“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).
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.
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.