Commentary  A diversity of tagtics

Why we write graffiti

When viewing the Montreal skyline from the chalet on Mount Royal, most people focus on the snow-topped buildings and the bridges in the distance. As in most cities, the logos and text of corporations, banks, and hotels stand taller than any church or library. But there are those who search for the mark of a city’s authentic inhabitants, those who search for the writing on the wall. What captures their attention is the gigantic “VC” painted on an industrial tower towards the southwest. These people are graffiti writers: the inhabitants of cities around the world who know their environment better than any bike messenger or cab driver, and who take the advice of “making your mark” quite literally, and very seriously.

Regrettably, the state deems these graffiti writers to be criminals. Members of the public, who only want to consume graffiti when it has been repackaged and sold back to the streets that created it via commodified art and marketing campaigns, perpetuate this criminalization of public art and expression.

The demonization of graffiti has happened through the marginalization and stereotyping of writers as malicious and mischievous youths. Most notably, the development of the “Broken Window Theory” by social scientists in the early eighties unjustifiably tied all graffiti to antisocial behavior, and denied graffiti its aesthetic merit and nature as an invaluable resource for social history.

Indeed, there is no such thing as a typical graffiti writer. From rich to poor and left to right, all kinds of people write graffiti and they do so for very different reasons. Writers in the modern school of graffiti, which emerged in New York City in the second half of the 20th century, leave their homes at four in the morning with a backpack full of paint because they want to see their name in every neighbourhood and on every block. The motivation may be for themselves, other graffiti writers, or the public, but the ultimate goal of “getting up” consumes those who dedicate their life to ensuring that everyone in their city knows their name, but not their face.

Once one’s name is on the street, one’s reputation needs to be maintained. For many, graffiti can become an addiction as the repetition develops a profound intensity. But this world of graffiti isn’t a game. The egos, violence, drugs, passion, legends, and the smell of fresh paint on the cold night air are all part of the nocturnal art whose effects are only revealed as the sun rises.

In conversations concerning graffiti, the typical refrain goes something like this: “The colourful murals are really great, but not that stupid tagging shit.” But this is an ignorant position. If it’s an aesthetic judgment, then sure, everyone is entitled to their own taste. But without that first tag scrawled in an alley, the graffiti writer who now paints murals would never be where they are now. Graffiti, as with all forms of art, is a process of developing and harnessing talent, and this maturity grows in the can. A little tag evolves into a throw up, which evolves into a burner, which then evolves into a piece; Sharpie scrawls and commissioned stencils are co-dependent entities within the city.

But these murals, tags, and pieces occupy space that the ruling class deem only fit for profit. Every day, we are subjugated to absurd amounts of advertising visible from virtually every vantage point. On the streets, they are the only legal additions to the built environment. Indeed, just to hang a poster in the SSMU building necessitates approval from someone. By writing on walls, be it a political message or a tag or a heart, people challenge a system that says art in public space should only exist to sell.

In Montreal, the Quebec student movement was quick to utilize graffiti as a tool for political dissent. After the manifs had finished for the night, painted messages on walls, wheat-pasted posters on lampposts, and red square stickers everywhere maintained the physical presence of political engagement.

For some, graffiti is about reaction. When a city dweller living out their daily routine notices ink on a wall, their mental state is altered, if only for a split second. Their reaction could be laughter, annoyance, curiosity, or anger, but what matters is the invisible connection between artist and viewer. For in that moment, the mundane glimpses the extraordinary like the darkness between frames on film; in a world increasingly characterized by isolation, moments like this should be cherished.

By taking the art from museums to the street, the ephemeral nature of existence becomes physically present. What is painted on a wall one day can be covered up the next, but this destruction only creates a new canvas for the next individual willing to break the law in the name of expression. Indeed, graffiti writers, consciously or not, are responding to capitalist societies that are both alienating and debilitating in their colonization of public space. So get yourself some paint, hit the streets, and authentically and subversively engage with your city! Just don’t write over someone else.

*Seamus Mercury is a pseudonym. To submit comments about this article,  or a letter to the editor, email

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