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Tagging: It's More Than Just Scrawl

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

From the outside looking inwards, graffiti must be baffling. It is easy to see why it would inspire abhorrence. Even those with a professed appreciation for the art form will invariably say something along the lines of: "I like it when it's proper pieces but I hate tagging."

There's no denying that at its worst, tagging (writing one's chosen name on a wall) is little more than territorial pissing, but to understand it is to understand the aesthetic of graffiti in the same way that understanding the International Gothic allows one to understand the aesthetic of the Early Renaissance; it is the root from which everything else develops.

Graffiti, and its trendier little brother 'street art', are by nature a hijacking of public space. It seems, therefore, immediately aggressive in the same way that advertising billboards are: It's like someone shouting at you. This is in part graffiti's power but also its downfall in terms of acceptance. Just as there is good and bad in mainstream art, there is good and bad graffiti. The difference is you can ignore bad art in a gallery; you don't have to clean it off your building and it doesn't cause people to feel directly assaulted and intimidated. When, however, graffiti -- be that a tag, a throw-up, or a piece (we'll get to these in a second) -- is done with style, wit, and grace, it is one of the most progressive and important art movements in the world.

The tag has existed since time immemorial. Famously even on the walls of Pompeii: "We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus."

Modern style stems from the early '60s, Philadelphia-based, tall and skinny script of Cornbread and Cool Earl with their use of crowns and arrows respectively. The first generation of New York train writers caught the bug and progressed from tags to bubble letters (throw ups), to filled in multicolor pieces (short for masterpieces), and the complex 'wildstyle' that would come to define modern graffiti. It was when graffiti moved from trains to walls that a truly global movement was formed. This is an oversimplification, but for the purposes of this article one simply needs to understand that without the tag there is nothing else; it is the basis of everything in graffiti. A good 'handstyle' placed well is, to the graffiti literate, a source of great admiration. Equally an ugly style sited badly is reviled and makes the author the lowest form of writer -- a 'toy.'

That Tempt's tag is so clean, that his style is so apparent it looks like he drew it with his hand, is incredible. The fact that he's produced work for a joint show alongside the cream of street art, just using his eyes, is mind-blowing. -- Tomas Olesen

To see Tempt writing his tag on a wall within eyeshot of his hospital bed is, therefore, more to those who understand graffiti than just a signature, more than just a simple set of letters. It's the very soul of a graffiti writer. To be 'up' is to live in graffiti terms. When well-regarded artists die, their name is put up by writers everywhere by way of respect. The name lives, burning on walls across the world (just Google the recently deceased Nekst for an example). That Tempt's tag is so clean, that his style is so apparent it looks like he drew it with his hand, is incredible. The fact that he's produced work for a joint show alongside the cream of street art, just using his eyes, is mind-blowing.

Mick Ebeling and his team have provided those trapped without a voice a means of expressing themselves beyond simple communication, they've provided the means to create. Giving someone the chance to express themselves creatively is to free them. Tempt describes being able to draw again as akin to a release from being held underwater. In a way this is also the payoff of graffiti itself. When you put up graffiti you have in effect released yourself from the pressured hold that society puts on you as an artist and as a person. It is a release from the rules both legally and artistically.

In Asia and the Arab world, calligraphy -- simply letters -- are regarded as one of the highest forms of art. Look at the great mosques like that at Córdoba and the beautiful script that adorns the inside finds parallels in the work of LA's Retna. See the calligraphic simplicity of Chinese Xen brushwork reflected in the work of someone like Futura 2000. All I'm saying is that before you write off (excuse the pun) that tag on a wall as worthless scrawl, it's worth considering the weight of history and the motivation behind it. Admittedly much of the time it stems from nothing more than a teenage desire to be destructive, the same foolishness of youth that leads to broken windows or stolen hood ornaments. But sometimes, like a wild rose amongst weeds, you will see something entirely more beautiful -- style.

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