On tagging

I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks, and on my first night back in Melbourne I watched the ABC’s broadcast of The Eternity Man, a filmed version (directed by Julien Temple) of an opera which has been performed in London and Sydney, among other places. The music is by Jonathan Mills, with a libretto by the late poet, Dorothy Porter (information about The Eternity Man here).

The Eternity Man tells the story of Arthur Stace, whose name will be familiar to many Australian readers of this blog as the man who chalked the word ‘Eternity’ in meticulous copperplate script on Sydney’s streets, walls and buildings for decades. The identity of the word’s author was for many years unknown, and the reality of Stace’s existence – a formerly homeless alcoholic who was almost certainly schizophrenic – came as a shock to many who had speculated as to what individual might have such perfectly flowing ‘penmanship’. Stace’s handiwork, although initially decried as ‘graffiti’, was eventually recast as an idiosyncratic aspect of Sydney’s identity, with this process of redefinition reaching its apotheosis, long after Stace’s death in 1967, in Sydney’s Millenium celebrations for the arrival of the year 2000, when the Harbour Bridge was lit up by thousands of fireworks spelling out the word ‘Eternity’ in Stace’s handwriting.

The Eternity Man continues this investment in the figure of Stace, representing him as a melancholic, enigmatic loner, hallucinating his memories and anxieties around Sydney, calming his fears and uncertainties through the repeated inscription of one single word.

While watching the film, it struck me that what Stace was doing was ‘bombing’ the city – the word ‘Eternity’ is like a tag, written over and over, and Stace’s nocturnal wanderings and indiscriminate interest in any urban surface was a version of going ‘all city’, covering urban space with the author’s tag. A few decades ago, when Stace was writing ‘Eternity’ all around Sydney, his actions were regarded as graffiti. But now, it would be hard to find any contemporary examples of his activities being described in this way. What prevents Stace being viewed as a ‘graffer’ and the word he wrote being thought of as his tag?

Well, of course, an obvious answer would be that Stace clearly didn’t belong to any kind of crew and was not interested in graffiti culture. Well, yeah, of course not. But that doesn’t really answer the question why it is that a clear separation is now being made between Stace’s writings and ‘graffiti’.

That Stace is to be regarded as a kind of artist (rather than as a ‘graffer’ or as a ‘vandal’) is signalled to the spectator through the film’s construction of a thoroughly aestheticised frame for Stace’s compulsion: when he is shown walking through the city at night, significant events from twentieth century history are projected onto walls around him, in a manner that evokes the artwork of Shimon Attie (if you’re not familiar with Attie’s wonderful artwork, there’s a nice summary with some examples here). The opera thus constructs him as eccentric and possibly mentally ill, but certainly not as a criminal.

And watching The Eternity Man got me thinking about others who write words on the city walls but who are not portrayed in mainstream culture as enigmatic but admirable figures. The copperplate script used by Stace is in many ways as exacting and as particular a way of writing as the calligraphy used by taggers, who often spend a great deal of time refining and perfecting their signatures. Despite the complexity of their lettering and despite the time put into the development of a tag, tagging is certainly the aspect of graffiti which tends to be the most reviled. It is often called ‘scrawl’ or ‘scribble’; it is condemned for being illegible. Taggers are similarly criticised: some news articles compare taggers to dogs urinating on lampposts, and taggers often get called ‘vandals’.

So it’s interesting to imagine taking the admiration directed at Arthur Stace and his copperplate script and turning it towards the effort it takes to develop and execute a good tag. A few years ago, Melbourne artist Xero wrote a piece called ‘In Defence of Tagging’ which put forward a detailed argument as to why ‘putting up a tag is not mindless. It represents imagination, dedication to an artform, and the willingness to take a risk in a public place to achieve an aesthetic outcome (even if it is one that we don’t happen to like)’.

In Xero’s view, all tags, even if some don’t look aesthetically appealing, are worthy of our thoughtful consideration, because their very existence says something about the author’s commitment to making an image (out of letters), in public space, often at some risk to themselves (of injury or arrest). I think there’s a lot of validity to that argument, but I also want to mention here some particularly interesting tags.

For example, Doug Pray’s documentary Infamy showcases Earsnot tagging around New York City, in broad daylight, unfazed by passing pedestrians.

Then there are ‘celebrity’ tags, put up by famed writers such as Twist/ Barry McGee(whose tag is elegant and elaborate) and Neckface (whose tag’s status derives both from a certain mystique around its author and from the vast number of places it has been inscribed).

You can see Neckface’s tag towards the top of this image (taken at the tagged-all-over Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco):


The work of Melbourne’s most prolific taggers, the 70K crew, can be seen in this image (taken by Ben Pederick):


A decade ago in Melbourne, anti-consumerism slogans were written around Melbourne, accompanied by the author’s tag in the chunky lettering of a thick black marker pen: ‘SHUT UP AND SHOP’.

There are of course stencils which act like tags, so that the spectator, on seeing a particular icon, might recognize the image as a kind of signature (Banksy’s rats have this function; so do the robots stenciled by Ha Ha in Melbourne).


And some tags may be calligraphically audacious, unconventional, or simply pleasing for their symmetry and form. Here’s one of my favourites, taken in a street near where I work:


I don’t think anyone is going to be composing an opera about any of these artists any time soon (sadly), but perhaps looking at the incredible heterogeneity found within the apparently homogeneous category of the tag will contribute to a conversation about what tagging means – both to those who do it and to those who look at it.

1 comment so far

  1. miso on

    i’ve always wondered about australians embracing the eternity tag.

    Have you heard of Bill Daniel’s documentary about the legends of American hobo/train graffiti? Drifters or railway workers that would chalk tens of thousands of their tags/signature images on freight trains, a similar sort of tradition to Arthur Stace.

    It’s called “Who is Bozo Texino?”, and I’ve finally found a copy in Metropolis, if you’re interested. It’s accompanied by a book called ‘Bill Daniel’s Mostly True’, Barry McGee drew the cover and has a few pages of his own chalk drawings on freight trains in it.

    You’re welcome to borrow either if you’re interested.

    Hope all is well,
    x x.

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