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In recent years, graffiti has enjoyed as near to mainstream appreciation as something that transgressive can get. However, much of that praise has been geared at graffiti murals and imagery, while tagging has taken a back seat, bearing more of a resemblance to vandalism than art.
Tagging has been around in some form as long as people have written. What we know of tagging now, though, is largely dependent on the modern materials artists use (paint markers, spray paint), and through a sort of visual history, with people in different locations communicating to and learning from one another.
Typographer and designer Christian Acker goes a long way toward capturing that visual history and giving the artform its proper respect in his new catalogue of the various American tagging styles, Flip the Script: A Guidebook for Aspiring Vandals & Typographers. The book is set up as an overview of American tagging: what it is, where it came from, where it’s going. It features hundreds of lush — well, as lush as blackletter could get — reproductions of regional alphabets completed by graffiti writers from around the country. There are a lot, and an index would be helpful in future editions.
History in the writing
As a typographer, Acker maintains that graffiti alphabets don’t work well as fonts. That’s because the actual tags look much different than the sum of their letters, with each letter altered in relation to the next and the piece as a whole. But the exercise of having hundreds of artists write out separately the letters and numbers of their tags is an interesting — and academic — approach to an artform that’s rarely studied with this much precision. More importantly, in asking for the alphabets and talking with these artists, they were able to give voice to their own lettering.
At a discussion of his book at the Type Directors Club in New York City, Acker said that having the taggers complete a font helped them tell hidden stories. “Stories are made up of words. Words are made up of letters,” Acker said to a room of type enthusiasts. “When I was going to the letters, I got stories.”
And really, that’s the most impressive part of this book. Each handwriting is accompanied by lengthy quotations by its authors.
From Acker’s interviews with the artists — many of which are recorded on his Youtube page — we learn that Philadelphia tagger Cornbread began his lengthy grafitti career by writing his name along the train route of a girl he was wooing in order to get her attention. We also learn that the that the reason the Cholo style bears resemblance to Old English because Mexico’s printing press predated those of the rest of the New World.
Creativity or Plagiarism?
Like linguistics, the meaning and the execution of tagging are always in flux. Acker catalogues this continually moving art form to show, generally, what tagging looked like in a given place and time. In doing so, numerous artists discuss where they got their inspiration, whose tags they’ve copied and how they’ve updated them with their own idiosyncrasies. It’s a healthy conversation that designers should take to heart.
Unless you live in a vacuum, you’ve copied someone. It’s best to be upfront about your inspiration than ignore it and a appear like a thief later. In all of our arts — writing, blogging, designing, drawing, data visualizing — it’s probably better to be open about our inspiration than accused. What arises from the relationships of tags as well as the taggers’ own words, is an artform that is comfortable having an honest discussion of inspiration, that doesn’t just draw a line between copying and the creative process. In many ways that open discussion has led to its proliferation.
The more positive side is what you can learn from other artists — those tackling many of the same conundrums. Graffiti is often perceived as a lonely venture, but like any art or text visible to the public eye, it is a form of communication. Adding to others’ work creates a conversation, and a more evolved product all around.
Since Acker began this documentation project 10 years ago, four of the artists in Flip the Script have passed away. Fortunately, the book preserves the stories and lessons behind the tags — even after they are painted over and power-washed away.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.