A Brief History on The "Art" of Tagging
Written by Kayleigh Ione Walker
Cueva de los Manos or ‘Cave of the Hands’ is a cave painting in Santa Cruz Province, Argentina. The painting consists of handprints made by our ancestors. The historical painting is traced back to the years 13, 000 and 9,000 B.C.E, making it the oldest form of tagging. For centuries humans have felt the need to leave our mark, and we will continue to leave our mark on places we have yet to go.
Tagging is a way of claiming a place or thing. A tag often depicts an individual by including a name, initials, or word, drawn in an aesthetically pleasing way. A tag is unique and what it contains varies depending on the person. Today, they are seen everywhere from subway stations to local burger joint restrooms. The number of them plastered around cities proves its relevance in pop culture today. Most places ban tags and graffiti because it is seen as a defacement of property. Due to the illegality of it, it has bad connotations.
For decades tagging has been a staple of street art. Its connection to the streets is believed to have started by teenagers in major cities during the 1960s- 1970s. It is unclear as to where the craze started, but it is believed to have originated in one of three major cities in America. The first instances of tagging in the streets came from Philadelphia, New York City, and Los Angles around the same time, making it hard to tell who the true pioneer of the art form was.
If you live in a major city, I am sure you have seen a marker tag at least once. Stickers that have a red border containing the words “Hello, my name is- “, with a blank space to write out a name. In 1969 it was common to stumble across one on the New York City subway with the name TAKI 183 written in the blank space. TAKI 183 is a street artist who allegedly started tagging by sticking these marker tags around NYC. He claims to have started it in 1967 but it only became well known in 1969.
In the mid-1960s, a young boy in Philadelphia got the name ‘King of the Walls’ because he was allegedly the first and by far the most well-known street artist in Philadelphia. Starting his journey by drawing out his nickname ‘Cornbread’ across the juvenile institution he was placed in and gained a lot of recognition in the jail from it. Because of the recognition and form to better his status; he went onto the streets and wrote out the name ‘Cornbread’ on any blank ‘canvas’ he could find. His name could be seen on brick walls and even an elephant. Stunts like these put the name ‘Cornbread’ on the map.
Lastly, although Los Angeles was never really a part of the debate on ‘who was the first’, LA gangs are still speculated to have been the founders of tagging as we know it today. Graffiti didn’t start in LA until the 1980s. However, tagging was seen well before then, when gangs used their name or a symbol to claim territory. This form of tagging has been present in LA since the mid-1960s. Although there are many theories as to who the first was, it is important to understand that all artists impacted how we view tagging today. If it weren’t for TAKI 183, Cornbread, and LA gangs, tags wouldn’t be as common as they are.
Tagging is often associated with the youth, meaning there is some motive behind it. A study was conducted by the University of Texas at Dallas, where Dr. Lynne Vieraitis (associate professor and program head of criminology) and Arthur Vasquez (criminology doctoral student at UT Dallas and senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas at Arlington) asked a group of young people their reason for tagging. The study concluded, “that the taggers paint graffiti to relieve boredom and stress, and gain recognition for their artistic talents.” Vasquez stated, “We all want to be heard or be recognized for something we did, and taggers are no different.”
When walking past well-known places it is common to see a person claim they were there. Sentences such as “Mike was here” and “Jessica wrote this” can be seen on walls near monuments in major cities. Maybe you have even seen the words “Swedes did this on the lion” carved on The Great Lion in Venice, Italy. These words can be traced back to the eighteenth century. The Swedes weren’t the only ones to have carved into the lion; “Young warriors carved the runes” is written out by Norwegians at a similar time. It is speculated that many of the inscriptions were written by Scandinavian Vikings or the mercenaries of the emperor in Byzantium. The reasons behind the inscriptions are undetermined.
Tags can be found all over the world, dating back to the Paleolithic period. We can prove that the idea behind leaving a tag is just a normal human behavior that people experience. Whether the behavior is harmful or not is debatable, but the act of tagging is nothing new and isn’t just done by reckless teenagers.
Since I am a part of the main demographic that is known for tagging, I reached out to my peers to get a better insight into the culture and stigma that surrounds tagging amongst the Berlin youth. Based on the responses I got, tagging is a way of expression that is often surrounded by stigma because of its criminalization. Older groups of people such as parents or grandparents often view the art form as reckless, rebellious, and linked to what is considered criminal behavior.
It is believed that tags display an individual’s expression; like any art piece that can be found on a canvas. One student stated: “Art isn’t illegal. Art galleries aren’t illegal. Why should this be?”. Tags are also used to claim a place. Students will often tag places that they are connected to. These places would often include spots near their school or spots where they hang out with friends. There is also the case where there isn’t much of a meaning behind a tag. Just the idea of leaving a mark on a place is meaningful enough.
Many claim that a few paint strokes don’t cause any harm and therefore shouldn’t be illegal, however, if that were the case for everyone then laws against it wouldn’t have been put in place. Many large cities have gangs, and like the LA gangs of the 1960s, tags are used to define gang territories or to threaten others. Not only does it show criminal activity, but it is also believed to attract criminal activity. In the eyes of the authorities, this can be seen as endangerment to residents living in majorly tagged areas and a gateway to anonymously spread hate speech.
Those in the tagging community would say, it is an outlet for many to show creativity and individuality. A high school student I spoke with said that tagging and graffiti shouldn’t be illegal however, if it were legal, historical monuments and other structures of importance are put in danger of defacement. This is where the discussion becomes controversial, as there is either going to be a lack of expression from the art community or places put in danger of defacement.
Luckily, the street art community has been heard and therefore the public is granted legal walls to paint on throughout many cities. This way people can express themselves in authorized areas, limiting any negative outcomes that come with tagging and graffiti.
After diving into the culture behind tagging I felt inspired to make my own tag that way I can leave my handprint on places I have yet to see (legally of course). When it comes to creating a symbol that reflects yourself just do what feels right and don’t worry about imperfections. Go out into the world, find legal walls near you, and do what humans have been doing for hundreds of years; leave your mark.
Kayleigh I. Walter is an American who has spent the last ten years in Germany. She is currently in her sophomore year of high school in Berlin. She can often be found in the dance studio in her free time. She has hopes to eventually earn money from her art and designs.