I broke my foot recently, which is another story altogether, but one of the bi-products of that has been sitting at home doing lots of drawing. I went through 3 sketchpads in the first week alone… which felt like I was close to going insane by the end of it, but the positive spin was that for the first time in ages I could fully indulge my compulsion to write in funny lettering, and at the same time do a bit of self indulgent pondering on the subject.
As someone who has a borderline Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in relation to writing on things, I’m fully aware that most of the world doesn’t share my enthusiasm for the written word when it escapes from its allotted context and surfaces as a graffiti scribble (least of all when it ends up as 4 foot high letters scrawled across their dry stone wall saying something like “enema”). In fact, it’s so unanimous a sentiment that only the phrase: “are you Banksy?!” beats “I like these colorful murals, just not all those horrible scribbles” as the most commonly repeated statement offered up by the public (to those out painting). We have running tally’s sometimes- try and beat the person painting next to you to 10 I bet your Banksy’s before lunch or something like that. Anyway, given that the jury of “most people” is unanimous in dismissing tags as a load of shite, scribbles , dogs pissing on lampposts and irrelevant gang signs- what is it that appeals to some people (or maybe just silly people) like me?
This question is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot over the last couple of weeks, and as it turns out isn’t actually that easy to answer. Now obviously, when I say that I like tags, I mean some tags, I like tags in a theoretical way; I like good tags. In reality – I’m probably about as likely to commission our man “enema” to tag my front door as the local neighbourhood-watch committee; so I guess what I’m actually talking about is the practice of designing lettering (under a specific set of rules), as oppose to the politics involved with applying said lettering to private property (which is another thing entirely).
So starting from the top, why do I like tags?
One thing that comes to mind is that you can pretend with some-stuff, try to wing it and no-one will ever really be any the wiser, but that is not the case with tags; there is no easy way to get good at them- you just have to do millions of them, and keep doing it for years to get any good (and even then you might still be useless). After a bit of practice, anyone with photoshop and a few spraycans can do a passable photo-realistic painting of a celebrity they fancy – but not just anyone with a spraycan can produce a decent tag. Beyond practice and technique, producing a decent tag takes imagination- (and maybe even a sense of humor, but I could be on my own with that one…)
One of the things with working within a confined set of rules, is that it takes true imagination to make something interesting within that tight space. Tags could be seen as that, a confined framework, like a chess-board, and doing anything unexpected within those four walls takes a certain amount of experience and creativity. When all other concerns are stripped away, concept, meaning , form, colour-balance etc… all that is left to develop is style. A comparison might be the Chinese practices of calligraphy, or even martial arts, where a person studies the same sequence of moves, or the same characters repeatedly for years and years until they understand how they work, and then with further practice and study eventually it would be the deviations from these original forms that would turn the student into the master.
Thats the theory, and like most things its a lot easier to explain in theory than in practice. I discovered this recently when my house mate asked me to explain what makes a good tag, and I realised I after flabering away for a few minutes that I couldn’t really do it. ( I mean, what makes one singer better than another- It sounds better- It looks nicer…?) “Its about style, the letters have to have a good style- so what makes a good style? “ahh….”
And then you realise your actually into a complicated discussion about the nature of taste and aesthetics and you might just as well be asking; Why do yummy- mummy cafe’s favour the colour Duck Egg Blue? So I’ll quit while I’m behind and show you some pictures of tags.