People have always felt the urge to inscribe their names on natural and man-made objects in public space, particularly when visiting special places abroad. This phenomenon indeed dates back all the way to prehistory. In caves in several countries around the world, drawings which are thousands of years old have been discovered along with the outlines of hands, which are arguably at least as personal as names. Those primeval artists must have been aware that their creations would sooner or later be found by others.
In between 100 B.C. and 400 A.D, nomads from the Middle East used to communicate by carving stories and names in desert stones. For hundreds of years, herdsmen from the Alps for their part used to write their names on rocks, together with the number of livestock they tended to on specific dates. In the 18th century, none other than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had the strong desire to express himself thus: “I was, after the fashion of humanity, in love with my name, and, as young uneducated people commonly do, I wrote it everywhere”, the poet concedes in From my Life: Poetry and Truth (1808-1831), which deals with the first 25 years of his life.
Yet another jump through history: during World War II, American GIs used to scribble the phrase 'Kilroy was here' with an accompanying distinctive doodle wherever they went. British and Australian soldiers did the same but used to call the character ‘Mr. Chad’ and ‘Foo’ respectively. Even today that same figure occasionaly pops up in different places.
There are many more examples of ways in which people have, throughout time, indicated in situ to have been in some particular place. This may just as well be one’s own neighbourhood or city. Those equipped with marker pens and spray cans usually stay rather close to home, in the first instance at least. Regardless of where they go, nothing is quite as inherent to the world of graffiti as getting your pseudonym up on the streets left, right and centre. At the end of the 1960s, Taki 183 from New York was the first to start doing this on an unprecedented scale. His example was followed instantly by many others, as can be seen in the documentary Wall Writers. Youths who had no voice up until then, were suddenly in a position to let themselves be heard. “I’m writing my name in graffiti on the wall”, KRS-ONE is heard rapping in the chorus of Out for Fame (1995).
In the ‘70s, tags gradually became less readable and also metamorphosed into large and sophisticated graffiti pieces characterised by heavily contorted letters, a multitude of colours and all sorts of 3-D effects (commonly known as wildstyle). To this day, having your name in giant letters on a (subway) train is still one of the highest achievable goals – much to the discontent of transport operators of course. The pieces that were sprayed illegally on subway trains in the ‘70s and ‘80s by the likes of Dondi and Lee Quinones existed only for a short period of time, but they continue to live on photographs. Up until the moment those artworks were removed, they surely did crisscross New York 24/7 – propelling the artists’ fame among peers to greater heights as they were not restricted to just one location (like in the examples mentioned above), but were mobile, naturally allowing for much greater exposure and thus efficacy.
Needless to say, all practitioners develop their own styles. Niels ‘Shoe’ Meulman is a pioneer in the field of ‘calligraffiti’, which is the coupling of the words ‘calligraphy’ and ‘graffiti’ and is decribed by the artist as “traditional handwriting with a metropolitan attitude”. Taggers from Sao Paolo, Brazil, to give another promiment example, are known for covering the entirety of buildings with runic-like letters. This so-called pichação has clearly been a source of inspiration for the Berlin Kidz, a well-known crew from the German capital.
Contrary to street art, which is much more extrovert in nature, the graffiti scene is rather turned in on itself and, ever since its inception, evidently involves an element of competition. Like dogs that mark their territory by urinating every few steps, ‘writers’ set out to claim their portion of the urban environment. This, however, rarely meets the sympathy of residents, who, more often than not, deem tagging and graffiti vandalism. For authorities that’s a foregone conclusion; these practices are illegal and therefore punishable by law.
Nowadays, stickers containing the line ‘Hello, my name is...’ (or words to that effect) are quite popular. They’re tongue-in-cheek encouragments to tag, as those who do so are obviously in no need of prefabricated frames in order to introduce themselves or get their voices out. Sometimes they’re actually left blank for others to fill in. Below are a number of images of such stickers as part of a photo-essay on name writing in public space.