Free Identity

“Hello, My Name Is…” the excess conference stickers were long ago colonised by the taggers, to the point where it is now a commercial standard and Martha Cooper has a whole book focused on it, Name Tagging (Mark Batty, 2010).

Mini Graff

I want to look more closely at taggers and identity. Identity is not a trivial nor a simple issue. Is it enough to live, consume, work and die? The right to an identity comes with the right to express your identity? How do you have an identity if you don’t have the right to express your identity through any media? Not secretly in a diary like Winston Smith but on a public wall. What is the point in having an identity if you can’t live and express it?

The common desire for fame is a desire for an identity, to be a somebody rather than a nobody for to be famous is to be known. The right to an identity not only belongs to those who can financially afford to, or are politically allowed, or happen to become famous to express their identity but to all. These rights cannot be expressed in dollar terms.

Does the right to an identity also imply a right to anonymity? For if an identity cannot be set aside then it is not a right but a burden and an imposition. An identity is different from being an identifier of a data set about an individual. The right to an identity implies the freedom to rewrite the autobiographical fiction of the self; to have multiple identities, personalities, different costumes; to adopt an open identities, like that of the Neo-Dadaist, Luther Blisset.

Hello My Name Is

Superheroes all have secret identities; by day a mild mannered clerk but at night…

Outing the secret identity of graffiti and street artists is an inevitable plot line, like someone about to discover the identity of Spiderman. The media is waiting for Banksy’s real identity to be discovered because it is a story that they know.

Outing graffiti and street artists aside there are other complex moral issues around identity and street art. There is the moral right of an artist to be identified with their work presents a conundrum with uncommissioned work and the secret identities of graffiti and street artists. It is a problem for me too when writing about them or photographing them, endless shots of the backs of artists at work, and thinking about when to use what name to use when. There are a contrary rights in the case of a juvenile graffiti artist where there legal right for the juvenile not to continue to be identified with their crimes in their adult life and the moral right of an artist to be identified with their work. At this point the legal and moral rights diverge along with the legal and artistic identity of the work.

Ultimately does it really matter the exact identity of all these street artists? Aside from the moral right of the artist to have their work correctly attributed and issues of attribution for art historians. Sometimes attribution feels like bird watching with my father or a game for the insiders. There are plenty of proto-Renaissance artists who are simply known as “The Master of” X. We know nothing of their life and only a couple of their works survive.

My Name Is Subre1


About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

5 responses to “Free Identity

  • Kieron Wilson

    Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant’ colonised graff and are making a good career out of it. Minigraff saw her on a kids tv show years ago with Nitro and Curio and Enviro total kid shit. Careerists are not all the same..on one hand you make literary critiques but on the other you’re not visual practitioners, and then there’s those who are both but one should tell them they are really writers. you have to go beyond martha and henry to know the truth I have told you this but you dont listen. I saw mini graff on a channel 9 kids show. I saw Phase 2 invent bubble letters arrows connections all types of shit in NYC even then you have to separate the boroughs bronx, manhattan etc. if you need help answering your questions read this not martha cooper they aint even relevant anymore all they did was make a video and books that in an epoch where eye opening but they overlooked nearly a decade before Style wars subway art as if it magically happened in 1984. Not that there was a heroin problem and the fall out of Vietnam war, none of that matters..yeh right…colonists and careerists..

  • Kieron Wilson

    you know who else has secret identities and are not fake, sex workers

  • 36viewsofblackmountain

    Love this: ‘Sometimes attribution feels like bird watching with my father’. As the daughter of a twitcher I’m frequently subjected to photos of birds just flying out of shot or facing the wrong way. I think seeing and capturing images of street art is similar, as the pieces often have short life spans and you’re lucky if you’re in the right place at the right time.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Yes, (laughs) thanks for giving some the excruciating details of living with classification/attribution geeks. In the case of street art it is generally if only it hadn’t been capped or that car wasn’t parked there.

  • Eucalypso

    I have to say I laughed at Kieron’s link (good article though), where it asks “Why do graffitists behave the way they do?” Why do politicians behave the way they do? Sometimes writing/street art is about responding to the stupid things we see happen around us in the name of good citizenship.

    In terms of aggressive behaviour, I see 4-wheel-drive owners who never go off road or work in an area that needs a utility vehicle, as being aggressive. They hog parking spaces, block visibility on the road and consume huge amounts of a finite resources for no good reason. It’s all subjective.

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