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Tagging: changing visual patterns and the rhetorical implications of a new form of graffiti.

"...words of the prophets...written on the subway walls."

ACCORDING TO Michel Foucault, written language pictures mental images, thus capturing the otherwise fleeting experience known as spoken language. In other words, written language depicts visibly both impressions and oral utterances, the byproduct of which is a repository for reflection. Reflection upon this visible repository may reveal clues into a people's cultural experience and even their way of knowing (Foucault, 1970, xx).

Some written forms of language reflect the accepted conventions more than others. For example, the words on this page reflect the standard, formal, English vernacular used in scholarly writing. On the other hand, some forms of writing may express the non-standard or perhaps, the common vernacular -- graffiti, for example. Whatever the form, written expressions change. While it is possible to note the changes from written Shakespearean English to the English of today, it is also possible to note the changes that have occurred in the non-formal arena of written language. This paper traces the most obvious changes that have occurred in a non-formal aspect of writing called "graffiti." We trace its origin from the earliest recorded incidents until the present with special emphasis given the most recent expression of graffiti -- "tagging."

The word "graffiti," borrowed from the Italian, refers to crude drawings or inscriptions scratched or drawn on a wall or other surface and intended to be viewed by the public. This general definition emphasizes three important aspects of graffiti -- place, style, and purpose.

A myriad of forces have influenced the changes that have occurred in the visible form of graffiti throughout the centuries. These changes, plus the notion that graffiti has a rhetorical purpose, suggest fertile ground for interpretation. However, the focus of this paper is primarily descriptive with an emphasis on the changing visual patterns of graffiti and their possible implications.


Data used in this study were collected from a variety of sources, including books and bathroom walls. Some of the material was collected by camera or by the freehand copy of Timothy D. Gross (1992). 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, a form of cluster analysis (Burke, 1973, 20) supported by grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) was utilized to analyze the data which was spread along a broad historical time line. Grounded theory provided the framework for the data to suggest its own natural categories, while cluster analysis provided a method for later interpretation.

Cluster analysis revealed three phases of visible form in the historical development of graffiti: the imitative phase, the transition phase, and the most recent, the apocryphal phase.

The Imitative Phase

Plato claims that written language is primarily an imitative response (Preminger, 1975, 65). In other words, written symbols found on a page are imitating the sounds of oral speech. In like manner earliest forms of graffiti were imitations of perceived objects; for example, a prehistoric cave dweller might draw the likeness of buffalo or birds on the walls of a cave. The drawings, though crude by some standards, imitated the world as seen by early humans (see figures 1 & 2).

For thousands of years mimicking the perceived physical world dominated the early historical or perhaps prehistoric phase of graffiti. In this phase, drawings on the walls imitate world perceived.

The Transition Phase

Literally millennia transpired before the next major phase of graffiti appeared on the walls of civilization. This phase required the advent of "letters" which represented oral sounds. Though imitation is still the impetus, as claimed by Plato regarding all writing, the transition phase of graffiti's historical development added letters/words to the drawings on the walls. Thus the transition phase represents a movement from symbols imitating only visible objects to symbols representing sounds as well. This phase marks the combining of two categories of symbols on the walls. However, during the earlier years, visual symbols dominated, with words dominating in the later years of the transition phase.

The movement of graffiti from visible symbol to word symbol occurred in three broad strokes covering approximately 2500 years. The first stroke includes graffiti that is primarily a social expression. The second stroke is primarily a personal expression and the third primarily a word-message expression.

Graffiti as Social Expression

With this stroke of the transition phase, graffiti's dominant characteristics are marked by drawings accompanied by a few letters or words (see figure 3). The graphic illustration of the hatred and contempt sometimes evoked by the Christian faith is depicted in figure 3. The graffiti was found in 1856 in one of the guardrooms of the Palatine in Rome, the site of the imperial palace. The graffiti was scratched on the wall in the first hall of the third century A. D. and shows a man kneeling to a crucified figure with an ass's head. The inscription states that here is "Alexamenos worshipping his god." The allusion to Christianity is evident; similar calumnies regarding the worship of an ass had already been uttered by the enemies of the Jews in the hellenistic period. (Source unknown.)

Though the graffiti was most likely the product of a single individual, the content is social in nature. The drawing signifies a reaction of one social group's perception against another's. Thus the graffiti represents a stroke within the transition phase called a "social-expressive," form combining drawings and letters/words with an emphasis on drawing.

Graffiti as Personal Expression

Within this stroke of the transition phase, graffiti's dominant characteristics are marked by drawings accompanied by words, not unlike the former stroke but with the added distinction that the graffiti was clearly the product of an individual representing a personal state of affairs (see figure 4).

(4) Figure 4 -- A Personal Expression of Love

Few people over forty have difficulty recalling graffiti like that in figure 4. In fact, in most small towns such graffiti expressions are still common. The drawing is most likely the product of individuals expressing their own personal feelings for another or perhaps the expression of an individual's wishes. Nonetheless, the graffiti represents a stroke within the transition phase called a "personal-expressive," form combining, like the social-expressive stroke, drawings and letters/words with a possible emphasis on word. The major difference in this stroke and the previous one involves a movement toward the use of words over drawings and personal expression rather than social expression.

Graffiti as Word-Message Expression

Within this third stroke of the transition phase, graffiti's dominant characteristic is the transition away from drawings altogether to words. Though the focus of this paper has been visible form, content does enter the process of distinguishing the form of this stroke of the transition phase to a small degree, for in this stroke words dominate but the words are also part of clearly distinguished messages. The most obvious characteristic of these messages is that they are mediated by words not drawings; three word-message examples follow:

(1) Jesus saves ... Moses invests

(2) God is dead --Signed Nietzche

Nietzche is dead --Signed God

(3) God is dead But don't worry, Mary's pregnant again (Abel, 1977, 121-2).

The word-message expression, whcih characterizes this final stroke, brings the transition phase to completion. With its concluding development it leaves "words" as the dominant visual form instead of drawings or some combination of words and drawings. This fact is crucial for understanding the next major phase of graffiti from a historical perspective focusing on visual form.

The Apocryphal Phase

Within the last 25 years a new form of graffiti has appeared on the walls. The name most often used to designate this new visual form is "tagging" (Lachmann, 1988; Raymond, 1989). The dominant visual impression of this phase includes words, though the graffiti only leaves a hint of words. The graffiti depicts words in disguise, thus the label apocryphal. The words both reveal and conceal their identity. They reveal themselves to the insider or initiated but conceal themselves from the uninitiated (Lachmann, 1988, 234). The insider may be of two types -- individual graffitists or graffitists scribing for a gang. Upon first sight, the uninitiated may view apocryphal-phase graffiti as Chinese, Japanese, or some other oriental language because of its similarity to pictorial writing. It may resemble a crude form of hieroglyphics as well. Regardless of the comparisons used to describe it, even the novice may be able occasionally to distinguish familiar words (see figure 5).

(5) Figure 5 -- Tagging: A Pervasive New Form of Graffiti (Mailer, 1974, 61)

As mentioned earlier, two types of apocryphal-phase gaffiti exist. The graffitists in this phase call the scribing "tagging," refering to either individual tagging or extended tagging called "gang writing." These two types of graffiti decorate the walls of modern civilization world-wide. Some examples of tagging and gang writing from several major North American cities follow, with the samples arranged north to west then south to west. The tags are presented first followed by gang writing samples. In addition to location, the tags are deciphered when possible. Finally, descriptive explanations accompany the samples when appropriate.

Individual Tags

The following examples of individual tags were collected in 8 cities: Chicago, Billings, Denver, Fort Worth, San Marcos, San Antonio, El Paso, and Juarez, Mexico.

(1) Chicago, Illinios

Deciphering these tags, at best, would be a guess.

(2) Billings, Montana

Though rare in conservative small towns of the mid-northwestern United States, the example above demonstrates that they not only exist but in this case can be deciphered to reveal the word "slant."

(3) Denver, Colorado

From left to right the first three tags deciphered reveal the following letters/words: "MIR," "Vestige," and Orion." The fourth's obscurity makes uninitated deciphering impossible.

(4) Forth Worth, Texas

Deciphered, the tag says, "Spicer."

(5) San Marcos, Texas

Deciphered the tag says, "hi-tek."

(6) San Antonio, Texas

The tags make uninitiated deciphering only guess work.

(7) El Paso, Texas

Deciphered left to right the tags say, "the crow," "casper," and "the turtle."

(8) Juarez, Mexico

Deciphered the tags read, "sir eleven," and "eye."

Gang Writing

The three examples of gang writing were lifted from the walls of Forth Worth. San Antonio, and El Paso.

(1) Forth Worth, Texas

Deciphered the writing reads, "southside home girls."

(2) San Antonio, Texas

Deciphered the writing reads, "Chicago Gangsters."

(3) El Paso, Texas

Deciphered the writing says, "Eastside Mob [chi]3 [upsilon] Que Putos." (Translated: "Eastside mob 3rd generation" and in Spanish "and how tough").

Space limited the number of examples of tagging and gang writing displayed in this paper. The examples demonstrate that the apocryphal phase reveals a unique visual form of graffiti. The apocryphal phase contains words, though words in diguise -- revealing to the initiated and concealing from the novice or outsider who happens to enter an unfamiliar cultural environment.


The focus of this study is the description from an historical perspective of the developing visual form of graffiti. Three general observations emerged based on the three phases. First, graffiti developed through three phases spread over millennia and moved from drawing to a combination of drawings with letters/words to primarily words. Then, in the final apocryphal phase, graffitists emphasized words in disguise. Some of the words are disguised to the degree than they can be labeled as drawings. Perhaps graffiti may enter a phase in which drawing replaces letters/words as in the imitative phase. This development may correspond to a growing illiteracy in America. In addition, if the graffiti of the apocryphal phase does become primarily drawing, what might the drawings be imitating? Furthermore, a unique type of picture-writing may be emerging not unlike ancient hieroglyphics.

Second, the apocryphal phase dominates the walls (see figure 5). Unlike the graffiti of the transition phase, that might be found on occasion to dominate a wall here and there, a pocryphal-phase graffiti literally "paints" the walls. Population growth in larger cities may explain the visual impression of pervasiveness. Third, the apocryphal phase featureed disguised words and phrases. The question merits serious attention from a rhetorical-critical perspective.


Abel, Ernest L. and Barbara E. Buckley (1977). The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward a Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

Burke, Kenneth (1973). The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California.

Foucault, Michel (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of The Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon.

Glaser, Barney G. and Anselm L. Strauss (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research. Chicago: Aldine.

Gross, Timothy D. (1992). Unpublished Collection of Taga. Billings, MT.

Heizer, Robert F. and Martin A. Baumhoff (1962). Prehistoric Rock Art of Nevada and Eastern California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lachmann, Richard (1988). Graffiti as Career and Ideology. The American Journal of Sociology, 22 229-50.

Mailer, Norman (1974). The Faith of Graffiti. New York: Praeger.

Pfeiffer, John E. (1987). The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origins of Art and Religion. New York: Cornell University Press.

Preminger, Alex, and others. Eds. (1974). Classical Literary Criticism: Translations and Interpretations. New York: Frederick Ungar.

Raymond, Chris (1989). Scholar Finds Art, Social Tradition in Graffiti That Many Dismiss As "Chaotic Scribbling." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 36, 1&4.
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Author:Gross, Timothy D.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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