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Modern Art & Tagging

‘Tag’, used as a noun means a name on the street; as a verb it means to write a tag.

It is a basic human right to have a name. And names are in part poetry, as well as, part magic. There hasn’t been enough written about the artistic and poetics of tags – Psalm first impressed me for the poetry of the word chosen, both in the biblical references, as well as, the two sets of constants bracketing a single vowel.

Think about those big blockbuster exhibitions at the NGV where the artist’s signature is enlarged as a logo, think about all the brand names on t-shirts, trucker caps, etc. that are part of the contemporary world. Think about all this and you find it is not surprising that people want to tag everywhere.

Considering the artistic value of a tag, as calligraphy, as a combination of letters, as the cool status that the name implies.

The artistic history of the tag along with the importance of the artist’s signature – is an important factor in contemporary art. Were Duchamp’s signatures essentially tags? He applied his signature to various objects, not only to his readymades, ordinary objects transformed into art. Duchamp also signed restaurant murals and other things joking about the transformative power of his signature.

And there is a connection between the tag on the street and the European avant-garde tradition. The connection is Brion Gysin.

“Gysin’s final work, completed less than a year before his death, was a ten-panel painting entitled Calligraffiti of Fire (1985), a reworking of an idea first tackled in a small accordion notebook from 1961, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York… Indeed it is not difficult to interpret a work like Calligraffiti as an immense tag, a signature “across the sky,” in Burrough’s words…” (Laura Hoptman Brion Gysin – Dream Machine, Merrell, 2010, New York, p.65)

Calligraffiti is not an isolated work in Gysin’s art and was influential on Keith Haring. Gysin’s influence on the Keith Haring connects street art with the European avant-garde back to Surrealism. Laura Hoptman in Brion Gysin – Dream Machine argues that Gysin’s calligraphic art, although influenced by his experience with Japanese and Arabic script is simply his initials: ‘BG’ endlessly repeated.

So next time you consider a tag (in joy or anger) consider these words of Brion Gysin; “I may write only what I know in space: I am that I am.”

(For more about the relationship between graffiti and modern art read my post Modern Artists & Graffiti.)

Tags @ Project Melbourne Underground

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

11 responses to “Modern Art & Tagging

  • urbanmonk

    There is a little side alley in Moonee ponds that is neglected by council graf cleaners as it is not seen by anyone really and it is like an art work in itself with the unintentional patterns and and colour relationships created by possibly years of tags that have been laid over each other

  • CDH

    It’s interesting, but I think it’s hard to argue that there’s anything more in tagging beyond “I’m here”. Perhaps there’s some aesthetic appeal in the calligraphic aspect, but I think it’s only in the most minor form…
    Yes, branding and logos infiltrate every aspect of contemporary consumer culture but it’s one of the most empty and depressing aspects of our culture. That tags are just another form of this branding, doesn’t elevate them to art, it debases them to just another form of pointless advertising that litters our community.
    When Duchamp goes around signing light posts and other objects in the street, the context of his art philosophy elevates the action to a conceptual art form. It’s the context that makes it art; art isn’t just about what final products that gets made, it’s also about the circumstances in which it’s made. Although it’s very interesting to juxtapose, I don’t think that conceptual art argument is transferable to tagging because it’s missing that contextual element that makes the action original or clever. When FMC tag my local train station, I don’t think they’re trying to reanswer the question ‘what is art?’, I think they’re trying to get up and elevate themselves in the subculture.
    Interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Consider again the words of Brion Gysin; I may write only what I know in space: I am that I am.

      What is depressing about the branding and logos in contemporary consumer culture is that people wear them, that their identity is consumed within a brand logo and that they aren’t proudly wearing their own logo or tag or identity. Isn’t the fundamental human right to a name, to a personal identity and to be recognized by that name. The horror of not having a recognized identity drives some people to tag, as it drives others to pursue recognition in different ways.

      Duchamp signed a lot of things in his life – sometimes his signature was part of the art, sometimes partially art and sometimes it wasn’t art at all. I think that tagging falls in this range too.

    • The Bearded one

      I have always believed tagging to be closer to litter than it is to art. In talking with my students (some of whom were involved with “taggers”) about this topic, they had many views. Some said it was a form of self-expression however they said it was like a dog urinating on a tree. It is to mark their territory and it is as simple as that.
      The dog is expressing itself, it is just the manner in which it is expressing itself is not always desirable. it tries to express itself anywhere it can and as often as it can.
      The difference between tagging and street art lies within the purpose of its creation.

  • CDH

    Yes people have a right to a name, but why does this make it art? Is a conference name tag then art? Is a McDonalds logo on a disposable paper bag also art? I don’t think any of these things are art. I think they’re at best design. They’re missing a central concept or an intention to create art or an understanding of art history or any of the other hallmarks that you can point to, to say something is art-like. (I also don’t think a lot of street art is really art. I think it along with tagging should more accurately be called street design).

    Lots of things can form a person’s identity like consumer choices or their actions. If writing my name is art, as an expression of my identity, then surely these things are also art: refusing to give money to a beggar, helping a friend move, buying a Paris Hilton CD. They express my identity also, so everything becomes art.

    I think there are many aspects of consumer culture that are more depressing than just external brands that usurp people’s identity.

    I’m really enjoying this conversation. Interested to hear what you think.

    • Mark Holsworth

      I wanted to show the connections between modern art and tagging – I wasn’t trying to argue that all names, signatures and logos are art. The connections are not enough to make something art.

      The repetition of the name like a magic spell trying to evoke power for that identity has become a trick so old but some artists can still make it work. Saw a photo of a recent piece of gallery ‘street art’ where the artist’s tag had been repeated over and over forming an image in itself.

      Leading on from the nexus of a person’s identity and art many contemporary artists create art around these everyday choices and activities (following on from Duchamp’s use of the legalistic aspects of an artist signing something as art).

  • CDH

    Are there really connections between modern art and tagging? When Taki 183 started tagging NYC, was he influenced by Marcel Duchamp or is this some other sociological phenomenon that might have happened even if modern art never existed?

    It occurs to me that the question of whether tagging is art or not is defunct. That’s a classification system and you can define what ever you want to be art. The question should be: is it good art or not? I say no, because I think it lacks anything substantive. A self portrait can be incredibly evocative, but I’ve never made a connection with a tag beyond a sense of recognition when I know the author.

    • Mark Holsworth

      Given the connection between Haring and Gysin there has to be a some connection between modern art and graffiti, but I’ll admit it is not great but still worth noting for the history of street art. Has anyone asked Taki 183 what he knew about Duchamp or Warhol?

      Certainly the calligraphy of tags has improved in recent decades – some tags like “Happy” and “Paws” (with a dot paw print) I have found amusing. The poetry and art of a name/tag will never be great art because names are too short but it is still worth noticing the aesthetics and history of minor cultural phenomena.

      Thanks CDH for drawing out some more of my thoughts on this topic.

    • Ed

      @CDH “it lacks anything substantive. A self portrait can be incredibly evocative, but I’ve never made a connection with a tag beyond a sense of recognition when I know the author.”

      I find your statement interesting and a little sad. You can see different things in a persons tag the same why you’d identify a brush stroke or any other line making by an artist. The amateurs will render soul-less uninteresting work, but a master will leave a little something to digest with each mark.

      Of course a tag can never compete with a portrait, however, a tag created illegally is a moment of honesty. Those who do have a good tag (even if they are rare) give you glimpse, in a mark that took mere seconds, as to their person.

      That’s why some of your ‘street art’ idols still go out tagging, even once they’re given up on other illegal elements, to keep that feeling of unpretentious honesty that comes from making a mark that you cannot rescind.

      I will never try to convince people to like or even accept tags, i know few ever will because tags mirror our society in such an honest way it’s too bitter a pill to swallow. We don’t want to see ourselves as a society that is largely a painful, unsympathetic, uncaring mess. Oddly though, that’s it’s artistic proposition, to provide a daily reminder of how little we’ve valued eachother,

  • Fitzroy Flasher

    Brilliantly laid out, well handled and insightful. What is in a name ? What is not !!!

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