Written by Bruce Mahalski
The old male bear reared up on its hind legs and sank its claws deep into the old pine tree and then raked them sharply down the trunk with a loud splintering noise. He sat on his haunches and sniffed the air. This was his forest. This was his tree. This was his signal to any other bears that passed this way. An invitation to females and a warning to other males
Humans also make marks. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years. The concept of ownership has an important relationship to the intent behind the markings and their perception by others. If the mark-maker doesn’t have the owner’s permission we tend to call such marks graffiti, which is against the law. If permission has been granted that makes it legal and we call these ‘marks’ advertising, murals or sometimes ‘street art’.
The word ‘graffiti’ comes from the Latin graffito or ‘a scratch’, and refers to writing or drawings that have been scribbled, scratched, or painted illicitly on a wall or other surface, often within public view. Graffiti ranges from simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. It has existed since the beginning of recorded history with examples dating back to Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire.
When I was young and growing up in the late seventies and early eighties the most common form of graffiti was spray painted jokes, political slogans and occasional gang names. I used to go round with my friends and put up the name of our band. In fact our first poster had the slogan; ‘You’ve seen the graffiti. Now see the band’. To us it was a form of social media marketing before the advent of the internet. We used posters and stickers as well but the graffiti helped give us street-cred (or so we thought at the time). It was also cheap fun. We tried to be reasonable about it and for the most part kept away from private property and ‘clean walls’ and usually hit walls that already had some coverage.
In the mid to late eighties the look of New Zealand graffiti changed in response to the arrival of American hip hop culture which saw the influx of new kinds of music, clothing and graffiti, plus the third wave of skateboarding.
Tagging had arrived! No slogans. No politics. The minimalist style took over and the tag is now the most common form of graffiti today. Tags are simply a name. Often written almost illegibly like a signature. Not the taggers real name of course but their ‘street name’. Most taggers put up their own nom de street but in some cases names are shared around a ‘crew’ of taggers. Other times people will put up someone else’s tag as a kind of visual ‘shout out’ as a gesture of street respect. Tags are put up quickly and discreetly using spray cans, pens or scratched onto the surfaces of both public and private property.
Most of these cryptic scrawls only have meaning to the initiated. To the general public they are just an annoying eye-sore.
Most taggers are young guys who get into it in their teens. You do find the odd female tagger or someone older but really its mainly a young mans game. Love it or loathe its not going to go away. The council can put CCTV everywhere. The police can lock people up. People are still going to tag.
Why do they do it? Is it a symptom of boredom or feelings of social alienation? Problems at home? Peer Pressure? Teenage kicks? Addiction? Frustrated artistic ambition?
Every tagger I’ve talked to has given me different answers. If there is a common thought process at work it’s not why? But why the hell not? Some of the taggers I’ve met have been caught many times and have all sorts of penalties thrown at them including jail but few are deterred.
“I’ve been caught multiple times Security guards are often very aggressive and I’ve been assaulted many times. I can’t report it because I was doing something illegal. It never threw me off though I loved it too much.”
But most taggers get away with it. They’re thrashing up their tag all over town and getting respect from their mates, the buzz of adrenalin and perhaps some feelings of satisfaction from putting one over on the cops, the council and ‘straight’ society in general.
This is about to change. In many cities including Wellington the council and the police are getting serious about stopping tagging. If you’re a prolific tagger you will be on their radar and one day the hammer will come down.
Many council employees from parking wardens to street sweepers now have iPhones. When they see a new tag or any sort of unsanctioned graffiti they’re supposed to take a photo of it and upload it to the council’s in-house ‘Stop-Tags’ database (set up in 2012). Once the photo and its location have been logged council contractors are despatched to cover it over with gray paint. Every square metre covered costs the ratepayer around $25. At the time of writing the council is logging around 1200 incidents a month. Nobody is quite sure how much they are spending but its somewhere in the region of over half a million dollars a year in the central city alone.
And it doesn’t stop there. Wellington City Council staff and Police can search the Stop-Tags database by time, location and tag name. The more tags you put up the bigger your profile on the site. If you get caught red-handed on CCTV or by the cops (who run undercover operations in some areas) the tag you’ve just done will be compared with all the other tags on the database. And you might end up with dozens or even hundreds of charges!
Once you’ve been caught the police will go round to your place. They’ll search your whole house and go through all your artwork to see if you’re responsible for any other tags. They’ll get into your phone, your Facebook, your Instagram, and they’ll talk to the Council who will give them any other relevant information from Stop-Tags. What happens then?
If it’s your first offense and you haven’t gone viral on Stop-Tags yet you might just get a stiff talking to (and of course if you are under 17 your parents will be involved as well). If you have been very busy or perhaps been caught before there might be a family group conference and possibly some form of diversion (often community work such as covering over graffiti in your area). Or perhaps charges will be laid (usually ‘wilful damage’) and you might face fines, home detention, periodic detention or even jail. Once you’re on the police’s radar it’s not easy to get off. Maybe you’ll start feeling a bit persecuted. Perhaps you’ll mouth off or resist arrest the next time you’re caught and then things will just keep on going downhill from there.
Here’s an example.
John was a prolific local tagger. Up until he turned seventeen he’d been mainly getting away with minor penalties. But as soon as he turned 18 the police began to play hardball and the charges came thick and fast. In 2013 the young man was convicted of numerous instances of wilful damage, possession of graffiti implements and some other charges including threatening language, resisting arrest and breaches of community work and sentenced to nine months in jail. After he got out he was caught again (reportedly ‘a one-off relapse’). The Stop-Tags data base was up and running by now and he police had also been busy. Over two hundred photos of his tags around the city were put before the courts and new charges were laid. The sad fact was that most of these tags had been done before he went to jail but only photographed since he got out. Now he was looking at going back to jail for up to SEVEN years – for tagging. At the time of this article his fate still hangs in the balance.
So – beware!
I guess the big question is what separates a young man like this from some one like…Banksy. For one John isn’t ‘famous’ (yet). But how did Banksy get famous? How did he convince people not to put him in jail and instead make him richer than Croesus? The simple answer seems to be that if you can convince enough of the public that your illegal work is art then somehow it becomes not only legal (in a way) but desirable too. But if you fail to engage with the public it doesn’t. Really like most art it’s all a matter of perception.
As a mural artist I am ambivalent about tagging. On the one hand I do get a little bit angry when someone tags a mural I’ve done but on the other hand last week I got well paid to fix up one of my murals that had been tagged. Also people pay me to paint murals, in part, because they often hope it will cut down on their wall being tagged, It will! Not because the taggers respect me or my work (they don’t) but simply because I am denying them a blank canvas. Once a building owner has paid for a mural and it’s been covered in a thick layer of graffiti guard (meaning any unwanted tags/graffiti can be wiped of for up to a month) then the owner is much more likely to protect the mural by cleaning the wall themselves rather than ringing the council to come and paint it grey.
There isn’t any ownership of ‘public art’. It’s not like its in a gallery. If it’s on the street its vulnerable. It’s all temporary. Walls get painted over. Buildings get knocked down.
Perhaps tagging isn’t all bad? Where one tag can look ugly a whole layer of tags can sometimes look like a little bit of nature has invaded the city. Some animals were here. Is it all just thoughtless vandalism? Or is some of it art or on its way there?
The young bear stood underneath the tree where the big alpha male had made his mark a few hours before. It looked up and saw his scratch marks. To hell with you and your ugly marks thought the young bear. What gives you the right to call this area your own? I’m going to take your territory and all that goes with it. It reached up on his hind paws as high as it could and sunk it own claws into the bark.