, no one went hungry, and wars would cease. In my youth, when the understanding of the nature of social control in names became apparent to me, I decided not to change my name out of respect to my grandparents' aspirations, even though they had not come true. And this despite the added incentive of escaping endles Carl Jung jokes and misunderstandings.

Body art can become quite complex, and at times times it can carry on some of the older functions of names and markings. Perhaps spoken names and body art have a common origin and evolved together, and neither could have developed without the other. For many Anglo-Americans in lower income brackets, tattoos become a means of class identification, a means of saying that the bearer rejects or defies the social superstructure. At the same time, people in elite positions may bear tattoos as a means of taking on the perceived strength of the less affluent. For those strata who exhibit tattoos flamboyantly, the tattoos include at least some erotic connotations, and this can relate them to the fertility markings of tribal societies. In lower economic groups, tattooing often indicates commitment, reaching its ultimate in pledge tattoos, tattoos born across the knuckles and fingers or on the face so they cannot be hidden. More affluent people may bear tattoos to lessen their sense of being spoiled, pampered, given an unfair advantage in life -- or they may wear them as an act of true rebellion against their class's mores. Often when impoverished people acquire tattoos in their youth, they want to rid themselves of the tattoos in later life, particularly if their economic or social status changes. In later life, the more affluent may acquire tattoos in muted colors, tattoos that look old so the bearers can pretend they pulled themselves up from poverty, or to suggest that they have lead a more adventuresome life.

However silly this may get in the mainstream of affluent society, both names and body marking are alive and healthy in many sub-cultures of North America, as they are in many other parts of the world. In North America, the most important forms of body art are probably those not meant to be seen by people outside the culture or even the family of which they are a part. In the same manner, personal names may be incomprehensible to outsiders.

In this essay I will concentrate on one sub-culture where personal names, or tags, appear in image complexes in public places, and can flourish only there. I will have to go into some of the larger areas of graffiti art along the way, but the main emphasis in this essay is on tags.

Tagging, the artful graffiti writing of names and short phrases on buildings, signs, busses, etc. is one of the most inventive forms of visual poetry being written at the present time. Practiced primarily by young people in blighted urban areas, tagging ignores mainstream art history and traditional literature altogether. Instead, taggers draw on conventions from advertising and mass media. Video plays a stronger role than magazines, billboards, and other sources that use reflected light. Bright or unusual colors and fluid forms draw heavily on attempts to capture characteristics of radiant light and motion. Since both are impossible in images on walls, creative transposition is integral to the taggers' art.

In many places, property owners and "graffiti busters" efface tags quickly after they are painted. Taggers may replace tags soon after they are destroyed. Many taggers follow something like a program, going from site to site in an order with its own logic. This order may be based in a need to define a territory or it may be oriented toward presentation in sites passed by the largest number of local residents (hence reflecting their movements) or it may move according to challenges: appearing at the most difficult sites or at sites where outsiders want them least. In some instances, another artist may embellish an original tag. Likewise, rival artists or people without skills may deface tags. The original artist may rework his or her design to cover the defacement or even use the defacement as a creative stimulus for a variant on the original tag. Trains and buses provide a different set of opportunities: although the surfaces painted may remain static, the vehicles don't, and tags painted on them move through the city, often changing, in the manner of tags written on buildings, from day to day. Whatever the case, tags should not be seen as single, static, isolated works, but works in series, works that change with time.

The taggers' basic tools are paint spraying devices, the mechanized equivalent of the paint spraying technology of the artists at Lascaux and other stone age sites. Taggers also use cellular telephones to orchestrate multiple tags and to keep each other informed as to the movement of police and security guards. Specifically literary content tends to be limited, often involving no more than the name of a tagger. Aesthetically, tags run the gamut from trivial decoration to some of the best calligraphic experimentation of this century. Often letter forms are so highly stylized that only fellow taggers and local residents can decipher them -- a characteristic shared by some of the most prized Sino-Japanese and Islamic calligraphy. When shown samples of other calligraphic traditions, taggers usually find an immediate affinity with interlaced letters from Islamic and Hiberno-Saxon sources, but dislike the rigidity of type. Tags can include auxiliary forms and echoes outside the letters which can add to or change the significance of the text. Some of these auxiliary forms draw on a huge variety of sources. In areas with a significant Chicano population, some taggers incorporate quotes and echoes not only of the great Mexican muralists of the first half of this century, but also artists of the more distant past, from the sculptors of Tenochtitilan to the muralists of Teotihuacan. Whatever the background, the iconography of taggers knows few bounds, incorporating elements from sources as divers as advertising images to religious iconography, mechanical diagrams to fashions in clothing, occult figures from all over the world to quotes from mainstream art history, family and other forms of local portraiture to mirrors of the community itself.

However complex auxiliary forms may become, most of the taggers' creative energy and imagination works inside the letters themselves. The alphabet for them is a set of figures to reinterpret through their own sense of proportion and design. Many taggers enlarge the body of letters and bring together their component parts and close gaps between letters and intertwine or elide them. Perhaps no other visual poetry, including that coming from letterism, has dealt so imaginatively with letterforms or invested so much energy and significance in letters themselves. More at home with video than type, taggers may be generating design principals more suited to computer use than current screen fonts based on foundry type.

Although taggers must work quickly and spontaneously, improvising a great deal on the spot, they often spend a good deal of time planning their tags, going through many stages of sketching and testing in less hurried circumstances. Many carry notebooks with them to sketch and develop new ideas in open spaces. (Aspiring taggers often ask distinguished masters to write tags in their books.) Under these conditions taggers develop individual styles, which may include an emphasis on flatness or the impression of volume, distinctive color schemes, types of elision, auxiliary elements and other characteristics they will recreate in fast moving situations. Individual style need not isolate taggers from each other. In fact, many, if not most, work as groups, though this is not as essential as it is for the more expansive "painting" wing of graffiti art. This allows crews to put up tags quickly. It also necessitates cooperation among those involved, a good deal of pre-planning, and various means of either creating a group style or a framework in which diverse styles can function simultaneously.

Taggers run serious risks in their work and some see source of materials as a crucial issue: for some, a tag isn't really authentic unless the paint is stolen; others find this attitude phony. The mystique of danger often leads to an artistically false evaluation of the work, but it also reveals the heart of this kind of expression. For the most part, taggers live in dreary and oppressive environments. On the simplest level, tagging is a way of marking turf, of saying "I'm here -- you can't ignore me!" On a more profound level, they are saying "No!" to the social, racial, and economic restraints that imprison them. They don't accept the trap in which they find themselves, but try to make something better out of it, to make it something that expresses their own sense of beauty in the face of all that makes their lives and the lives of those around them ugly. The vicious ferocity of attempts to stop them by property owners and police shows that this is not simply a matter of aesthetics, but an expression of the will to change society. If a drab building or poster represents the control and power of outsiders, tagging represents a revolutionary impulse, an attempt to seize power by the disenfranchised.

Although some visual artists and art historians acknowledge tagging as an art form, this is usually done in a condescending or voyeuristic manner, stressing the taggers' stunts or their seemingly peculiar lives: something to exploit temporarily and leave behind. The taggers usually don't recognize other art forms, nor do they see attention from critics as being much different from attention from sociologists and journalists: to them it is unimportant and irrelevant. Their concerns are immediate and self-contained. Many taggers refer to themselves as "writers," and consider "tagger" a term coined or co-opted by outsiders. Since I do not live in one of their communities, it's best not to try to further compromise their terms, just as I have avoided naming individual artists: they are entitled to write their names; I am not.

As an outsider, I may lack authority for the following observations, but since a number of practitioners concur, I will proceed. The basic transience of tagging seems to extend from the short life span of an individual tag to the life span of the art in a given city. Some areas, including neighborhoods or wards of cities such as New York and Chicago seem to have gone through several stages of flourishing, decline, collapse, and rebirth. In other cities, rebirth may not follow collapse. For an art that involves such bravado, tagging is remarkably fragile -- perhaps this inevitably results from something so deeply dependent on local social ecology.

The creative life span of taggers tends to brevity -- in some instances because of the dangers of the work, in others because the taggers move on to work as more conventional artists, and in yet others because the taggers leave the arts altogether. Tags may create community problems even in their healthiest phases. Some residents, particularly the elderly, may fear going to local markets with extensive tags on their walls because they associate them with violence. Factions in the community with aspirations toward upward mobility may fear that tags in the neighborhood will hold them back. Some realize that tagging can result in higher insurance premiums and other costs which will be passed on to them as higher rents and higher prices at local stores. Some seek other ways of relieving the drabness of the environment and feel the taggers should follow their lead. Some argue that in a neighborhood full of tags, it will be difficult to get funding for start-up businesses that could keep money in the community, instead of letting it be siphoned out by slumlords and other predators.

Such problems probably could be solved within communities if left to the communities to solve for themselves. Other problems seem less amenable to simple solutions, and tend to come at least in part from forces outside the community. Changes in gang structure and orientation can play major roles in damage to communities, and this tends to be reflected in the tags. Many of the changes center on power shifts brought about by schisms and consolidation in gangs and co-optation from larger criminal organizations. Wars among organized crime factions impact taggers at least as much as any other residents. Narcotics tend to play a strong part on many levels, from the damage drugs do to individual taggers to changes in the local economy and the local aesthetic sensibilities, from changes in the degree of respect younger taggers show the masters to increased fear and rage throughout the community. Youth gangs with a strong local base tend to protect the master taggers, and to keep aspirants and incompetents from engaging in inept art and mere vandalism. This reflects the patronage systems of many governments - the art of the Renaissance, for instance, was encouraged, financed, policed, and sheltered by gangster families - the Medicis, the Sforzas, the Malatestas, etc. - that had grabbed political power. Organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts continue the tradition through a larger baffle of similar power structures. Misguided attempts to eliminate tags on the part of city governments usually do not diminish the amount of graffiti, but rather assure that the tags of the masters become supplanted by the blotches, smears, inept doodles, and other pointless messes made by incompetents and people who don't have the patience to learn to produce good tags. When the problem comes from such governmental sources, it is clear that the people in power have not read or understood the message on the walls.

At the same time, taggers who do not move on to other activities have not read the message of the street, which is not their street, and can never be theirs unless they move into a broader community framework. This some have done, though it will take time to see what kind of impact these people may have as community organizers and representatives, or how they will change art forms other than tagging. The contribution their efforts could make to other arts seems easy to see. I can imagine these people placing a strong emphasis on calligraphy and more fluid letter forms. This could be an immense benefit in several ways. By reintroducing calligraphy into the mainstream it could relieve our eyes from the endless barrage of too easily manipulated type, made possible by computer based technology. It could also re-humanize the brittle, rigid type faces now being offered, improving type itself. Although he comes from a different tradition, I don't think Herman Zapf could have accomplished as much as he has, including his work in digital type design, if he didn't have a sound base in hand lettering. Type is part of a fragile ecosystem of its own, and those who rely on it too heavily seem bound to deaden typography with every move they make. Potential contributions to many general areas of art and design remain possibilities. What gets brought back to the inner cities from which tagging arises should be left to the judgment and discretion of those who have practiced the basic art and to the collective decisions of the home communities.

Tagging presents paradoxes much like those of the blues and other related art forms. Those of us fortunate enough to see this art should appreciate it while we can to the fullest extent we can. Attendant on the aesthetic accomplishments of taggers is the fact that on a basic human, existential level, tagging is a great tribute to the genius of people who can make something beautiful out of close to nothing. However, we should never allow ourselves to be so caught up in its beauty and inventiveness, or worse, voyeurism, that we see the social, economic, and political conditions form which it springs as good or desirable or justifiable. We must not forget that, unlike some forms of "painting," tagging is at root a military art, and that its most important features should be those that can be reintegrated into community art whenever and if ever the war has been won. In the meantime, an important role for outsiders goes beyond simple conoiseurship to finding ways for the great creativity tagging represents to flourish in other environments.


This is a co-operative presentation of
Kaldron On-Line and
Light and Dust Mobile Anthology of Poetry