Reciprocity between Graffiti Vandalism and its Virtual Documentation


Driven by the need for the increased reception (and the conservation) of their tags, graffiti writers document their productions online on blogs, photo sites, and pro-graffiti forums. For the purposes of this paper, the term “writer” is part of the argot of graffiti; it refers to producers of graffiti. These sites, though accessible to the general public, are secluded, as they are frequented predominantly by graffiti enthusiasts and practitioners. Inspired by responses to his or her postings on such sites by an anonymous, international, virtual community, the tagger continues an activity that might otherwise dissipate from inattention and lack of audience. In this context, this paper first presents the performative nature of tagging and its essential relationship to masculinity. It then proposes some consequences of the virtual community’s new assumed role as the tagger’s primary audience.

Introduction: From the Real to the Reproduced

The anonymous Bolognese street artist known as BLU created MUTO in 2007, utilizing stop-motion animation of a series of murals he painted impromptu on walls and adjacent structures alongside a public street in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Merged into video, the murals come alive in the form of figures that move and interact with both each other and the wall surfaces. Significantly, the final product—the stop-motion animation created from the various phases of the murals—is viewable only online. The preparatory work in the specific public space and streets of Buenos Aires was continuously made and unmade in order for the video to come into being.

A repeated argument in defense of graffiti is that the practice reclaims and transforms public space for an improved visual aesthetic in the face of both ubiquitous corporate advertisements and bland urban construction. Yet, it would have been impossible for a casual observer in Buenos Aires at any point during the three-month project to have experienced the final work MUTO. Rather, MUTO signified the appropriation of public space in order to produce a work of art for an audience viewing it virtually. ((Noteworthy is that Buenos Aires is highly tolerant of graffiti. The wall preparations for MUTO were legally produced. At the time of the writing of this article, the video has gone viral in various formats, garnering over nine million visits in its official YouTube incarnation alone. One may legitimately claim that witnessing the process of creating MUTO would have been aesthetically rewarding, even if its final form is only visible online. However, though not denying this claim, the essential point here is that the final work in its wholeness can only be experienced in its video format.))

An (apparently) different situation is the Internet documentation of graffiti art in public spaces, such as web sites like Art Crimes ( and 12ozProphet ( On such sites and blogs (and there are thousands), graffiti artists, taggers, and enthusiasts use photos and videos to document graffiti tags and masterpieces. Video documentation may even include “live” vandalism of a specific site. ((Developments of this kind include sites like Graffiti Archeology (, dedicated, according to author Cassidy Curtis, “to the study of graffiti-covered walls as they change over time. . .[utilizing] a time lapse collage, made of photos of graffiti taken at the same location by many different photographers over a span of several years.”)) Ostensibly, the documentation is meant as an indicator that refers to an actual, real-world production. However, this documentation becomes the only form visible to the expanded virtual audience of the graffiti practitioner. Hence, given the enormity of viewers reachable by online documentation versus the sometimes brief existence of illegal graffiti tags (before they are removed—”buffed”—by urban officials), the online form gains importance for its maker, even more than that of the actual real-world tag.

The shift in importance from the “real” physical object to its documented form is not new to the field of the visual arts. A popular instance is the documented work of environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy. His ephemeral, sometimes delicate outdoor creations (such as an spontaneously constructed icicle made to spiral around a tree trunk) occasionally remain unwitnessed in the “commons” of the wilderness. ((Goldsworthy has numerous permanent commissions as well, such as his Storm King Wall (2000) at the Storm King Art Center, New York.)) The greater public has come to appreciate such creations via Goldsworthy’s carefully staged photo-documentation of them, printed in elegant hardcover bound collections such as Passage (2007).

The documentation of Goldsworthy’s environmental art, given that the documented form in itself is aesthetically attractive (if not more than the actual work, given Goldsworthy’s methodical framing of his creations), engages the viewer to rethink the way in which he or she interacts with natural landscapes. Similarly, BLU’s MUTO may encourage a viewer to appreciate the modes in which bland urban landscapes can be reconfigured and utilized for aesthetic projects. The two result in a reciprocity between the viewer, the locations in which their works have been made, and the ensuing activity that their work inspires in the viewer. For example, the field of environmental art has been heavily inspired by Goldsworthy’s practice. Hence their work results in a critical transformation of the public’s consciousness.

Graffiti Tagging (Defined) and the Formation of Masculinity in Public Space

In the case of graffiti, the shift from public space to its documented form is, unlike Goldsworthy’s or BLU’s works, highly problematic, given graffiti’s aforementioned claims to public space’s improved visual aesthetic and its contrast to corporate advertisements. However, before continuing, it may be useful to clarify terminology.

BLU’s MUTO has been celebrated as street art, mainly because the preparatory work was created on street walls. For this reason it was in part used in the introduction to this essay. However, given its final video-formatted product, it is more appropriately considered film. The other highly documented, opposite pole of street art, is graffiti tagging. Tagging, in brief, is the practice of spray painting (or using a marker) a particular moniker (such as “SABER” or “TAKI 183″) in visible public spaces. The “masterpiece,” sometimes legally commissioned, is labor-and-material intensive, appearing often in the celebrated form of wall murals and on the side of freight trains. Graffiti masterpieces are in turn a subset of street art. There is much blurring between these aforementioned practices, both in the form of the actual work created as well as the individuals involved, creating challenges for a lucid analysis of the merits of the overall practices (e.g. a tagger may also make masterpieces; a street artist may be a former tagger; tags may be fairly elaborate; and a masterpiece may simply be a developed tag). For more specific examples, Shepard Fairey and Bansky are street artists, but not members of the graffiti community. Also, The City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program commissioned former tagger Stephen Powers to direct 50 legal public wall murals. ((The project is entitled “Love Letter” and is documented on ))

There is contention as to the artistic status of the tag, mainly because of its predominance as a form of vandalism despite its categorization under the umbrella of graffiti (and hence under the umbrella of art). The quickness of making the tag, in fact, is what allows it to be the premier illegal form of creation within graffiti culture, since masterpieces often require too much time to be made in visible locations. ((Logically, a masterpiece made in an illegal location is prestigious since the skill and timing involved are considerable. There have been instances in which stunning, large masterpieces have been removed by city officials (such as the largest of all, SABER’s massive Los Angeles river piece, in 2009), sparking anger in the graffiti community.)) This paper is principally concerned with tagging and the tagging community due to tagging’s illegal status, its quick performative nature, and the existing data on national demographics of the tagger community. (It is precisely the illegal nature of tagging that makes its production via the encouragement of an international virtual community problematic, to be discussed later.)

In order to clarify the issues around the documentation of graffiti tags, it is necessary to view the specific tag in the context of the whole of the tagger subculture. The tagger of this subculture, though, since his or her practice is illegal, works in clandestine, making any kind of broad-based assessment of the demographics of the tagging-specific community difficult. The national anti-graffiti organization Graffiti Hurts compiled information based on police arrest records in order to determine some key qualities of the group’s attributes. On Graffiti Hurts’ website and publications, it reveals that only 10 percent of tagging is gang-related (despite public conceptions), and that approximately 85 percent is made by males. Also, the age range is typically between 12-21, with the heaviest arrests of young suburban males between 12- and 19-years of age. Data on the makers of masterpieces is not available, although presumably it comprises a greater age spread given that it has a legal incarnation.

Young females, comprising only about 15 percent of the population of taggers, are not as attracted to the practice. ((From henceforth this essay will refer to taggers with the male pronoun due to this essay’s focus principally on the male community of taggers.)) This is not surprising, given some of the problematic locations and night hours frequented by young male taggers. Also, since quantitative studies about the tagging community are rare and difficult to make, it is customary to utilize anecdotes and perspectives of practicing taggers as well as to cite their statements on popular graffiti web sites. For example, SPAR ONE, the editor of the website entitled “@149st” and a practicing graffiti artist and tagger, writes of the status of female taggers and graffiti artists as follows:

In aerosol art culture women face many obstacles not encountered by men. The late hours and desolate locations in which most writing is done can be particularly dangerous for women. As with many male-dominated fields, the social atmosphere can be extremely harsh. Female writers are often subjected to all kinds of harassment.

In support of SPAR ONE’s statement, anthropologists such as Richard Lachmann, Ivor Miller, Tracy E. Bowen, and Nancy Macdonald made similar observations about tagging’s investment in masculinity. Sometimes embedded in graffiti tagging crews, these authors have found that the composition of the communities are not only overwhelmingly male but also invoke the rhetoric of masculine rites of passage. ((Although not a theme of this essay, the composition of tagging communities is ethnically diverse.)) Exploit and risk-taking are the key themes of young taggers seeking to “prove” their masculinity to their peers and the greater community by making their work in visible locations. Former graffiti taggers Jeff Ferrell and Robert D. Weide illustrate these attributes of the tagging practice in their 2010 City article “Spot Theory”:

Graffiti is not just art—it is also sport, and the fields of this sporting competition are the spots where graffiti is written. Great status is conferred on those writers who can scale the most dangerous structures the city has to offer—signs, billboards, rooftops and highway overpasses. Even greater status is conferred on those writers who can get away with painting graffiti where one is most likely to be caught doing so—major streets, highly trafficked thoroughfares, high on a sign where escape is impossible if detected. …Above all, graffiti writers seek recognition, and in order to get the recognition they crave, they need people to see their graffiti. Because of this, each act of writing graffiti involves a deliberate decision weighing visibility, location and risk. (50-51).

The importance of recognition and risk-taking belies the important psychological function of tagging in the context of masculinity. It is comprehensible by a simple hypothetical narrative. One may imagine that a young male, seeking confirmation for his gender identity, wishes to “prove” his manhood. ((Unlike womanhood and menstruation, manhood has no evident biological markings to signify its definitive arrival. Hence cross-culturally, societies have artificially constructed rites of passage in order to assist adolescents with their transition. In fact, the aforementioned anthropologists observe in graffiti tagging the structure of a rite of passage, although its lack of a finalizing phase of reintegration makes it problematic.)) The mainstream options for male proving grounds such as sports, academic achievement, and the military (also, incidentally, available to females) are not appealing for this type of male. This type is drawn to the visual sphere, such as the creative arts, but is instilled with asocial and deviant tendencies. ((It would seem that there is no relationship between the recent riots in Vancouver, Canada at the loss of the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins and graffiti. Yet, UTAH, “an internationally known graffiti writer from Queens, NY” (from UTAH’s website and blog, posted on June 22, 2011 images of the riots. Entitling the post “Full Contact Sports,” the images featured predominantly white males, apparently aged from low twenties to perhaps thirties, engaging with law enforcement officers. In particular, the males stomp atop a police vehicle, and one even attempts to light on fire the gas tank. UTAH comments, “Just got these awesome photos of last week’s riots in Vancouver in our inbox. …Viva la revolución”.)) He wishes, however, to engage in exploit and risk-taking behavior in order to demonstrate a rebellious form of machismo.

If we imagine an urban exploit that is life-risking, such as climbing onto the backside of a highway overpass sign, transgressing an enclosed security area, or jumping between the rooftops of privately owned buildings, we may witness the dilemma faced by a participant. If he is not caught by authorities, the general public will not be witness to his display. If he is apprehended, on the other hand, he faces the consequences of illegal deviant behavior. Hence, in the same manner that the serial killer wishes to claim credit for multiple slayings through the repetition of his mark on each of his victims, the youth creates an anonymous moniker—his tag—and leaves that visibly in the aforementioned locations.

The tag allows the youth to engage in deviant behavior while subsisting—possibly even flourishing—in mainstream society. This may be especially important if he is not only the often leisured American adolescent, but is performing emasculating social activities like part-time service-industry work. ((Ted Gregory of The Chicago Tribune, using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, wrote on June 6, 2010 that “about 33 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are in the labor force, meaning they are employed or looking for jobs. Thirty years ago, when teen employment was at its peak, almost 60 percent.” It is purely this paper’s speculation that some male youths may find service-sector work emasculating, in particular those driven to exploit-based tagging vandalism.)) He keeps the two identities separate like the literary figure of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or more appropriately the 20th Century popular culture figure of Batman/Bruce Wayne. Unfortunately, there has not been any comprehensive study to ascertain with which he identifies more (in other words, which he would consider the “actual”), nor to what extent his obligatory school studies or part-time work become a source of shame or indifference. Perhaps in school or work he is an outcast, or overlooked and ignored by his peers; as a tagger, he is able to retain his esteem and hence even cultivate a self-satisfied aloofness in the social sphere.

The Gendered Attribute of Public Space

Graffiti tagging is hence primarily a means of male gender identity formation, utilizing a peculiar combination of visual information, anonymity, and public space. Its focus upon public space is especially relevant in the last forty years (graffiti in its contemporary form is considered to have begun in the 1970s) for its young male population in its struggle for male identity. Public space, essential for the visibility of exploits, has been characterized by feminist thinkers (such as Betty Friedan, John Fiske, and Rachel Bowlby) as male-gendered as opposed to female-gendered private/domestic space. This is in part because socially “respectable” women in the preceding era were discouraged from being present in the public arena unless accompanied by a male. As feminism and other transformations of contemporary society earned women the rights to be independent in public space, traditional hegemonic male dominance necessarily receded. Though the process of equal rights and the real sense of female safety in the public sphere is still in evolution, there have been improvements in the empowerment of women and an erosion of male public space hegemony. ((Though Corporate America in its upper echelons (and culture) is still male-dominated, women have populated its ranks and have assumed positions of leadership. Women are members of the Armed Forces, a position unheard of a century ago. Also, women are able to be alone in public space without society assuming they are prostitutes, as was assumed of women unaccompanied by men in the 19th Century. Finally, respect for diversity has resulted in ad campaigns that depict empowered women; even if one were to consider this depiction illusory, it has an effect upon the psyche of an adolescent in his or her conception of society.)) Furthermore, as corporate advertisements and non-profit institutions seek to extend their brands to the entire population, public space has become populated with idealistic imagery that creates a pseudo-world of total gendered equality. The tag, then, not only represents the assertion of young men’s identity as risk-takers, it partially represents their rejection of the simulacra of attributes that public space today constitutes. This basic gendered quality of public space is typically overlooked in discussions about the evolution of graffiti.

In this vein, equally overlooked is the association between women and consumerism, documented in recent works such as Lizabeth Cohen’s monumental 2003 treatise The Consumer Republic. According to Cohen and other feminist authors, it is the appearance of the shopping mall—consumerism—that became the first place in which leisured women were able to be unattended (by males) while out in public. Coincidentally or not, part of the justificatory rhetoric of tagging is anti-consumerism and may imply also a further rejection of gender equality, as if consumerism itself is hence female-gendered. The market economy, in fact, has long occupied the thought of social theorists in the market’s tendency to reduce all consumers to a generalized type. ((For example, it is not in the interest of a market economy to be limited in its growth by ideological limitations such as sexism, racism, etc. This is its curiously progressive aspect. ))

Tagging, in its current form (since the 1980s), is a contemporary phenomenon. Graffiti enthusiasts claim that graffiti existed as far back as ancient Egypt and has always existed in some form (such as cave drawings). Yet, its radical formation as a pseudo-brand, its heavily young male subculture, and its use of mass-produced spray-paint (and marker) technology for the subversion of the technological modern city define a uniquely modern practice. Many changes in society from the last century to particular post-World War II market developments have laid the groundwork for contemporary graffiti: the anonymity of metropolitan life enabled urban youth to reduce the public to a generic concept (and an ideologically defined one); post-Industrial Revolution labor reforms created the category of the adolescent, consequently leisuring them in society’s idealistic defense of its preciosity; the coercive corporate marketing-propaganda machine and its use of advertisements, slogans, and billboards targeted teens as a new consumer group (before which teenagers were never considered a self-conscious consumer group); and, as was above argued, the erosion of male public-space hegemony through the empowerment of women created for male youth a new source of insecurity for their masculine identity. ((The precursors to graffiti subculture are the dandy and the boheme. In a similar fashion as graffiti practitioners, the dandy and boheme rejected some aspect of the dominant culture in a socially performative fashion. They were also assertions of masculinity in response to what was a new phenomenon in their time, namely urbanization.))

Finally, in terms of masculinity development, it is essential to emphasize the importance of law breaking. Even though contemporary theorists of masculinity seek to assert a new vision of the male as “generative” as opposed to the archaic “hegemonic” male, the traditional hegemonic conception of masculinity still dominates the youthful tagging community. Hence, confrontation with authority structures is part of its appeal. This is especially evident given that there are viable legal alternatives to tagging within the graffiti community that would also involve artistry and public space (its two supposed motivations). For example, ‘reverse graffiti’ involves making images by carefully removing (in aesthetic patterns) the artificially accumulated grime on urban walls. The result is often subtle monotone works that call attention to urban soot while transforming such surfaces by creative imagination. Mobyspray and similar practices allow for the projection of digitized imagery on public walls, or virtual digital overlays of real sites viewable only on web sites. Graffiti masterpieces are often legally commissioned, too. However, since none of these options violate the law, they lose the risk-taking edginess of vandalism that some adolescent taggers find so appealing.

The net effect upon the psyche of the greater public of anonymous taggers marking the urban landscape is what may be referred to (using Thorstein Veblen’s highly masculinist terminology from his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class) as the fear of the “horde.” The seemingly chaotic and random acts of vandalism (that are in actuality specifically and consciously results of youth targeting visible public space) give the appearance of a pre-urban, even uncivilized, “mob” movement in contemporary society. The public reaction of militarizing urban settings, racially profiling taggers as black gang members, and furiously working to remove graffiti productions, all make the graffiti subculture’s “barbaric” personality even more appealing to young male tagger initiates. ((The campaign against graffiti vandalism is arguably an unnecessary exaggeration. It is even questionable society’s designation of it as an illegal practice, a fact on which this article ultimately hinges. There are cities such as the aforementioned Buenos Aires that do not prohibit graffiti. The damage to public and private property is either minimal or severe, depending how one interprets the data and the alternatives to graffiti vandalism for young males vying for the demonstration of aggressive risk taking and exploits. Graffiti Hurts estimates that it amounts to around two billion dollars annually for graffiti clean-up in the United States. If, though, communities were to simply leave tags in their place instead of buffing them, this money could be spent elsewhere.
The financial cost of cleaning, however, is justified by the (disputed) Broken Windows hypothesis, advanced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, in the March 1982 article (entitled “Broken Windows”) in The Atlantic Monthly. Unlike anti-graffiti claims based on its removal costs, Wilson and Kelling argued that the proliferation of graffiti vandalism elevates the threshold for further vandalism in a community, creating a snowball effect in the loss of state control and safety. Whether the Broken Windows argument is correct or not, and whether or not communities are excessive in their expensive removal of tagging, such is the status of graffiti today and hence must be calculated in its overall appeal to male youth.))

One may wonder how youth are able to justify their violation of the law in their practice of graffiti vandalism. Instead of simple categorizations via the field of deviant psychology, it is more humanizing to explore the logic of the taggers within the context of their practice. Graffiti vandalism is justified by taggers based on both its challenge to advertisements as well as its status as art. The tagger’s attraction to public space was discussed above in terms of the gendered nature of public space and the historical evolution of the role of male to society. Whether a tag on a highway overpass sign legitimately challenges corporate publicity is questionable, but certainly “bombing” (placing a tag directly over an advertisement) a billboard poster is a direct statement. Yet, it is not the advertisements that are of issue for tagging. Graffiti culture’s criticism of them, though correct, is merely an ideological construct for having a legitimate publicly visible space to place a tag, the motivations for which have been discussed above. However, the conceit of tagging’s status as art requires clarification.

The Aesthetic Apology: The Tag as Performance Sign-Documentation

The arguments defending graffiti as an art form are more easily summarized and, in the case of tagging, necessarily rethought in its relationship to its documented virtual form. Firstly, in contrast to the quick tag, the graffiti masterpiece is created with consciousness of its formalist properties (line, color, composition, etc.). Its main qualities as a work of art are hence not always location-specific. It is arguably authentic to reproduce such works in online forums or book collections such as Alain Mariduena’s Graffiti Planet: The Best Graffiti from Around the World. The defense of graffiti as an art form is in part a result of the analysis of the formal qualities of the masterpiece, such as Lisa Gottlieb’s ponderous Graffiti Art Styles: A Classification System and Theoretical Analysis. ((All public art, in order to avoid the term “plop art,” is designed to be location-specific. Quality graffiti murals respond to the form, color, and line of the walls on which they are made as well as the perceptual field of the audience. Ultimately, one cannot make broad statements as to the artistic merits of graffiti murals (save that they are heavily concerned with formalist aspects, at best); it is the duty of art criticism, not the philosophy of art, to assess murals individually.))

One may easily compare the graffiti masterpiece to the work of Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy’s art takes advantage of the natural surrounds, using the materials for impromptu compositions. Similarly, graffiti masterpieces use the artificiality of intense spray paint color and specific wall textures in order to compose a work in an urban space. Its status as an art object is not for debate by philosophers, rather its success or failure within the parameters of graffiti aesthetics is for the judgment of the art critic. One such parameter may be that a successful work of graffiti art (and street art in general) could engage the viewer to wish to reclaim public space for a positive aesthetic experience in much the same way that Goldsworthy’s work has inspired countless environmental sculptors and enthusiasts. BLU’s video work is also successful in this regard.

In the terminology of the visual arts, the graffiti tag’s significance is not its formalist properties but as a sign-documentation of an unseen performance, like a carefully created footprint in the sand that refers to the efficacy of its invisible owner. The defense of tagging as an art form misplaces the skill of tagging under the practice of masterpieces. Tagging’s art is performative masculinity formation in which the performance itself is not seen, just its mark. The ultimate form of decadence of treating the tag as anything other than a signpost may be represented by Evan Roth’s digital graffiti blackbook ( and In Roth’s project, the hand movements of a tagger in the process of making a tag are projected seductively into an exaggerated black-and-white video abstraction by use of cameras on the taggers’ hands. Roth’s abstraction away from the specific location results in the focus purely on hand gestures. ((One may make similar blackbooks while attaching cameras to the hands of individuals in fields such as construction and cooking; nevertheless, the graffiti community celebrates his work as an example of the aesthetic nature of their practice. ))

The defense of graffiti-tagging-as-art is hence mistaken. Tagging’s art is a performative act of risk-taking and exploit purely for the purposes of risk-taking and exploit (e.g. a game hunter may take risks in facing prey by use of primitive hunting weaponry, giving a secondary purpose to his exploit in the form of sustenance derived from subsequently consuming the animal). As a claim to the status of art it therefore may violate the ethical norms of secular society. ((One may propose here the distinction between public space and sacred space as a clarification. The work of art occupies sacred space, since the arts belong to a sphere separate from the political and economic. Hence artwork in public spaces transform a location into the sacred. Hence arts existence, even if placed in public space, exists ‘above’ secular laws about public space. It is one of the many ways that societies unconsciously reason in their tolerance for the peculiar behavior of artists.)) Yet, contradictorily, its appeal as a performative is in part because it violates the ethical. Alongside dubious anti-advertising claims, tagging even more dubiously exploits the artistic status of graffiti masterpieces in order to justify its continued existence. The occasional illegal graffiti masterpiece, elaborate tag, and “bombing” of billboard advertisements (along with intellectual tendencies today to shy away from definitive categorizations) blur the distinctions in order to obfuscate the simple core of the practice.

Going Unnoticed: Public Blindness and the Shift to the Virtual

As a performative practice, audience is essential. The tagger documents his vandalism on the Internet to expand his audience. This may in part be an intuition of the 2006 public revelation of the results of the now-infamous selection attention test by Daniel J. Simons and Christopher Chabris. ((His reflections on his past work were published in 2010 in the book The Invisible Gorilla.)) Termed today “inattentional blindness” and “perceptual blindness,” Simons and Chabris’ findings highlight the problem of not seeing what actually exists directly within the perceptual field. This creates huge issues for the graffiti tagger, since supposedly a tag in a prominent location is there for its visibility. Hence even with high-profile spaces tagged, his (or her) work may go unnoticed; certainly for mainstream viewers its uniqueness is not appreciated. (It may be safe to claim that most mainstream viewers dismiss all graffiti vandalism as if it were a generic body of work by a single author, i.e. they are unable to differentiate one wild-style tag from another.)

Also, the tagger’s productions might be “buffed” or covered by some other means. The ephemeral nature of the tag requires either extensive production in many locations (in order to give the illusion of permanence and efficacy) or some other form of preservation. This encourages photographic documentation. Finally, since the tagger’s Jekyll side is not receiving affirmation from his immediate society for Hyde’s achievements, he is driven online for other means of legitimization. The documentation, though aiding in the extension of the duration of the tag, is ultimately for increased audience.

The tagger turns to the space, which is being viewed heavily today—the screen—in order to make his ((Here the pronoun “he” is used to refer to male taggers, the principle focus of this essay.)) work noticeable and also virtual-permanent. ((The desire for permanency arises from any of a multitude of reasons. I believe that it arises from the facility of recording the image of the tag with a microelectronic device and the subsequent ease of uploading it onto an online forum. The sign of the exploit endures. The tagger’s audience expands, as does his consequent motivation for tagging in the future. )) Perhaps he films himself while tagging a train, or evading authorities; the essential point is that he now has an expanded audience for his performance and found a more enduring space for his work long after it disappears in the actual “real” public space. Ironically, as authorities buff graffiti out of concerns to reduce its proliferation, the opportunity to produce more tags for a virtual documentation is actually enabled. In this fashion buffing, graffiti results in the opportunity for an extension of the virtual quantity ad infinitum. ((As part of the strict masculine honor system, taggers do not write over other existing tags. Hence, graffiti removal is actually helpful for taggers to continue their practice, since it frees up key public space locations for repeated tagging. ))

However, pro-graffiti websites (such as Art Crimes) are trafficked by individuals specifically interested in graffiti. It is highly unlikely that a non-graffiti enthusiast will frequent regularly such sites, which are visited by an international and anonymous virtual community. This goes against the claim of graffiti, such as might be justified as its presence on the inside of a subway train to impose itself upon the visual field of all subway users. The graffiti websites, therefore, depict works viewed only by a specific public. ((The tagger does not make “virtual tags” illegally on websites simply because he does not have access to their servers. He can climb over barbed-wire fences, evade police, and scale traffic signs, but he cannot hack a program. Posting on wikis would not constitute risk-taking exploit.)) This signifies that real, specific public spaces are being vandalized for an international, anonymous, virtual community.

The Hegemony of the Virtual

On January 30, 2011, Honk Vision posted on VIMEO a video by notorious graffiti artist LUSH called, “How To Do a Graffiti Masterpiece.” In LUSH’s (supposedly) humorous advice to the novice graffiti writer, he first explains to create one’s nom de plum (such as LUSH). More significantly, the next instruction (at 37 seconds) is to “create your shit-talking forums account.” His video shifts to a view of the forums (along with less relevant pornographic imagery). It is only afterward that “it is time to hit the streets.” (LUSH’s video went viral, subsequently featured on numerous blogs and forums).

LUSH’s video is indicative of the importance, if not hegemony, of the virtual, in that the forum documentation and identity is created before any graffiti is even produced. The online community and online moniker of the tagger create a new (if not the) motivation for tagging: the tagger does not tag to reclaim public space, bomb advertisements, or engage in an aesthetic art form, but tags principally for producing more work tags for his fellow forum members. His performance receives invigorating stimuli from the never-ending capacity of the virtual to assume his quantity of documented tags. His goal then becomes to populate the virtual realm with his tag performances, but must necessarily do this illegally in order to retain its edginess for his masculinity.

There has not been a study to assess the extent to which the online community (and online tagger persona or moniker) influences how much the tagger is then stimulated to produce more tagging, or even how many current practitioners were drawn to graffiti by way of web sites. Given the extent to which youth today mature within virtual space in a fashion difficult for previous generations to imagine, we may speculate that some taggers even vandalize public space purely for the possibility of sharing the documented form online. In such an instance (and always today to some extent), public space is becoming utilized by a virtual community neither as means to confront corporate advertisements, nor as an effort to transform aesthetically the urban landscape. If graffiti achieves this in some specific instances, it is accidental. The claims to do so remain merely ideological justifications. Public space is, therefore, becoming appropriated and vandalized for the psychological benefit and play of a secluded online community whose works remain mostly disregarded by the general public. The website Art Crimes offers approximately 500 links to active graffiti sites, and a basic search on for “graffiti tag” catalogs over 400,000 images. Such evidence is at best anecdotal but is nevertheless indicative.

The virtual spaces (websites) are frequented and maintained by graffiti enthusiasts and practitioners from around the world. The tagger hence no longer responds to his real, specific, spatially immediate community, but the sum effect of an international community of anonymous persona. The sites do not represent merely a uni-directional flow of real-world tag-to-documented format, but the reciprocity of stimulated production. Should a tagger “retire” from his practice, his online work will persist long after his tags have been buffed. It becomes an interminable cycle in which the civic buffing of tags assists, since it allows for the creation of more tags and hence more virtual documentations. The virtual realm of tagging is hence in the process of becoming hegemon over real public space. The real-world practice is continuously fortified and reproduced by the whole of its ever-expanding virtual presence. It remains to be seen what other possibilities arise from the graffiti writers’ allegiance to its virtual community, such as the intimidation and harassment of dissenters.

Works Cited

12ozProphet. 12ozProphet: Worldwide Graffiti Scholarship. 25 June 2011. Web. September 8, 2011.

Art Crimes – The Writing on the Wall – Graffiti Art Worldwide. Art Crimes, 3 Mar 2011. Web. May 8, 2011.

BLU. MUTO, 2007. Web. August 13, 2011.

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  • Julius Zsako

    I agree with the author: “The defense of graffiti-tagging-as-art is hence mistaken.” Unauthorized, uninvited tags are not an art form.
    Julius Zsako
    Author, DEFACING AMERICA – The Rise of Graffiti Vandalism