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Writing Your Name Where It Doesn't Belong

At its most basic, "tagging" is the act of writing your name on a wall, on a newspaper stand, on a lamp post, or, let’s be honest, anything else that doesn’t belong to you.

The medium doesn’t particularly matter: marker or spray paint will do. In a pinch, and on the right surface, maybe even a ballpoint pen. The point is to put your mark where it wasn’t before, and to put it in a place where other people will see it.

And, like everything else in graffiti, the most important point is to do it with style.

That style, basically the penmanship particular to the individual writer, is called a “handstyle,” or sometimes just “hand.” A writer’s hand is her trademark, and can be described as technically as the most professional typesets. Considerations that the writer might account for include the flow of letters, the uniformity of design, or adornments like stars, hearts or haloes—taking care to avoid gratuitous ornament.

To compare a well crafted tag to professional calligraphy is not an academic exercise. In fact, many writers have appropriated the techniques and aesthetic of calligraphy for use in their own craft. The writers RETNA and Shoe are probably the most famous practitioners of “calligraffiti.”

A writer’s hand may also indicate geography. Before the advent of the World Wide Web, writers taught, learned and wrote with other practitioners in their community. This led to the development of regional handstyles and alphabets, the most notable examples in New York and Philadelphia. “Wicked” style, from Philly, is a nearly-illegible hand that somehow follows a strict form.

The internet has softened the influence of region somewhat, as writers share their styles across the world, and once locally produced alphabets now conform to a generic global sensibility.

Here in the Air Capital, local taggers are mostly writing in this global alphabet. For better or worse, the community of writers is not as large or diverse as those in the graffiti meccas of the coastal cities. Although every now and then, on a walk through Delano or Old Town, you might just spot something that surprises you.

This commentary originally ran February 3, 2014