The Civil War between Street Artists and Taggers

“And it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.”—Genesis 4:8 (King James Version)

IMG_6109Of all the fantastic festivals that grace the Montreal summer, the Mural Festival is by far my favorite. Among other things, it makes manifest how far the Montreal street art scene has come in the last few years. It’s heartwarming to see artists who could barely make rent a decade ago selling some paintings, making some money, and “kicking some ass for a change” (as Montreal street artist Chris Dyer put it). It’s nice, as well, to see that street art is finally getting respect from art critics and gallery owners. But, strange as it may sound, there are people in this city who aren’t happy to see street art doing so well. Believe it or not, there are those who despise street artists precisely because what they do is accessible, successful, and beautiful. These people are commonly known as taggers.

Cain Slaying Abel, by Jacopo Palma, 1590
Cain Slaying Abel, by Jacopo Palma, 1590

Like Cain and Abel, tagging and street art came from the same place and were once as close as brothers can be. But they’ve diverged to such an extent in the last two decades that their differences now far outweigh their similarities. Indeed, the older street artists I know who stridently insist upon the similarities between street art and tagging do so, it seems to me, largely for nostalgic reasons, much as friends who’ve grown apart talk incessantly—whenever they get together—about the good old days, as a way of avoiding the fact that they no longer have anything in common.

Montreal Street Artist Chris Dyer pulls a gun on fellow artist Daniel Libman at Greenlight Gallery.
Montreal Street Artist Chris Dyer pulls a gun on fellow artist Daniel Libman at GreenLight Gallery.

What follows are seven snarky reasons why I believe that street art and tagging should no longer be considered members of the same artsy-fartsy family:

(1) Comparing street artists and taggers is like comparing the chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant to the zitty teenager who flips burgers absentmindedly at McDonald’s.

(2) Comparing what a street artist does to what a tagger does is like comparing what Caravaggio did with a canvas to what a dog does to the fire hydrant in front of my house. The Renaissance master brought beauty into the world. The dog does little more than mark his territory.

(3) Comparing street artists and taggers is like comparing buskers and beggars.

IMG_5078-002(4) Public artists reclaim public space in the name of beauty. And they seek to communicate with a wide audience. By contrast, taggers have a palpable contempt for the masses. Sure, they like to think of themselves as counter-cultural rebels. But their contempt for the citizenry—and for public discourse—makes them precisely the kind of exclusionary modern elites that John Ralston Saul lambastes in Voltaire’s Bastards (1992). Like most engineers, computer geeks, academics, and modern artists, taggers speak in a language that is unnecessarily abstruse, an anti-democratic language whose sole purpose is to exclude the uninitiated. When I speak in a language that only the cool kids can understand, when I speak in an academic dialect whose sole purpose is to exclude people who don’t have an MA or a PhD in whatever, I’m behaving like a tagger.

(5) That hummingbird in Peru—you know, the giant geoglyph in the Nazca Desert—was created in the spirit of street art; what Greenpeace did to it was done in the spirit of the tagger. The same reckless disregard for the sacred spaces of others—which is a hallmark of the tagger worldview—was in evidence when those clueless activists walked all over a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fullscreen capture 2014-12-016

(6) Tagging culture is an excellent manifestation of a rather nasty elitist tendency that’s written right into the DNA of cultural modernism. The fact that taggers don’t have money or power is irrelevant—just as irrelevant, in fact, as the fact that tagging is illegal. After all, a neo-Nazi subculture could easily be described as “edgy” and “counter-cultural”—but that surely wouldn’t make it, by default, progressive. Regardless, most of the taggers I’ve met don’t see themselves as “of the people”, much less “for the people”. All to the contrary, like fanatics and fundamentalists, taggers believe themselves to be far superior to “the people”. Truth be told, their visceral contempt for “the people” makes the stuff that snooty socialites say about the common folk seem positively democratic by comparison.

The B-Side Fetish is a key component of the elitist ethos shared by taggers and hipsters.
The B-Side Fetish is a key component of the elitist ethos shared by taggers and hipsters.

I was shocked to learn, just this past year, that an awesome guy I met through a mutual friend lives a double life: by night, he’s a notorious tagger who operates in my neighborhood. And he’s destroyed many beautiful murals over the years. Hearing about this was, for me, half as bad as finding out that the cool guy you partied with last weekend is into child pornography. I remain thoroughly scandalized. After all, this guy’s not some ten-year-old kid trying to make a name for himself. Nor is he a confused teenager. This guy’s in his mid-30s! Shouldn’t he know better? That’s more or less what I asked him the last time I ran into him on the street. His blame-the-victim response was as creepy as it was disappointing. It was a version of the same sociopathic sophistry I’ve heard many times over the years from sleazy salesmen, professional pickpockets, career criminals, and treacherous telemarketers: about suckers who deserve to get screwed over because they’re stupid, yuppies who deserve to have their property defaced because they’re assholes, and street artists who deserve to have their work ruined because they’re pretentious.

02-07-2014__big(7) What’s funny about this whole discussion concerning the relationship between street art and tagging is that it’s so often wrapped up in a piety, and a hypocrisy, that’s just as strange as anything I’ve seen in the Bible Belt. Almost everyone involved in the street art scene says one thing in public and an entirely different thing in private: publicly, they chastise me for saying anything bad about taggers, and recite the usual Articles of Faith (in a suspiciously similar fashion) about the relationship between street art and tagging—but privately they tell me they agree with me 100%. I feel like I’m the only atheistic politician in Washington DC willing to admit publicly that I don’t believe in God. All the other members of Congress denounce me as a monster in front of the cameras, in the most strident manner—only to later on that very day confess to me that they’re atheists too.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2017)

p.s. A friend of mine quite rightly observed that I really ought to address the way in which Montreal’s Mural Festival is funded: “From speaking to one of the artists when I went, I was told, to my surprise, that they are mostly corporate funded. The colors, for example, are chosen based on the company’s brand.” This is a very valid concern. Corporate corruption of the art world is an ever-present possibility, something to keep an eye on. But corporate sponsorship isn’t nearly as problematic as many seem to think it is. I suspect that we see corporate sponsorship as deeply and necessarily problematic because we’re still living in the shadow of the “art for art’s sake” movement, and many of the artists we know are living off of government grants. Regardless of the reason, it remains a thoroughly unrealistic standard. Rarely in history were artists independently wealthy; they’ve always had to pay the bills one way or another. During the Italian Renaissance, that meant painting religious themes for the Church or hagiographic shit for a Machiavellian prince; today, it might mean painting a mural which employs the colors found on some corporate logo. Is this really such a big deal? I think not. We’re part of the world, friends. There’s no getting around that. We’re all inextricably enmeshed in a thick web of relationships that enrich and delimit our action in the world. Now, as always, power and privilege afford a small minority of artists the freedom to do as they please. Some of these fortunate few produce timeless work, sublime work, but, let’s face it, most of them produce forgettable garbage. Art, like philosophy, is usually at its best and most vital when it’s in conversation with the messy world most of us live in.

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

3 thoughts on “The Civil War between Street Artists and Taggers

  1. My favourite way of describing the difference between taggers and artists is this:

    Artists are like people who setup edible gardens in abandoned public spaces.

    Taggers bring their dogs in to piss on the lettuce and tomatoes in said gardens.


  2. I have to say that I fundamentally agree with your basic point; that street art and tagging have largely diverged in the last 30 years.

    I am, however, a bit confused by the motivations of your exploration. I’d like to give your use of polemic more credit then just the particular means you used to air your feelings and opinions as a personal blog post; you seem to be engaged in a real attempt to think through the world. But if in some sense the practice of philosophy or sociology is meant to unveil the truth of the world, one which is so often thought to be precisely against the common opinion circulating in society at any given time, then I’m confused why you would largely try to replicate and justify the common opinion of most people in society when faced with graffiti? What’s the point of engaging in these exercises if we don’t even come out with a more nuanced view of our own positions but just a feeling that we were all the more correct in the first place? (given that as a polemic your only receptive audience is likely to be the choir)

    If you are interested, here are far more musings then you asked for:

    1) If you are being well intentioned wouldn’t you compare your favourite murals (which I assume you consider the apex of street art) to the most intricate and complex wildstyle tags (which I don’t think are the apex of tagging, but which you might, due to their relation to balance, colour, line and other qualities classically associated with Beauty ), and quality-wise the least skilled tags to the least skilled wheatpastes or stencils?

    – Alternatively, if you draw a line between pieces and tags, consider that the classificatory road between tag – throw-up – and a piece, can actually be quite grey, all often exist illegaly, and the boundaries between them are not solid.

    2) You’re assuming in this point that the activity of painting has universal (or even external) appreciation as it’s telos. The Caravaggio paintings you appreciate at the MET were certainly painted with that in mind, but did the activity of painting for Caravaggio always have that telos? Who can say, though it hardly matters; the activity of painting could be solely for the joy of the act itself, as an individual action, of course you don’t have to like it for that matter, just as you could, if you so chose, love the police who fine and incarcerate the people who engage in it.

    3) By analogising the tagger as a beggar you are again sort of assuming that the tagger wants something from you, I think you might be better off trying to conceptualise tagging as being an anti-social act, but perhaps not one which is anti-community…[why are we so quick to entwine the two?]

    4) Your point here is what I think was being addressed by the commentator who mentioned the corporate funding of so much mural art, but come on, the ‘exclusionary elites’ you are lambasting are also comprised of the children [think of the children!] of some of the most excluded and marginalised groups in our society right now…. it’s not that you’re mistaken that their is an insider code to it, that it’s anti-democratic, or anti-social, but your miss-characterizing it if your seriously going to claim that it’s ‘solely’ about excluding.

    5) I have a hard time imagining that the spirit which motivated the street artist shares in the sacred dimensions of the one which motivated those who created the nazca geoglyphs, though perhaps they were both bank-rolled by the controllers of the granaries!

    6) This is probably where I think we diverge the most. Because you are very clear about what you are going to bar from your considerations, namely, Legality/Illegality, Wealth/Poverty, and Power Dynamics. And you are very clear about what you will use to motivate your thinking, namely Democracy and Aesthetics. But your version of Democracy looks a lot more like Populism, and your definition of Aesthetics is rooted in the Beautiful; So you don’t want to consider power dynamics, or the way that money informs them, or the legal system which enshrines them, and you group all strata of society, despite the extreme divisions riven between them by those power dynamics and the things which create and enforce them, into one solid category unified by aesthetics.

    I mean you CAN take that view, but we don’t share it.

    I think tagging is done for a lot of reasons; but primarily I would see it as an act of pure joy/affirmation, as an aesthetic experience of active determination that the practitioner can imbue with any number of conceptual modes, from the creation of a community with its own vocabulary, trends, mythology, aesthetic valuations and practice to a revolt against the way that power allows other individuals to plaster what they desire across the shared landscape of the city. It’s also a way that gangs communicate with each other, and sometimes it’s just the entry point for aerosol-medium artists. The practitioner might be seeing it as a political act of propaganda, or a thoughtless and arbitrary act like any other.

    I think there’s a lot going on in tagging culture, and their are a multitude of dynamics at play, hopefully you’re reflections on it won’t remain static but continue to be interesting!


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