Are graffiti tags the purest art form?

Are graffiti tags the purest art form?

Tagging offers no reward beyond the rush of its creation, and the chance to be part of something bigger.

Gerry Rowan and Kris Kiwomya

5 min read

a graffiti artist working while being photographed on the side of a building

An art-loving Finnish politician is in big legal trouble. His crime? Tagging a railway tunnel. Paavo Arhinmäki is deputy mayor for culture and leisure in Helsinki, but it seems not everyone believes graffiti culture and tagging should be part of that job.

The great mystery to an outsider is why? What motivates someone to tag? It’s not financial. There are no deals to be done, no gallery shows to stage or endorsements to be made. In Paarvo’s case, it might end his career. The dangers of injury, death and the long arm of the law loom over the graffiti artist. Nevertheless, the tag persists.

Graffiti all started with tagging. Just big tags that got bigger, then got filled in, wider and wider, then outlined, then it went off from that.

Taki 183 smiling and holding a spray paint can in New York

Street artist Demetrius 'Taki 183' in New York, 1971

Tagging, as a form of creative expression, is inherently democratic. It is instantly accessible to anyone with a pen or a can of spray paint. A tag, by definition, is a graffiti artist’s signature – usually a pseudonym or logo, all one colour, in a public place. The tag is the basic building block of graffiti. In the words of Futura, one of the first graffiti artists to depart from lettering in the early 1980s, “your tag is probably the most important element”. The tag is one of the 4 main varieties of graffiti that are deployed based on the space and time available, and the tools at hand.

Tags · An artist’s signature

Throw ups · Bigger, filled in bubble letters. These take up more space than a tag but remain quick, simple and legible.

Dubs · Big, bold, clearly defined letters – usually with a simple one colour fill.

Piece (short for masterpiece) · Here, all elements of style and technique are pushed to their limits with intricate connections between letters and multicoloured fills.

Graffiti tags on a wall

Tags by DDS

Graffiti artist painting on the subway wall

Throw up by JA

'Fume' in big bold white lettering on a brick wall

Dub by Fume

Graffiti on the side of a train

Piece by Revok

It’s a logo, nahmean, and with that you can take it beyond, it’s basically like the UPC symbol (barcode), nahmsayin? It gets scanned, it gets scanned everyday by the human eyes.


Tags share lineage with an impulse to write our names on objects observed throughout history, right back to ancient handprints found in caves around the world. They are noisy, simplistic and self-celebratory. The purity of a tag, or a prehistoric handprint, can be found in the boundless energy of simply saying, “I’m here.” Often, the tag itself is less important than the context it emerged from, and the intention with which it was put there.

artist Futura 2000 holding an A3 sketchbook with his graffiti tag on it

Futura 2000 leading a tagging class on MasterClass, 2021

A black graffiti tag on a wall in the streets

Tags by American graffiti artists Utah and Ether, the "Bonnie and Clyde of the graffiti world"

And behind every tag is a story about survival and about striving to be seen, or a momentary reprieve from deprivation and desperation.

Stefano Bloch

Tags as we know them began in the late 60s in Philadelphia and New York. They emerged from a very specific American melting pot of capitalism, advertising and social deprivation – underpinned by a longing to belong. Kids could now assume a new identity, a shield from the world, and project that on their city.

Legends like Cliff 159, Taki 183, Blade, Futura and Lady Pink were born. In a society with a chasm between those with decision making powers and those without, the tactics of advertising were co-opted by a community of young people for the sole purpose of self expression.

graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat on a yellow surface

Jean-Michel Basquiat's 'SAMO©' appeared across Manhattan in the 1980s

Graffiti by artist O'Clock on a white van in the streets of Paris

Tag by Parisian artist O'Clock

This anti establishment artform hasn’t radically mutated in the 50 years since its inception. The simplicity of the action and purity of motivation has instead kept this subculture consistent. Kids in towns and cities around the world still tag day in day out.

What seems to happen is people say, ‘Fuck the system,’ for as long as they have stamina, until they get overwhelmed by it.


Faced with risks of imprisonment, falling from great heights, electrocution or being hit by a train, graffiti artists are said to be motivated by the thrill of doing something dangerous and illegal. But what really matters, are the social rewards that arise from being part of a subculture. The number of tags across a city are the criteria for judging who are “kings” and who are the amateurs, or “toys”. Fresh tags leave a trail for any writer’s movement across any city they visit.

a graffiti tag sprayed over a dog litter sign

José Parlá's 'Ease' tag in Brooklyn, 1996

José Parlá up a green ladder in his studio working on a large canvas

José Parlá painting in his Brooklyn studio, 2023

Tags sit atop a family tree that branches off in many directions. Tagging. Graffiti. Street Art. Art. Understandably, graffiti writers are fiercely protective of the scene they know and love – and wary of new junctures that compromise its integrity. Like in any family, tensions have arisen along the way.

Graffiti artists are focused on illegally painting their name (or tag), with the intention of gaining respect from other graffiti artists. This is unlike street art which is created legally for the general public with the aim of being recognised and rewarded by the art world.

It’s still one of the last things that I think hasn’t been, like, corrupted. There’s droves and droves of kids that still do it

Barry McGee

Many graffiti artists have forged successful careers in the artworld. However, many of the original graffiti artists, who at times risked their lives for the subculture, have not since been supported or rewarded by the art world. Instead, gallerists latched on to more easily accessible and marketable street artists, many of whom had never been a part of the original graffiti subculture.

Barry McGee adding his tag to a red brick wall

Barry McGee tagging his moniker 'Twist' in San Francisco, 2000

Tags will maintain their outsider status because they show little respect for the tenets of a property-based society. These two fingers flashed at the world will always keep them separate, and it’s this against-the-grain foundation that preserves the purity of the art form. The art is ephemeral, rejected by the majority and created in the face of adversity for no reward other than the rush of its creation, and the chance to be part of something bigger.

The satisfaction that you have something sitting out there, for however long, amongst everything else. It just had a life, and it would go and it went, and then that was it. You have this memory.

Barry McGee

Go deeper

Watch street artist Sano talk through the history of tagging and learn how to see your signature as a work of art with Futura's tagging masterclass.

Listen to an episode of The Create Podcast celebrating the complexity of tags through photography.

Hear about tagging from the perspective of pioneering artist Barry McGee, as he discusses “the rush" of the craft in this 2012 "Exclusive".

For more on José Parlá and Futura, visit their artist pages, and discover more about 10Foot in this interview.

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