Tagging: Changing Visual Patterns and the Rhetorical Implications of a New Form of Graffiti

By Gross, Daniel D.; Gross, Timothy D. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Tagging: Changing Visual Patterns and the Rhetorical Implications of a New Form of Graffiti


Gross, Daniel D., Gross, Timothy D., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


"...words of the prophets...written on the subway walls."

ACCORDING TO Michel Foucault, written language pictures mental images, thus capturing the otherwise fleeting experience known as spoken language. In other words, written language depicts visibly both impressions and oral utterances, the byproduct of which is a repository for reflection. Reflection upon this visible repository may reveal clues into a people's cultural experience and even their way of knowing (Foucault, 1970, xx).

Some written forms of language reflect the accepted conventions more than others. For example, the words on this page reflect the standard, formal, English vernacular used in scholarly writing. On the other hand, some forms of writing may express the non-standard or perhaps, the common vernacular -- graffiti, for example. Whatever the form, written expressions change. While it is possible to note the changes from written Shakespearean English to the English of today, it is also possible to note the changes that have occurred in the non-formal arena of written language. This paper traces the most obvious changes that have occurred in a non-formal aspect of writing called "graffiti." We trace its origin from the earliest recorded incidents until the present with special emphasis given the most recent expression of graffiti -- "tagging."

The word "graffiti," borrowed from the Italian, refers to crude drawings or inscriptions scratched or drawn on a wall or other surface and intended to be viewed by the public. This general definition emphasizes three important aspects of graffiti -- place, style, and purpose.

A myriad of forces have influenced the changes that have occurred in the visible form of graffiti throughout the centuries. These changes, plus the notion that graffiti has a rhetorical purpose, suggest fertile ground for interpretation. However, the focus of this paper is primarily descriptive with an emphasis on the changing visual patterns of graffiti and their possible implications.

Methodology

Data used in this study were collected from a variety of sources, including books and bathroom walls. Some of the material was collected by camera or by the freehand copy of Timothy D. Gross (1992). Though photographs of all the data were preferred, at times freehand copies were necessary because of the sheer danger of the environment in which the graffiti samples were located.

Following data collection, a form of cluster analysis (Burke, 1973, 20) supported by grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) was utilized to analyze the data which was spread along a broad historical time line. Grounded theory provided the framework for the data to suggest its own natural categories, while cluster analysis provided a method for later interpretation.

Cluster analysis revealed three phases of visible form in the historical development of graffiti: the imitative phase, the transition phase, and the most recent, the apocryphal phase.

The Imitative Phase

Plato claims that written language is primarily an imitative response (Preminger, 1975, 65). In other words, written symbols found on a page are imitating the sounds of oral speech. In like manner earliest forms of graffiti were imitations of perceived objects; for example, a prehistoric cave dweller might draw the likeness of buffalo or birds on the walls of a cave. The drawings, though crude by some standards, imitated the world as seen by early humans (see figures 1 & 2).

For thousands of years mimicking the perceived physical world dominated the early historical or perhaps prehistoric phase of graffiti. In this phase, drawings on the walls imitate world perceived.

The Transition Phase

Literally millennia transpired before the next major phase of graffiti appeared on the walls of civilization. This phase required the advent of "letters" which represented oral sounds.

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