Archive for the ‘Tagging’ Tag
If you live in inner-city Melbourne, you’ll have grown accustomed over the last few years to seeing ‘Dick Nose’ or ‘DN’. These words and initials have been written repetitively, obsessively, on walls, door frames, tram stops, bins – any and every urban surface. Sometimes dozens or even hundreds would appear over the course of a night’s bombing.
A couple of weeks ago, the walls of Fitzroy were covered with the words ‘R.I.P. Dick Nose’, to mark the death of an individual who has, over the last few years, made such an impact on the surfaces of the city.
No doubt many did not appreciate his work. No doubt it’s possible to criticise the aesthetic of his tagging as lacking any skill, driven instead by the bomber’s desire for quantity over quality, acreage over calligraphy. No doubt many were irritated by his repeated writing on house walls and fences, causing residents who might not be fans of graffiti bombing to spend many hours painting out his work. Irrespective of such criticisms, Dick Nose was a distinctive part of inner-city Melbourne, marking the surfaces of the city in his own way: not a ‘pretty’ or easy to like part of ‘street art’, but a significant one nonetheless, and his death is a sad conclusion to one form of urban intervention.
I recently posted here about a number of artworks around Fitzroy and Clifton Hill featuring a figure throwing playing cards into the air, accompanied by the text ‘be free’.
As part of that post, I included a photograph of a very fresh looking ‘Be free’ artwork, at the entrance to an underpass in Clifton Hill, and on the day that I photographed it, the council graffiti removal van was parked nearby: I commented that I hoped it was not there to paint over this artwork.
Well, it wasn’t, not that day at least.
‘Be free’ stayed at the entrance to the overpass, and attracted some tagging, which then attracted some commentary of its own:
I’m indebted to Lorraine, a reader of this blog, who sent me this photograph, commenting to me in the email, ‘Not erased as you feared but tagged. It somehow works.’
Indeed, the placement of the tag somehow connects with the image, even though it covers over many of those gorgeous playing cards. One passerby felt perhaps that the tag did not work well with ‘Be free’, and wrote bluntly ‘this tag is brainless’ next to it – so that the site became a series of layers of significations.
But not for long. Lorraine emailed me this today, having taken it three days ago. Opening the email and viewing the photograph was a strange experience for me, because I had already walked past the underpass this morning, to find this:
Blankness. Fresh paint, no doubt applied by an assiduous graffiti removal van.
Was it the presence of the tag and the subsequent commentary on the tag that attracted the attention of the graffiti removalists? Or were the artwork’s days numbered, as testified by the presence of the graffiti removal van two weeks ago – perhaps it was just working its way around the locality and was always going to paint over ‘Be free’, no matter whether it was tagged or not.
I can’t help but feel sad for its disappearance. It fitted the site so perfectly. It must have made many people smile – those playing cards! Magnificent composition. I hope that more are being affixed to a wall somewhere very soon.
Back in 2008, I posted an entry about the newly introduced Graffiti Prevention Act here in Victoria… The State Government created that Act as part of its ‘get-tough’ stance on graffiti: the Act expands the definition of graffiti (so that more activities are now classified as graffiti), gives the police greater powers in responding to individuals they suspected of writing graffiti (increased powers of search and seizure, for example), and gives powers to councils to enter properties in order to remove graffiti without requiring the property owner’s consent (previously that was impossible).
It also created a raft of new and harsher penalties for those convicted under its provisions, and was constructed so that individuals facing a charge under the Act would be likely to pay an on-the-spot fine rather than try to contest a charge through the system (and in ensuring that on-the-spot fines were the preferable option for individuals facing a charge you could almost say that the Act engages in a bit of revenue-raising, like parking fines, for the State).
Contesting charges was made harder by virtue of the Act reversing the burden of proof so that anyone suspected of being a graffiti writer has to convince the police officer that they are carrying, say, an aerosol can for legitimate purposes rather than for writing graffiti. (Previously, and in relation to most offences rather than ones involving the possession of drugs, police officers had to actually do some detective work and ensure that they have evidence proving that the person charged had committed the offence.)
Back in 2008, I commented that it was likely that the Act would increase the number of individuals being criminalised by the system, and, since it facilitated police reliance on stereotyping in relation to who might be a graffiti writer, would have a disproportionate effect on young people. At the time I was writing, police officers were being trained in the implementation of the Act, and there was no information about how they were going to put it into operation. But now, thanks to an article in The Age newspaper recently, we can finally get a sense of what the police are doing with their new powers.
And the news is not good: what they are doing is more or less as I predicted, at least according to the article, ‘Graffiti tags help police put names to offenders’, by Andra Jackson in The Age on 22 December. The article describes a police operation, apparently in one municipality of Melbourne (Kingston) rather than city-wide or statewide, in which police have ‘raided the homes of 53 teenage suspects’ over the last year. The Act gives police the power to apply to a magistrate for a search warrant ‘when they have reasonable grounds to suspect’ that the individual has been writing graffiti. In the resulting raids, police have taken possession of aerosol cans, sketchbooks in which tags are practiced, and any other item which has been tagged.
In the article, the author states that the police ‘acted on intelligence’ to carry out the raid. I presume this means they obtained sufficient information to go before a magistrate and get a search warrant. It’s not clear how much information a magistrate would require before granting a warrant but if one year results in 53 warrants being granted in this one municipaility, I’m thinking that the local magistrates aren’t being overly strict with their interpretation of the Act).
The article doesn’t go into details of what actually happened to these 53 teenagers, but simply says that ‘usually’ they are given a community-based order by the Childrens Court. (Subsequent offending under the same Act will result in being sent before the Magistrates Court where higher penalties will apply.) So it would appear that one of my speculations about this Act was pretty accurate: would these 53 individuals have been brought before a court prior to the inception of the Act? Maybe some, but I would doubt that all of them would have, and so the Graffiti Prevention Act is proving to be a clear instance of what in criminology is called ‘net-widening’, where people who would otherwise not have been at risk of acquiring a criminal record and facing punishment within the system are now included within its ambit.
In terms of my other prediction – that the Act would facilitate the steroetyped targeting of young people – well, that seems to be coming true as well. This particular police operation was directed at two groups of people: the first involves teenagers, as already mentioned (because no-one other than teenagers ever does graffiti, right??), and the other is retailers who sell spray paint to teenagers. This other part of the police operation even involved sending under-18 year olds posing as would-be graffers into shops to attempt to buy aerosol paint during one week in December. Any retailer who sold paint to the kids was arrested. According to the article, 24 shops were approached, and ‘half willingly sold the students paint cans and other tools’. Throughout the last year, 120 retailers were charged with 1310 offences of this type. The penalty is an on-the-spot fine of $234 (hello!), and any subsequent offence sees the retailer in the Magistrates Court facing a $2000 fine. But even though this second group involves retailers, what’s striking is that the concern is with retailers who sell paint ‘and other tools’ to under-18 year olds, meaning that this issue has acquired its currency only because it relates to graffiti by young people. And it’s in this way that the Act is proving to be a powerful and flexible tool in the criminalisation of young people and others associated with their (illicit) activities.
It’s interesting that there’s been so little information until now about how the Act has been used since its implementation. I would very much like to know what is being done by the police in other parts of Melbourne and Victoria. It’s possible that perhaps the Act isn’t being used to criminalise more and more young people – but, I have to say, I doubt it. The State Government created the Act for exactly these purposes (against the advice of many individuals and groups), and it looks, sadly, as though the Act is doing what it was made for.
It’s been a while since I have been able to write any entries – many apologies. I am trying to finish a book on cinema and have entered what is hopefully the last few months of that process. So I have my head down, working hard on that, and that means there’s a bit less time in the day at present.
But I did want to note what’s happened in Cheyene Back’s appeal against the sentence which was imposed upon her after she was caught tagging the outside wall of a cafe in Sydney, as previously written about in this blog. A magistrate in the Sydney Local Court had sentenced her – in a total rush of blood to the head – to a three month prison term. She appealed against this to the District Court and Judge Greg Hosking reduced her sentence to a twelve-month good behaviour bond with no conviction recorded. He commented that the previous sentence did not take into account the fact that terms of imprisoned are intended to be imposed only as a matter of last resort.
All good, yes? Well….. not quite. Judge Hosking said that it was unusual in the extreme to impose a prison sentence on a young woman with no prior record for the crime of putting graffiti on a wall – “as serious as that matter undoubtedly is”. The key issue for Judge Hosking, then, is the age and prior record of Back, rather than the issue of whether or not imprisonment is an appropriate sentence for writing a tag on a wall (and we are not talking about ‘bombing’ the city of Sydney with hundreds of tags, but rather a single tag written on a wall).
In case anyone might interpret his reduction of Back’s sentence as a wildly pro-graffiti move, Judge Hosking commented: “I’m not condoning what she did for a moment. People in Sydney are sick of graffiti, there’s no doubt about it”.
And Greg Smith, Opposition spokesperson for Justice, leapt into the media fray by adding his two cents’ worth: he thought it would be unfortunate if Judge Hosking’s reduction of the sentence meant that others were not deterred from ‘defacing property’. As The Age reported, when Mr Smith was asked if Back should be behind bars, he said: “Personally, I think she should. I think graffiti is a very serious offence. I understand that the culture hasn’t been to [imprison offenders] and we’ve got to change that culture, otherwise our city is just going to be … an eyesore.”
I know much ink has already been spilled (or many keyboards tapped on) in relation to this case, so I just want to say this. It’s amazing how graffiti can ‘press the buttons’ of – what would you call it? – ‘mainstream culture’ or ‘the dominant order’ or whatever. Clearly, the idea of a girl tagging a wall is irritating or infuriating to such a degree that both a relatively senior judge and a politician can feel able to comment that they would like to see her in prison rather than risk her (or others) tagging the walls of the city.
Two things: first of all, prisons are full. Why add to their overflowing population by sending Cheyene Back or any other graffiti writer there? Second, it is now well-documented that imprisonment can have hugely negative impacts on people’s lives – in fact, in the case of women, it would appear that imprisonment affects the mortality rate of women who have been to prison. So why do these powerful individuals – a judge, a politician – feel so comfortable saying that they would like to put this young woman in prison? What is it about tagging that drives out both reason and reasonableness?
The previous entry was about some apects of social attitudes to tagging; however, it didn’t mention one of the most important aspect of how people think about tagging – that it constitutes a crime.
Precisely which crime depends upon the jurisdiction you are in. In Victoria, it could fall under the Summary Offences Act, or if you are caught carrying something like a marker pen or a spray can, you might be prosecuted under the new Graffiti Prevention Act (see my previous post in September 2008, called ‘Clamping down’). Some jurisdictions have graffiti-specific legislation, like Victoria’s new laws, while others prosecute tagging and other graffiti activities under more generic headings.
But of course the thing is that calling tagging (or any other graffiti-related activity) a crime sets off a whole series of consequences. First of all, it categorises the activity as something that ‘society’ should be concerned about, should condemn, and should try to prevent. Next, and directly following on from that, it perm its the involvement of the police and other crimino-legal agencies and institutions, and authorises them to ‘respond’ to graffiti. Relatedly, it allows councils to create local laws which authorise the removal of graffiti (consider the fact that councils are compelled to have ‘graffiti management plans’, mainly because graffiti is considered criminal, but not ‘public urination reduction plans’, or ‘bag snatching abatement plans’). Subsequently, if an individual is discovered engaging in a graffiti-related activity, such as tagging, by these crimino-legal agencies (most likely the police), then the categorisation of tagging as ‘criminal’ means that they can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Once that’s done, then further consequences follow: an on-the-spot fine, perhaps, or an appearance at the Childrens or Magistrates Court.
Many people assume that when individuals get prosecuted under laws prohibiting graffiti-related activities the punishments available are not harsh. Some might assume the penalties are ‘lenient’. (After all, it’s only a property crime, right? It’s not as if we are talking about interpersonal violence.) Others might say that the available penalties are ‘not harsh enough’ (and would argue that the effects of property crimes accumulate such that their overall effects are considerable).
So perhaps it’s useful to be reminded that the punishments are not ‘lenient’ or ‘not harsh enough’. A couple of days ago, an 18-year old girl, Cheyene Back, in Sydney was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for writing on a wall in a cafe. (Check out here what the Everfresh boys had to say about this. And click here to read a thoughtful opinion piece about the case by Kurt Iveson.)
According to one news report (thanks for sending the link, Noah!), she wrote her ‘nickname’ (which I presume means her tag) on what’s described as the ‘public wall’ of the Hyde Park Cafe. I’m not sure what ‘public wall’ means – is it the outer wall, or does it mean something else? ‘Public’ wall sounds like ‘legal’ wall, but given that the action led to her being ‘caught’ with ‘a black texta at the scene’, that surely can’t be right. (Perhaps someone from Sydney who knows the Hyde Park Cafe could enlighten me as to what the ‘public wall is…)
Whatever it is, Cheyene has been convicted of the offence of ‘intentionally destroying or damaging property’, and she will go to jail as a result. And all through the chain of consequences set up by the categorisation of the act of writing one’s name on property belonging to another as ‘criminal’.
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.