Shannon Holopainen, Melbourne Australia, 2006

It is hoped that these theses will go some way to opening a new dialogue regarding the "aesthetics" of the graffiti tag -- the bread and butter of graffiti. This dialogue will be a dialogue that takes place outside the myopic, misled interest of claiming graffiti as "art." Art, as both episteme and institutional apparatus, functions to symbolically soften and make useful the ripostes made by the excluded against our present oppressive society. In as far as graffiti is illegal -- and it is not properly graffiti if it is not illegal -- graffiti is by default antagonistic to our unjust, capitalist society: it is an act of rebellion. This rebellion is not organized, and it is, in most cases, not consciously tied to any particular political end other than the sovereignty of its own gesture. But it is still, in form and content, rebellion. We must always keep in mind, for those who wish to claim graffiti as "art", that it is the first global art movement in history where one may be imprisoned for its practice; where the state, in the form of those thugs the police, can enter one's home and confiscate one's property, including cameras and computers, and even one's clothing; where having a mere sketch in one's home can be incriminating, let alone possessing photos of graffiti; where a writer can be charged with "intent to commit criminal damage" merely for owning, in one's home or studio, cans of paint or colored markers. We must always keep in mind that the state will do this because one has, without permission, merely applied paint to either a wall or a train; paint that can be cleaned or painted over without any structural damage effected. Obviously something inherent in graffiti scares the miserable masters of this exploitative and mediocre society. Of all forms of graffiti, the tag, being the most native form of graffiti, the form most unlike other pictorial forms found in design, advertising or institutional art, is the most monstrous to the petty eyes of the ruling class.


The tag is a form of writing, a form of writing that is written upon a surface without permission. As something that occurs illegally, without permission, it is an act of transgression. What does it transgress? Physically, it transgresses onto the property of another. But the property owning other, as a distinct and concrete individual, is an unknown other. What is then transgressed is a general law, a logos of privilege and ownership -- the property is not the property of the writer, and this is all the writer will generally know. All property is reduced to surface, to the body of a general other.

The private status of this property is based upon the power to privilege and exclude. This exclusion is fundamentally enforced by the presence of others who's allegiance sides with the property owner and the general law of private property. The writing that is tagging can only take place in the absence of these others -- in the absence of the presence of the authority of the property, property law, or members of the repressive state apparatus: in the absence of those who would see, speak and act on behalf of the property owner and the general law of private property.

Tagging is thus a writing that takes place in the absence of both the speech and the gaze of authority, a writing that occurs in the absence of hegemonic presence.


As a writing performed on a surface by someone who is not permitted by the law of private property ruling that surface, tagging transgresses a general taboo. As something taboo, tags are elements of the heterogeneous. Thus the occurrence of a tag is a rupture of something heterogeneous and excluded into the homogeneous, into the hegemonic. It will be useful here to compare the heterogeneity of tagging to that of naked genitals, excluded from the public sphere except in public toilets, those sites where what is in excess of usefulness, our excreta, is disposed of; a locale where graffiti -- which in such regions often involves the invocation of genitals and sex -- also finds a slight social acceptance, albeit behind the veil of the cubicle door.

The exposure of genitals in the public sphere acts as both a site of desire and the general repression of this desire, a desire whose play is granted only to subjects either within their own property or with permission on another's property. Thus nudity must conform to the law of private property unless, like tagging, it occurs away from the public gaze. The publicly exposed genitals, like the tag, transgress the logos of private property. Not only do they break property law, making public what should be private, they also fundamentally disturb the law of utility. Genitals should be used for procreation, in the family home, and should only be revealed for this instrumental, productive end. But the publicly exposed genitals are a gift, no longer stored for the private moment of procreation but given freely and sovereignly to all. Further to this, as a fetish, the exposure of the genitals may be an end unto itself, an ontological summit, thus increasing the sovereignty of the act. If the exposure corresponds with masturbation, the utility of productive ends is dealt the deadliest of insults. Just as the good gaze must turn away from publicly exposed genitals, which authority must promptly cover, repress, label as obscene, so too the "good" gaze must turn away from the obscene end of graffiti, the tag.


The tag, in its heterogeneity, is an unproductive excess. It is an end unto itself, a sovereign gesture devoid of utility. Tagging is a gift, given without return, participating in a general economy. It cannot be comprehended from the perspective of a restricted economy. A writer receives renown in proportion to the level of unproductive expenditure visible in the pullulation of their tags. Each tag, as a criminal, fugitive form of writing, is a unit of risk. Thus each time a tag is made, the writer risks him or herself. This risk confounds utility. This risk entails a real risk of violence. If the police, as representatives of the repressive state apparatus, catch a writer in the process of tagging, more often than not they will beat the writer, especially if the writer has some notoriety. The writer will then receive several raids of his or her property, which under new terrorism laws may be confiscated indefinitely. The writer will eventually be dragged through the capitalist legal system and then receive hefty fines or even be imprisoned. In this way, the final measure of the "success" of a writer is not determined by his or her peers, but by the records of the repressive state apparatus.


It is this risk that attracts writers to tagging. Essentially tagging is play, akin to unproductive sexual activity, an end in itself, for itself. Writers become addicted to this unproductive risk. It is idealist to -- as most academic dilettantes do -- subordinate the real sovereignty of graffiti to ends such as marking a place for those without place, reclaiming the public sphere for a public, or to locate the impulse towards graffiti in one or another forms of identity politics, i.e., as a bridging of some trans-historical lack in the subject. Such viewpoints, always on the prowl for causal origins and explicable ends, are inevitably lodged from the perspective of a restricted economy and hegemony. Their ideological purpose is to make explicable what is inexplicable, to code the uncodable. Equally, reducing graffiti, in any of its forms, to self-expression is merely another logo-centric idealism, locating this "expression" in the fiction of a concrete self. Although those who reduce graffiti to self-expression may even be advocates of graffiti, they are still ideologues often heralding the liberal-democratic grail of an inefficacious free-speech that does not materially make any difference to the institutions of real oppression. Often being members of the culture industry, these mystifying lampreys seek to appropriate the unproductive, inexplicable expenditure of graffiti beneath the fatherly gaze of Art and aesthetic activity, thus making the useless useful, often towards furthering the ends of their own careers. Of all the activities associated with graffiti, tagging is the most difficult to subsume beneath the traditionally aesthetic. Even advocates of graffiti-as-art find tagging, graffiti's accursed share, hard to stomach.


"I remember that I am invisible and walk softly so as not to awaken the sleeping one's. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers." Ralph Ellison, The Invisible Man It is specifically the visibility of tagging, serving no other end than itself, being where it should not be, that render it unseeable in any aesthetic particularity. Tagging does possess a language of form, a history of style. But in every sense of both its form, its content and its history, tagging is criminal, it is obscene. It is primarily the heterogeneity of tagging that cloaks it, and secondly its inexplicable sovereignty.

Like Ellison's invisible man, the tag, as the heterogeneous, the excluded, becomes a site where others see not what is there but rather project their own fears and desires. Thus the tag is a sign of juvenile delinquency, a sign of crime and fear, a sign of decline; or else it is a Utopian desire for collective property, or an expression of class interest. The tag is what returns, the nub of the repressed that, like exposed genitals, both obscene and desirable, pokes into the public gaze. In its polysemy, the tag, as writing, is a Pharmakon. Pharmakon can mean all of the following -- remedy, poison (either the cure or the illness or its cause), philter, drug, recipe, charm, medicine, substance, spell, artificial color, and paint. Seeing is always an act of interpretation, and the tag is interpreted mostly as a poison, sometimes as a remedy or medicine, and, for the writer, often as a spell of immanence, an incantation of risk that must be written and re-written.

"In this undecidability, in this non-substance and non-locality, the pharmakon places itself outside the dialectical system and opens a labyrinth or an abyss. This does not turn pharmakon into a transcendental. It is not above the play of delay and difference, rather it is permeated by these. Pharmakon is not the name for the other, but the place where the other is evoked"(Derrida).


The pharmakon, writing/tagging, is opposed to the power of presence that guarantees the place and ownership of a property in the symbolic order. The presence that it is opposed to is the presence that enforces the Logos, the spoken word and gaze of the father, the repressive state apparatus, the law of the property-owning class.

"From the position of the holder of the scepter, the desire of writing is indicated, designated, and denounced as a desire for orphanhood and patricidal subversion. Isn't this pharmakon then a criminal thing, a poisoned present?" (Derrida)

The sovereignty of the tag is patricidal because it is sovereign: because the writer is willing to risk their entire well-being for a tag, for play. The Greek pater, the father, also notably signifies the chief, capital, and goods. What stands behind the father, the possibility of production, is the sun. But a sun is what gives, endlessly, without return, and capital always demands a return on its investment. Thus capital must stand in the way of the sun, hiding this excess, becoming an eclipse ..., which as little as we can look upon the naked sun may we gaze into. However, the excess of the sun manifests in other ways, through and in what is excluded, for what is hegemonic is hegemonic because of what it excludes, and what must be excluded from a restricted, capitalist economy is unproductive expenditure, the actuality of a surplus. For Marx it is this surplus, potentially unleashed by the productive forces that capitalism has developed, yet held back by the existing productive relations, that will hail forth a new, fairer society. As a sovereign, unproductive act of expenditure, tagging, a patricidal son, is a manifestation of this hidden sun's excess, part of its return. Meanings proliferate around this pharmakon because our gaze cannot meet it without covering our eyes with sliding signifiers, the toll-masters of our present society's symbolic order; because it gives and does not intend to mean beyond itself; because it is an end in itself. Simultaneously, in the ambivalence of its sovereignty, it may become an invocation of risk and rebellion, and thus the incitement of another claim, as yet unspeakable.

Questions, Comments, Suggestions, and Citation Requests: Shannon Holopainen

Interviews and Articles | Art Crimes Front Page

This document is archived at