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Language boundaries and discourse stability: 'tagging' as a form of graffiti spanning international borders.

The "thou" is older than the "I."

- Friedrich Nietzsche

There is nowhere anything lasting, neither outside me, nor within me, but only incessant change. I nowhere know of any being, not even my own. There is no being. I "myself" know nothing and am nothing. There are only "images": they are the only thing which exists, and they know of themselves in the manner of images ... I myself am only one of these images.

- J. G. Fichte

Nietzsche's observation concerning the "recentness" of the "I," the concept of an individual, coupled with Fichte's struggle with nihilism captures one of the important themes of the postmodern age (Best & Kellner, 1991, p.viii). In other terms, the individual, though goaded toward self-discovery, is at the same time unable to arrive at any permanence, center, or "essence" of self. However, Fichte claims that one activity in which individuals may find a sense of permanence is through imaging.

Perhaps the presence of graffiti on the walls of our cities, cities that increasingly remind their inhabitants that the "thou" is not only older than the "I" but more powerful, depicts the struggle articulated by Fichte (see Best & Kellner, 1991, p.viii). That is, graffiti and especially "tagging," a type of graffiti examined in this study, is a unique form for declaring an imaged "I" in an age of incessant and often meaningless change. The graffitist can express individualism and gain permanence through a discourse that features uniquely created images.

To further articulate and capture the coupled notions of Nietzsche and Fichte for a postmodern age, perhaps the following description will be helpful. If Descartes' dictum "I think, therefore I am" captured the basis of the enlightenment, and "I feel, therefore I am" sums up certain modern tendencies, perhaps "I tag, therefore I am" speaks for a segment of the postmodern world. Taggers may avoid propositional statements like Descartes'; nonetheless, their writings merit interpretations and offer fertile text for analysis.

In this essay, we examine the graffitist's expression of individualism in a form of "tagging" as featured in various international urban centers. A question that guides the focus of our inquiry is "what features, both in content and form, characterize tagging as it appears spanning international language boundaries?" We maintain that tagging is an international discourse of individualism that crosses international borders both physically and discursively.


Interpreting graffiti has attracted individuals as diverse as entrepreneurs and sociologists. Some have labeled graffiti as illegal activity which is ultimately destructive in nature (Lachmann, 1988, p.229), while other individuals from similar groups view graffiti as a creative art form that merits analysis for a variety of reasons (Raymond, 1989; Blake, 1981; Becker, 1963). Whether graffiti is seen as crime or art, it is, nonetheless, a human product and a form of communication. As a form of human communication, graffiti offers the opportunity for interpretation and, potentially, insight into its meaning (Scheibel, 1994; Harvey, 1990; Hebdige, 1979).

A new form of graffiti called tagging which is the focus of this study is particularly fertile ground for a variety of interpretative inquiries in that it is a written language form or more precisely, the alteration of known written languages. Viewed as a language form, tagging offers the interpreter an opportunity to discuss the implications of tagging on the communication process in general.

Tags and Graffiti

The tags used by contemporary graffiti writers distinguish signatures that identify the individuals who write them. Or as Lachmann (1988) asserts, tags are "stylized signatures or logos unique to each graffiti writer" (p.236). As such, modern tagging first appeared approximately thirty-five years ago in Philadelphia and New York. Since then, it has become a communication activity found in numerous cities around the world. Tagging is a form of writing that emphasizes both form and content. Thus, it affords a unique opportunity to examine issues of permanence and change over distance, through time, and across cultures.


A discourse is "any segment of signs larger than a sentence" (Littlejohn & Gray, 1992, p.70). A sign, on the other hand, is anything that "stands for something other than itself' (Littlejohn & Gray, p.51). Tagging, therefore, as language phenomenon, falls somewhere in between these two common categories of language. Tagging is more than a mere sign in that it often contains whole phrases like "eastside mob and how tough." Yet, tags may be a simple title representing someone named "Casper," for example. Taken as a form of communication that has traveled to numerous urban centers around the world, tagging then takes on the characteristics of a discourse cluster if not a narrative discourse. Building on the notion that interpreting tags necessitates placing them within a larger communication context is the basis for claiming that tags are a discourse.

The theoretical value in claiming tags a discourse may become evident in the following line of thought. Broadly defined, the communication or discourse practices of a culture constitute and in turn continue to constitute a culture or nation. In other words, a nation/culture is communicated into existence and maintains its existence through communication/discourse practices (Potter, 1996; Stewart, 1996). By identifying and examining the basic discourse practices of a culture, statements about its relative permanence can be ascertained. Is the culture surviving? Is it being slowly absorbed into another culture/nation? If so, what evidence is there that testifies to the effect of the absorption? Is there a case study that in a microscopic manner can isolate some principles that may afford insight into the dynamics of change in the larger cultural/national sphere? Tagging as discourse process is such a microscopic discourse phenomena.


Data used in this study were collected from a variety of sources including books and bathroom walls. One book in particular (Chalfant & Prigoff, 1987) contains an extensive collection of graffiti (and incidentally tags) from several international urban centers. In addition, some of the material was collected by camera and the free-hand copy of Timothy D. Gross (1994 & 1995). Though photographs of all the data were preferred, at times freehand copies were necessary because of the sheer danger of the environment in which the graffiti samples were located.

Following data collection, cluster analysis (Burke, 1973, p.20) supported by grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was utilized to analyze the data. Grounded theory provided the framework for the data to suggest its own natural categories, while cluster analysis provided a method for later interpretation (Singleton et al., 1988).

Representative examples of the tags are presented in the international tags section. The examples presented represent raw data from which an analysis that utilized grounded theory and cluster analysis produced seven descriptive categories. These categories are the basis of the interpretations presented in the discussion section. The interpretations are based on the conclusions implicit in the Burkian cluster analysis and applied to related issues concerning human communication in general.

Using Burke's analysis one can infer that communication events, including graffiti, reveal information about a communicator. In other words, communication is self-disclosing. Therefore, following the presentation of representative data the Burkian analysis makes it natural to ask questions of the data such as the following. What motivates such communication? What are the implications inherent in the product produced? The discussion section focuses on addressing these questions. The implications and interpretations are open for discussion and are not to be viewed as static descriptive categories (Foss, 1989, pp. 369-70).


Several distinctive features found in the representative samples distinguish tagging as a unique international discourse. First, the discourse features a unique simplicity. The statements are simple, one-of-a-kind phrases or words like "Bozz Doe," "Bone One 2," or merely "Zeb." Lachmann regards tags as "stylized signatures ... unique to each writer" (p.236). Yet, though they feature a unique simplicity as an isolated "tag," taken together they reveal a complex, vague, secretive web of interrelated messages that reveals individual communicators within a discourse context. The unique simplicity feature spans international boundaries.

Second, location is a significant feature. Generally the tags are found in highly visible areas. On broad walls, on windows, as in the case of"Bone One 2," and on a high pillar as in "Saho." All these tags are found in busy urban centers. Many people pass by these advertisements of individualism each day. Therefore, visibility becomes an important feature of this international discourse.

Third, permanence is a major factor in the tagging discourse. Most of the tags are painted on the walls. The tagging discourse provides a means to express individualism beyond the fleeting spoken words of the masses in the urban centers. The paint will often stay on the walls for a long time speaking for the individual. The "Bones One 2" example reveals levels of permanence in the tagging discourse and the need for choosing between features, for it is painted on a window. Thus, there are levels of permanence within the discourse because removing paint from a window is easier than from a concrete or brick wall. However, as space for expression becomes scarce, permanence is sacrificed for visibility.

Fourth, tagging as an international discourse features opportunism, social struggle, and points of tension (Ono & Sloop, 1995, p.21). The tags are written on, over, alongside, in between, and above other tags. For example, "Bozz Doe" is written above the ornate mural tag. "Honie" is squeezed in between several others, and "Actor" is found within a group of others, some of which are written over others making identification impossible. Thus, if the opportunity presents itself for individual expression, the tag "Secret" indicates that such opportunities are taken. The duck may dominate the visual impact; yet, the opportunity for "Secret" to be noticed via a contrasting image is seized. Furthermore, the taggers must struggle for recognition. Some of the murals are ornate pop art - in contrast, others are simple scratches. To reveal one's individualistic identity in this discourse is one thing, to be respected is another. The content also reveals the struggle within the discourse as the tags state that someone is "Bozz Doe" and not just a doe. Or another is "Bone One ..." as perhaps distinguished from just bone. Once again, these features of the tags reveal levels of expression, a struggle for survival, and opportunism within tagging discourse that spans international boundaries.

Finally, the tags feature creative expression in both content and form. The taggers are like creative writers expressing very personal information. Other forms of writing may have purposes other than personal. Tagging's purpose is individual creative expression. For example, "Bozz Doe" is written stylistically, not in normal roman script. Others like "Saho" and "Bone One 2," are written cursively. So, the tagging discourse encourages expressive "penmanship." Overall the discourse is a unique combination of creative writing and abstract artistic expression that beckons yet does not completely reveal identities (Gross, 1993). Thus, as a discourse, it fosters a place for self-expression on an international scale.


Tagging has survived its vast migration across several international boundaries featuring, among other things, simplicity, visibility, and individual self-expression. Thus, if a discourse is to survive amidst the increasing encroachment of the notion of a global village and borderless world, perhaps tagging as an international discourse merits serious case studies.

Given the state of international upheaval, this inquiry takes on particular relevance. How does an individual maintain identity within a culture that is itself under attack from without and within? What constitutes an individual identity given that it appears across cultures? One response to these questions is that cultural and national identity is constituted by its language or discourse practices. Tagging as an international discourse reveals that a discourse can maintain its basic distinguishing features across formidable boundaries. Perhaps tagging can play the role of a predictor regarding which types of discourse will persist in the decades to come. The case of tagging suggests that among other kinds, those discourses that feature simplicity, visibility, permanence, and opportunities for creative expression will survive.


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Daniel D. Gross is Associate Professor of Communication at Montana State University, Billings. Timothy D. Gross is a graduate student in Theater at University of Illinois. Assistant Professor Barbara Walkosz teaches in the Department of Communication at University of Colorado, Denver.
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Author:Gross, Timothy D.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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