Paint It With Words : Graffiti Identity

December 3, 1996
Engl 354

They come out at night through wire fences. They know that if they are caught, they could be thrown in jail for it. Yet, the thrill and danger of doing it– breaking the law– lures them like candy. They “rack up” cans of paint and markers, stolen from paint stores, and in just a few quick moments a masterpiece is born. Their work can be seen on the sides, tops and fronts of the trains they’ve painted it on. With only a few strokes, their identity becomes known. They call themselves subway graffiti writers and they paint subway trains with words and pictures. In 1973, they cost the riders and Metropolitan Transit Authority 2.7 million dollars to clean their work from the cars (Ong 406).

Walter Ong’s article, “Subway Graffiti and the Design of the Self,” describes a connection between how writing and English can be represented as an art form. Using the underground subway graffiti culture as an example because of its connections between writing and personal development, this article explores the ways that English can be considered art. Ong centers his discussion mostly around the possible motivations behind why these writers write their names (pseudonyms) as graffiti. He sees this form of writing as a means to “achieve some sense of self in a mass, high-technology society that uses lettered words in public displays for all sorts of purposes” (402), and it is this need to find and promote their identity that drives these writers to painting their names on subways. However, unlike the aesthetic pleasures art provides, Ong suggests that subway graffiti writers write words not to convey messages or entertain others, they write to promote an identity.

The name of the game to these graffiti artists, who are mostly male and are between the ages of eleven and sixteen, is to get your “tag” up as many times as you can (Ong 401). All subway graffiti writers agree that the name is the most important aspect in the art. “Subway writers must disguise themselves at the same time that they advertise themselves– and they add to the danger by doing so in writing” (Ong 404). Their advertisements are their names, and the danger lies in the process of writing their name upon a public transit subway car. The names that the graffiti writers select are usually small words, chosen for their ease of being written on a train faster (Ong 402). These names, also known as the tags, can range from “politico-social or merely trendy mottoes or messages that work with themes” (Ong 401). Some examples of the writers’ names include “Lee,” “Bama,” or even “IN” (Ong 401-2).

Not only does a name give credit to the writer who painted the train but it also defines a writer’s identity (Ong 401). Ong believes that,
what they want to get up is letters of the alphabet identified with themselves. Personal literate identity is crucial in this youthful writers’ world. As a writer known as Wicked Gary put it : “Writing your name identifies who you are. The more you write your name [in public, conspicuously], the more you begin to think about and the more you begin to be about what you are. Once you start doing that, you start to assert your individualism and when you do that, you have an identity” (p.76).(Ong 404)

This passage explains the connection between the subway graffiti writer’s motives and how they develop their identity. Since the beginning of human expression, we have felt the need to display our identities through public writings. As stated above, the writers who paint the subway are between the ages of eleven and sixteen, the time when identities are developed and solidified. Writing and participating in this subculture gives these kids an outlet to express themselves and define who they are and what they want to become. Ong suggests, it is no surprise that this occurs, for “public display of one’s picture or statue or bust as a means of making one’s prescience goes back to antiquity” (403). Even traditional views of graffiti have been passed down the ages, “consisting of all sorts of things from mysterious symbolic designs or human or animal figures to lettered words” (Ong 403). Yet, Ong does note that it has only been in recent times (mostly due to the growing demand our governments place on the value of literacy) that lettered graffiti and the search for identity has risen. Therefore, these writers are only doing what is natural to them, expressing themselves and their “identity” through public writing displays. To the subway writers, writing on subways is their means of expressing their identity and leaving their physical mark on the world.

Yet, Ong does suggest that there are two differences between the ways that subway graffiti writing and traditional graffiti are handled. The first difference is that these kids are not using their real names, their identity is constructed using a pseudonym. The most common reason for them to use a pseudonym is to evade the law. However, using a pseudonym has a deeper function for these writers. “Fame is achieved by text”, Ong writes and through the process of ” my writing [my name] can actually represent, my own inner self, my person, my free action” (Ong 405). The selection of the word, then, as a representative identity is important to the development of the writer’s identity. yet in order to promote and advertise this identitiy to achieve the fame, the writer must repeatedly write it across subway cars. This is where the second difference between a one time graffiti artist and a subway writer differ.

Writing one’s name once on a train won’t make a lasting impression. Therefore, to prove a writer was there and that his identity created the piece of art, a graffiti writer paints his art multiple times. For, if no one can see the tag then having the name does nothing to promote the identity. Therefore to become truly known with an identity, a subway graffiti writer must literally paint the city with his name. The more a writer’s tag is seen displayed on subway trains the more prestige the artist will gain. And like any society, prestige can make a person famous. Ong describes one instance where a writer, known only by the word “Pray,” had her (a rarity for a woman to become a known artist) mark up over telephone booths so many times that she became a recognized figure and competitor amongst other writers (403). This illustration shows how quickly one’s fame and prestige can spread through the repetitive painting of one’s name.

Presented with Ong’s argument I have one big problem with it, for he never states the possibility that these writers are writing commentaries on modern society and what its effects are on their development. Art and literature also have functions as a means of gaining insight into the deeper meanings and reasons of why we are here. It gives us a means to speak out and voice our opinions about the directions the world moves in and entertains us. So why should subway graffiti writings or other forms of graffiti be subject to a different approach? There are artists out there that do have other reasons than self promotion through graffiti. Yet, there is no acknowledgment within Ong’s article of the greater purposes behind graffiti writing. To him these graffiti artists/writers works are just fruitless passions to gain fame through writing and taking part in deviant behaviors. They do it for fun, because boys will be boys (as the saying goes). Perhaps these tags function as political statements or personal beliefs that need to be shared with the rest of society.

Within this culture our name is what defines us. If you have a name, then you have an identity. You are allowed to function in society, with a name. Ong’s article reaffirms this belief in that the subway graffiti subculture and its spread through the use of writing helps to create the writer’s self identity, which in turn defines his/her place within society. He writes that “as an activity and an ideology, writing tangles itself through our consciousness and unconscious life” (400). Writing, in this sense, helps to build and aid our thoughts and define what we are and can be.