Tag Happy


THERE’S NOTHING, YOU’D THINK, really very interesting about graffiti tags. To outsiders, they’re thoughtless, disruptive, ugly, and illegible. At worst, they’re a sign of the slipping middle class grip on suburban morality; at best, a nuisance to clean off walls.


Personally, I’m in two minds about tags. They don’t – unlike some more painstaking pieces – have much artistic merit or objective appeal. I can’t see signs of reflection in wanton graffiti, just a quick, furtive spray of paint, forming seemingly meaningless words in a script of typographers’ nightmares. But I imagine that, to their authors and readers, tags do have meaning. I imagine that they’re liberating to apply, allowing the painter some sense of intensely personal ownership of space, ownership that is enacted over and over in strips and pockets of the city. They cannot simply be thoughtless squiggles and stripes, but rather designed, deliberate, and evolving signatures and symbols.

Most tags are, I’d venture, fairly ugly in themselves. But taken in context, grouped and sorted, random graffiti can give a feel to city space that I rather like: you know, when you enter one of those suburbs where picturesque cottages and grand homes are enclosed by tag-ridden walls, that you’ve stepped into somewhere interesting, somewhere where things happen by day and by night.


8 thoughts on “Tag Happy

  1. I’m in at least three minds about tagging. There’s a side of me that sees it as vandalism, and another that sees it as an informative code, where messages are passed by groups, or individuals, on to other groups or inviduals. They can act as territorial markers, in the same way dogs piss on walls and lampposts to show whose boss, taggers tag walls and lampposts. Or they serve as information boards telling others you’ve been there, done that.

    They can also be reliable indicators of the local atmosphere, social grouping, and financial status, which can have the counterproductive consequence of discouraging some visitors to certain areas, which, in turn, can have negative economic repercussions for local businesses.

    They certainly can make some areas look far more attractive. But then they often ruin other, more artistic, works of grafitti, for me.

    Then again, there’s the more elitist side of me, where I hate to see tags on buildings I regard as having asthetic or historical merit.

    Better stop now, before this becomes a book. In the end, tags reflect how some of us perceive our environments, and how we want others to perceive them.


  2. This one is hard for me.

    As a property owner tagging angers me like little else. ‘nuf said. And I have not even been the owner of property that was being tagged — I just find it incredibly rude to bespoil someone else’s property.

    As a photographic artist I can’t say I find tagging to be compelling art, but I can appreciate another’s need to make their mark (literally).

    As a photographer I can’t say I find it particularly image-worthy — there’s no great beauty and tags often obscure, obliterate, or ruin much nicer graffiti. Not being a capturer of social commentary it’s just not something I’d waste the time to frame an image on.

    But in the end I find tagging to be a poor (whether in quality or socio-economic status) attempt at communication. I may not speak the language and hence may not be aware of all that is being communicated but surely there have to be better ways for humans to communicate than the bi-ped version of pissing on walls…..

    A retired photographer looks at life
    Peter Pazucha dot Com
    Life Unscripted on WordPress


  3. The opposition you set up is interesting: tags as mindless vandalism vs tags as forms of meaningful expression. Can tags be both at the same time? Does having significant personal meaning for their creators redeem the tags even if they do, indeed, deface the surface they’re put on?


  4. Brian, Peter, Lissa — I’m responding with one big ramble, because my thoughts on this issue have become so complicated that I can’t pull apart who or what prompts the entwined threads of thought…

    As a twenty-four-year-old with no property to protect aside from an upstairs rental, it’s easy to take a tolerant view of tagging—it’s not my wall, after all! But I’m sure that if my parents’ home—the precious home of my childhood—were tagged, I’d be pretty miffed to say the least. It’s an invasion—small in scale, for sure—of your legal and emotional property. And it’s a pain and an expense. Where I used to live in Carlton North, a particular corner terrace with an expansive white un-windowed wall was the constant victim of all-over tagging. Every now and again, I’d see the owner out on his ladder, painstakingly painting the wall afresh—a never-ending, losing battle performed with resignation and dedication. It makes me think that we need a system of designated wall space, or a symbol that homeowners and business proprietors can display to indicate that they ‘accept’ tags. Of course, that would completely defeat the sense of daring and gratification that presumably comes from performing small illegal acts, and would never work.

    I suppose in aesthetic terms, tags work for me when I ascribe something to them, choosing to ‘frame’ (mentally and photographically!) them a certain way, rather than from something that’s inherent to their form or meaning. Sometimes you want to find the beautiful in the ugly. It might be the colour, a pop of vivid pink on a dire grey wall. I like pink on grey; it’s visceral, not academic. Or it might be a sense of geometry or satisfying repetition in the script. Something small. Just a brief moment of pleasure that, on reflection, you might ultimately reject as part of something reprehensible, but that did truly strike you at the time. Peter — it’s like your Life Unscripted tagline: ‘When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.’ Sometimes I look at tags with disdain and disregard; sometimes I look at them with that-pink-makes-me-happy (if I can coin a noun), and they change.

    Of course, I’m taking a me-centric view of things, in line with this blog’s focus on small, personal pleasures. I feel uneasy about commenting too fully on the wider politics of tagging—although I can project myself into the tag author’s mindset in some way, I can only do so by springing from my own beginning point as someone who would never do it myself. I feel uncomfortable, as though projecting my values and mindset onto the practice might well be entirely inaccurate or somehow condescending—a pseudo-anthropologist making broad statements about a culture that I cannot truly understand.


    • I love the idea of designated wall space, but as you say, for taggers it defeats much of the rationale. We have spaces here in Milwaukee where muralists / graffiti artists have been welcomed with open arms — but again — that’s a very different motivation/frame of mind.

      On the large scale of things — forgetting for a moment all the issues related specifically to GANG tagging — there has to be some way for those who feel disenfranchised to make their mark. In a world where the “little guy” is bought out by the “big guy” it’s increasingly harder to feel it possible to find some billion dollar idea and make it large in this world. The fact that the few are getting richer and the more are getting poorer has to be heart-killing for anyone who has little or nothing. Alas, that is a much larger topic than TAG-HAPPY….

      A retired photographer looks at life
      Peter Pazucha dot Com
      Life Unscripted on WordPress



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