About That Tagging Thing

So the election season has rolled on, with the first big electoral policy initiative out of the incumbent Labour govt being war on taggers.
Obviously this is an image-correction maneuver by Clark. The electorate are sick of tagging, so it is valuable to be seen to be doing something. But a lot of people have missed that the new law is really intended for adult offenders; youth who tag are going to be dealt with exactly the same way (see the FAQ at the bottom of the press release for more).
The big impact on the kids is going to be restrictions on the sale of spray cans to teens. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of such a restriction, it just doesn’t sound very effective in the face of an army of disenfranchised 13-year-olds with marker pens, older cousins and nothing to do with their time. Still, the FAQ has an answer to that:

It has been suggested that spray paint taggers will all start scratching glass or using marker pens. However, tagging has its own internal boundaries and ‘culture’. As spray paint is the chosen tool of this ‘culture’ it is expected that the movement to other types of graffiti implement will be small and we would expect to see an overall reduction in graffiti.

Heck, it could work. Tagging doesn’t have deep roots in this country anyway.
Overall it doesn’t seem to me like much change is possible from this legislation. It’s certainly not an important social problem. (Don’t get me started on that Broken Windows nonsense. And no, tagging is not a gateway crime. The taggers of today don’t become the home invaders of tomorrow.) No doubt some policy wonk has worked hard on it, but ultimately it just amounts to a flag in the ground saying Labour is not surrendering middle NZ without a fight.
Anyway. I’ve had a few interesting conversations about this recently. Tagging as an activity has always sat uneasily with me. Full-fledged graf art, I have a lot of love for that. Witty and weird little slogans scrawled in public places are a bonus in our urban landscape. Tagging, the runty little sideshow of graffiti, has never won me over. It isn’t the act itself that bugs me, but the thoughtless aesthetic placement of so much tagging. I mean, tagging some suburban garage? Tagging the side of a white suburban house? This doltish placement has always annoyed me. But the aesthetics of graffiti and tagging are subjective. Does graffiti add value or subtract value to an environment? Well, that depends on the graffiti, the environment, and the person. It’s an impossible equation.
It gets even curlier when you start talking about rights. Do suburban house owners have the right to a crisp, clean garage? Really? What are such property rights built on? Aren’t all such rights dependent on having a fair society which values all its members? Where does value even come from in our society? Do we have the right to clean walls?
I’m very wary of romanticising wall-scrawling. There’s some incredible stuff that happens through words and art on our streets – does anyone know what the “Gayskins” tag that turned up all over town late last year means? – but also there’s a bunch of selfish people who lack any empathy for those who have to cope with their actions.
End result, I guess: Labour’s big public stand is pandering to the talkback masses and that doesn’t make me happy. (Let’s not forget that this comes on the heels of a boy being murdered for tagging and the disgraceful way in which many elected leaders responded.) But if teens end up having trouble buying spray cans by themselves, well, that’s not going to cause me to lose any sleep over damaged civil rights.
Keith Ng has a good piece on the War on Taggers over at Public Address

15 thoughts on “About That Tagging Thing”

  1. This is the most sensible commentary on tagging that I’ve yet seen.
    The thing that bugs me about tagging is that it seems so pointless. I went down the alley by the Opera House in Wellington and the big pretty mural had been tagged by the same person just writing their name over and over again.
    I can almost understand writing your name once, like an ‘I was here, notice me’ kind of thing. But 20 times on one wall? What’s that mean?

  2. Well, one possibility is that it means “I’m here.” Literally.
    The tagger could be a person who feels very disenfranchised, disillusioned and disempowered, and spraying their tag is a means by which they feel they have some control over their environment, some way of being noticed.
    In other words, “making their mark” in a place and society which otherwise won’t acknowledge them.
    From my reading the more successful efforts to stop tagging focus on that, rather than on punishing the vandalism.
    But, really, what do I know? I’m white, male and middle class, so it could all just be hot air, I guess…

  3. Jenni: there are layers of pointlessness to it, for sure. But sometimes it is very pointed. Territory warfare via mark-making has its own signals and meanings. Perhaps an abundance of tags sends some kind of specific message that a single name does not? Or perhaps it’s not opportunistic tagging but a deliberate counter to the mural?
    Seems to me, though, that most likely its nothing so calculated, and its just some dumb tagging.
    Scott: your account of “making their mark in a place and society which otherwise won’t acknowledge them” – I agree, but only to an extent.
    I guess what gets at me about that is it’s very narrow explanation for a behaviour. I think what you say is very true, but that’s not incompatible with it being an act of engagement with an alternative culture, an act of rebellion against parental authority, an attempt to build up street credibility, an act of boredom, etc etc.
    Selecting that explanation as the most powerful one rings my “romanticising” alarm bells.
    Still, if that’s a framework which leads to successful interventions, then brilliant. I have a lot more faith in interventions based on that kind of empathy and insight, than I would in anything that’ll come out of the mouths of the government in an election year…
    And finally: educated white boy here too. What the hell do I know?

  4. Wow, will they be requiring photo ID do you think? That fine is huge. :-/
    I guess under 18’s using spray paint for art projects will have to get their parents or teachers to buy it for them… or is supplying spray paint free of charge a crime too? O_o
    This all seems very weird. What if they just switch to using house paint? 😀

  5. Also, what’s with the “ordinary New Zealander’s” idiocy? (i.e.”It is important that offenders recognise the impact this offence has on ordinary New Zealanders.”)
    Do they want to make these kids feel even less like a part of NZ society? Couldn’t they just say “It is important that offenders recognise the impact this offence has on other people”? I really don’t like the implications there. :-/

  6. Y’all should see a movie called Style Wars. It’s a PBS doco from the early ’80s about graffiti culture in New York.
    Some of the kids in this doco were doing some really beautiful work that (in my opinion) was beautifying the city rather than degrading it.
    One of the most interesting things was that this particular wave of culture, with its intricate murals, was killed less by the draconian new city walls than by a guy who made it his mission to “go over” everyone’s murals with his own pointless, ugly tag just for the sake of vandalizing them. It was his “work” that most reminded me of tagging as we know it today.
    As for the “do we have a right to clean walls?” question – I can identify with that. I don’t think we even have the right to own land. In fact I don’t think we DO own land, none of us. I’m quite serious, and can back this up at some length if anyone questions it.

  7. (Putting aside Pearce’s comment about owning land – I don’t want to get into that debate right now 🙂
    Morgue – what do you mean by ‘do we have the right to have clean walls/garage’? Are you suggesting that when you own something, you don’t have a right to decide how it looks? Does that hold for cars? books? clothes? If someone tagged the front of my house, and I decided I didn’t like it, and wanted it white again, I should accept the thousands of dollars cost in good humour?
    I don’t understand.

  8. The Aro Valley community newsletter suggested that people keep spare tins of paint of the colours of their fence & house, so that if these are tagged they can immediately paint over them good as new.
    This discourages nuisance taggers, and can save you from being burgled by those (very few) taggers who are using it as a mark for casing your house.
    I don’t quite get why undoing tagging will cost “thousands of dollars” unless the taggers are there all day re-designing the whole exterior of your house. Paint isn’t anywhere near that expensive (unless you’re getting ripped off by contractors instead of doing it yourself).
    If someone tags your car it costs quite a lot to get it sanded back and re-painted, but that probably serves you right for polluting the environment and you should get a bicycle. 😛
    I guess I just don’t buy tagging as being social problem #1. To me it’s almost on a level with the nongs in Karori who bitch about the “loud” birdsong from the sanctuary.

  9. stretch: I’m being semi-facetious with that bit, but only semi. Some of the lines of argument around this stuff rest on some pretty weird foundations. Pearce’s dig at property rights is exactly the direction I’m going in there.
    Note for clarification: I’m not saying we should abandon the idea of property or our authority over it – just that examining some of what sits under these ideas might bring better perspectives to light.

  10. My stick is too small and I am puny so I have to do favours for Property Brokers so they will let me live in their cave…
    I can’t manage without a car though… I tried to put the smallest helmet I could buy on James when he was older than Thomas and it slipped down over his eyes… too far to walk to work and the only places close enough to walk are heinously expensive. I would be sad if Millie Mazda got tagged.

  11. To wander away from property rights like that, which is in general a “societal norm” is a wee bit unusual.
    To resile from such perperty rights is inly a tiny step from resiling from “personal rights” so that it would be perfectly acceptable to defend ones property by stabbing someone who was destroying… hang on that’s more or less what started this round on the issue.
    As to cost… painting over the small area which has been “tagged” ends up looking damn awful… have to paint that whole fence/side of the house, probably more than once as one coat will still leave the “tag” visible. Costs mount up. Anyway my house is rough brick so no painting, would have to get it waterblasted in a big way…

  12. Do we have a right to clean walls?
    I would be very careful pursuing that line of argument, for the reasons that stretch and Gavin outlined.
    I’m not sure it is a rights issue, I think it is more about respect. Taggers are implicitly disrespecting the investors (emotional, financial etc) in the wall, by showing no regard for the feelings of those investors.
    My answer to the question is certainly. If I paid for that wall, I am responsible for it, I have a right to keep it the way I want it to look, and not to have that decided for me by someone who has no interest or responsibility for it. As a property owner that is a fact. At an extreme, money I might have spent maintaining the safety of the wall could be spent removing tagging.
    There has been far too much confusion and or missing the point in the media debate about this issue regarding tagging vs Street Art.
    Neither are new(graffiti has been unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii, and does anyone else remember Tracey and Malcolm redecorating Hutt Valley line trains in the mid eighties?), and only one has any merit at all.

  13. Good point re: graf vs street art, property-owner-with-no-name.
    Melbourne used to have one of the most vibrant collections of street art in the world around its city. People would travel from all over to photograph it, and multiple books existed documenting it.
    Then it was decided to “clean up” the city and tons of it was painted over. Street art dating back up to 30+ years was destroyed. That’s its own kind of vandalism, if you ask me.
    But where, exactly, is the boundary between street art and graffiti?

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