In this piece I respond to a text I first noticed on a toilet door at the University of Queensland in or around 1998. The text was comprised of a tag and a response to this. These two components relate to one another in complex ways. In the following I reflect on some questions that have arisen from the tensions in this relationship.
Before this discussion develops, however, an important term must be discussed: the tag. A tag is one of many forms of graffiti. Graffiti in this context refers to the fourth element of hip-hop culture: (primarily) illegal, (often) aerosol, street art. A tag can be understood as the most basic form of graffiti, one in which the artist (or perpetrator of vandalism) writes an assumed named, usually in a single colour, on a public surface.
The text to which this discussion refers is interesting firstly because the particular tag was written in a style that was very difficult to read. The letters were crafted in such a way that it was immediately recognisable as a word, but which word was difficult to say. In the work of Lyotard there is an argument that, “[w]ords ‘say’, sound, touch, always ‘before’ thought…. They are the ‘un-will’, the ‘non-sense’ of thought, its mass…. Thought tries to tidy them up, control them and manipulate them” (Lyotard 1991: 142). The response to the presence of the tag that comprises the second part of the text to which I refer was written in (relatively) clear writing, a font recognisable as ‘normal’ handwriting, and read: “Aren’t you cool, you can scribble illegibly on toilet walls”. Lyotard came to mind. What was it about the presence of ‘illegible’ writing that the second author objected to so much that they took it upon themselves to use ‘tidy’ words to engage in a critique of the merit of the tag?
At this point it is important to recognise that there is an element of authorial intent to address. It may be argued that the design of the tag is not intended to be accessible to those outside of the subculture, or unknowledgeable of the (sub)cultural aesthetics. However, this is central to the reflections herein. Regardless of whether the tag was designed to be accessible, the aggressive delivery of it as a text – its placement on a public surface – renders it a public work to some extent, and to an extent it demands an engagement or response from the public to which it is presented. In this particular case this particular tag prompted a response from someone who I assume can be positioned outside the subculture from which it emerged. Therefore, there is an additional and interesting tension between the (exclusionary?) design of the piece and its inherent demand for broad public recognition.
Coming from the discipline of political theory, a series of questions started to emerge for me. I began to consider issues of representation, which I might add are central to graffiti and hip hop culture more generally. Regardless of one’s acceptance of or support for graffiti it is relatively simple to adopt an anti-tagging position based on an idea of the relative artistic merits of an intricate and multi-coloured mural (for example) as opposed to a single-colour tag. The tag is inseparable from the deliberate act of illegal marking, thus the tag itself recalls the making of it. Considered in conjunction with the re-iterative presence of the pseudonym that is the tag, and given that this reiteration is self-similar (not just the tag, but the pseudonym often composed in other forms), then it can be difficult to defend the anti-tag position. However, it is also crucial that we recognise that “there is always a gap between a form of representation and what is represented therewith”. In fact, “the inevitable difference between the represented and its representation is the very location of politics” (Bleiker 510).
Given the active complicity in the vandalism of the toilet wall, one can only assume that it is not the act of vandalism but the particular form that prompted the response to the tag. This is not entirely surprising because the gap between representation and that which is represented is alluded to strongly in this style of graffiti. Further, this gap is a space of questions not answers; it resonates with ideas like Derrida’s undecidability (Derrida 66) and Lyotard’s indeterminate judgment (Lyotard and Benjamin 76), which can introduce difficult and uncomfortable (though I would argue useful and productive) realms of thought and reflection. The response could be said to be conforming with the norms of the language of ‘toilet-door graffiti’ in the academy and thus follows and supports the “ideal of mimesis – a perfect resemblance between signifier and signified”. Even if such a resemblance was possible “it could offer us little political insight. It would merely replicate what is, and thus be...useless” (Bleiker 512).
The tag on the toilet door aggressively exposes the gap between representation and the represented. But there is a further gap, a second level or derivative gap, in this text also. The tag is representative of the presence of the tagger (the tag necessarily recalls the persistence and resistance of the tagger). The tag represents artistic freedom, rebellion, anti-censorship, style, transgression of surveillance, and transgressive use of public space among other things. Importantly, however, a word is used in this (or these) representation(s), and it is a word that cannot (easily) be read. This leads to the final part of my reflections prompted by this particular text. To bastardise an often-quoted phrase from the aesthetic realm this final reflection could be framed thus: ceci n'est pas un mot.
If reflection can be attempted around the idea that the tag can be understood as a proclamation, ‘this is not a word’, then how does this relate to Magritte’s painting, This is not a pipe, and the theoretical discussion prompted by it? Foucault, in an article of the same name, argued that two principles ruled western painting: a separation between representation implying resemblance, and linguistic reference which excludes it. This results in either the text being ruled by the image “as in those paintings where a…letter, or the name of a person are represented”, or the image being ruled by the text (Foucault 195). So what happens in graffiti in which the formal subject matter is the assumed name of the artist?
In Magritte’s This is not a pipe, there is a complex relation between the painting and its title. There is attention drawn to the habit of seeing images as representations. It can be argued that by textualising the painting Magritte is disrupting this habit. However, where are we left when a particular style of painting continually produces text, and the style or genre of painting is comprised of text that ‘we’ cannot read? Does the relation between the painting and its title collapse in graffiti when the untitled painting can be considered the title itself? Further, if painting to some extent reflects a relation between words and objects (especially if we succumb to the habit of seeing images as representations), when the formal subject matter of a painting is a word (in graffiti often a name), what does this tells us about the relations between words and objects? Does it prompt us, or allow us, to consider words as objects? What are the implications of this trajectory of thought? Further still, if a name is the subject of the painting (and its object) what happens to the linguistic/discursive element of art? Does the fact that often this word is produced, or read, as ‘illegible’ have further implications?
Finally, it might be important to consider further the element of re-iteration that is central to the phenomenon of tagging. There is an element to tagging in which the tagger seeks maximum exposure by marking surfaces as prolifically as possible, tagging as frequently as possible within particular geographic and spatial zones. The self-similarity of the re-iterations of a particular tag could make it recognisable or readable to readers of the artist’s work although it is first read as ‘illegible’. This can be the case even if the reader never manages to decipher the word that is the formal subject of the art.