From graffiti writers to digital tags

by Tommaso Tozzi, 1993

Printed on: Decoder, #9, Shake Underground editions, Milano, 1994, Italy.
Printed also in book: "Conflitti giovanili e culture metropolitane", Costa & Nolan, 1995.
English translation: Stefano Bettini, Enrico Bisenzi, Mario Chiari, Luca Scarlini.


Name has a bureaucratic role in society. It is useful for some needs, but begins to be a limit for others. Identity given from a name it's the password to the archives which contain the bureaucratic part of our social history. But obviously our life doesn't wear out in bureaucracy and involves a whole of relationships for which to refer always to one name it's a limit. Impossibility to assume multiple identities forbids use of metaphor to describe ourselves. Moreover be forced to refer to the name always through a word makes verbal language ruling in comunication.
Domination of verbal language in communication systems of the past has been an useful convention for the relationships in society where writing (strenghtened from print) was most used system (of course nothing forbidded to communicate with gestures, grunts or other).
Now with increasing diffusion of medial technologies which allow the use of ipertexts and cyberspace in mass communications gets evidence this question: how the word could be integrated in a multilinguistic model which uses at the same time images, sounds and tactile sensations.
Word explodes to contain other linguistic forms. With it breaks down utility of social accepted customs which imposed to identity to refer to one word in a static way.
If this speech has to be understood as a pragmatic remark of the consequences of a technologic growth, we can deal with the same problem from different points of view. The problem of needs to adopt multiple identities in communications has to be brought as a moral problem of freedom of individuals: on one hand the right to privacy (and so to be anonymous) and on the other hand to be able to socialize every potential shape of our imagination. That nowaday can signific between the other things the right and freedom to make concrete our fantasy in cyberspace "reality".


In 1967 New York subway direction fines for 25 dollars whom writes in the Underground1. In this period more recurring inscriptions are political, obscene, religious, phylosophical or ironical. Yet from many years they exist writings of the gangs while are starting to appear the first pseudonymes (as WILLIE AS PAPO, FRANKIE AS THE MONSTER, etc.). Function of the writings made from the gangs isn't to define a cultural identity but to define borders and property of a territory.
In 1968 JULIO 204, from somebody recognized as the first graffiti writer begins to write regularly his name with at the side the number of the street where he lives (last news about him, at the end of seventies, speak of him as a guest of a mental hospital). Thor 191 writes the O of his name with the badge of peace symbol.
These first pseudonymes of graffiti writers are different from gangs' names, because indicate an attitude of personal behaviour.
In 1971 first article about graffitists comes out in New York Times and indicates in TAKI 183 the first graffitist.
At the beginning of 1972 train begins the medium for a communication between writers of different districts which write their tags on subway coaches. H. Martinez founds United Graffiti Artists between the blames of many writers who should have preferred call the group Graffiti Guerrilla and give to it different methods of action. Martinez would graffitists made on canvas. Did'nt consider that the language provided not only the image but also the action with all that involves: risk, casualness, challenge and urban communication. After an initial decimation of UGA, in the group remain nearly twenty writers considered as the better (between them COCO 144, LEE 163, PHASE 2 and SNAKE I).
In 1973 "Razor Gallery" realizes the first graffiti exhibition in an official structure. At the middle of the '70 there are nearly 10.000 graffiti writers in all New York.

Writer's identity does'nt found in his real name, but on pseudonym everybody creates and developes to express basilar qualities of his behaviour and lifestyle. Such a pseudonym is able to symbolize identity with a sign which makes easier to find contacts with others similar to him. To write a tag on a train signifies leave our identities go round in the town with the awareness that others will answer to you showing solidarity or difference. Besides, thanks to these exchanges of signals, born the first place of meeting between graffiti writers (as Writer's Corner 188 at the crossing between Audobon Avenue about 1971-72) who reunite themselves to discuss about common interests or to go tagging on the coaches.

(Note for Mattew Fuller: under you find the Baudrillard phrase that you can choice if translate in english or let it in italian language)

"Questa forma di denominazione simbolica è negata dalla nostra struttura sociale, che impone a ciascuno il suo nome proprio e un'individualità privata, infrangendo qualsiasi solidarietà nel nome di una socialità urbana astratta e universale. Questi nomi, al contrario, queste denominazioni tribali hanno una vera carica simbolica: sono fatti per scambiarsi, per trasmettersi, per darsi il cambio indefinitamente nell'anonimato, ma un anonimato collettivo, in cui questi nomi sono come i termini d'una iniziazione che corre dall'uno all'altro e si scambiano tanto bene che non sono -non più della lingua- proprietà di alcuno"2


The use of language developed by graffiti writers is prevalently oriented to the establishment of a contact. No descriptions or truths about the world are given. The way of writing a graffito does not imply a request of discussion on its existence but an answer that show the identity and quality of the receiving people. Theories such as the '"'Ramellae'"' and '"'Panzerismo Iconoclasta'"' ones have the end to destroy the language imposed by dominant culture and substitute it with a culture based on daily experiences. The language must not impose descriptions but facilitate the connection. In such linguistic model the meaning does not come out from a single statement but develops itself in the exchange and comparison among different statements. In a similar way, implementing a BBS is not useful to impose a certain cultural model, but to facilitatre the exchange and dialogue among human beings. The meaning of a BBS comes out from such exchange.


It is difficult to outline the history of digital viruses. The mathematical studies Von Neumann (Theroy and Organization of Complicated Automata, 1949) and the successive researches on cellular atom and artificial life can be considered as the main step towards their realization. The Mathematical Theory of Epidemics (1957), ACM Use of Virus Functions to Provide a Virtual APL Interpreter under User Control (1947) and the Worm Programs - Early Experience with a Distributed Computation (1982) can be considered as some of the most important issues carried out in the past on this subject. Computer Viruses: Theory and Experiments of Fred Cohen (1984) is the book that will spread in a determing way such above-mentioned researches. The first real virus epidemic is dated around 1986.
Generally speaking these viruses heve been carried out on the Worms, Trojan Hourses, Logic Bombs and Trapdoors design principles3.
Many viruses delete some sectors of the intersted computer's memory or endager its functioning. Actually, many viruses have the only effect to duplicate itself or show a message on the monitor without damaging the computer.
Here a list4 of the computer viruses is presented with the relating technical characteristics (the year reported is relating to the date it was descovered for the first time).

effect: message and melody
year: 1990

effect: the virus transmits a character string to the COM1 developing the message '"'Armageddon the GREEK'"'; within five o'clock and seven o'clock a.m. the virus is involved in making the phone number of the public body of Creta (Greek) delivering the standard time of Greece. It is not able to make the phone number abroad of Greece.
year: 1990

effect: make a beep when a key is pressed
year: 1990

effect: let the characters fall down on the low of the monitor
year: 1987

effect: '"'A merry christmas to you'"' message on 25 december of each year
year: 1990

effect: make a noise
year: 1990

effect: '"'The world will hear from me again!'"' message and other messages commenting the names of some political fellows
year: 1988

effect: '"'Green Peace'"' message
year: 1991

effect: it makes the '"'Stem op green links'"' music every 30 minutes, dutch message that invite to vote for a left wing party of Holland,
year: 1990

name: HOLLAND GIRL 1 and 2
effect: in the virus code is transcribed the name of a girl ('"'Silvia'"'), its address and the request of sending her a post card. Probablydesigned by her boy-friend.
year: 1989

effect: make a melody till the computer is trun off.
year: 1990

name: JOKER
effect: show the following messages: '"'End of worktime. Turn system off'"', '"'Water detect in co-processor'"', '"'I am hungry! insert hamburger into drive A'"', '"'Insert tractor toilet paper into printer'"', '"'Another cup of coffee?'"' and many others....
year: 1989

name: JOSHI
effect: message
year: ?

It is on this last kind ov virus that I am interested to stress the attention, or, in other worlds, on the possibility to spread messages by means of computer viruses.
The virus message depends on the contamination capacity and is not addressed to any specific fellow or place. If the virus is a powerful one it will be able to send the message at a great number of persons without taking advantage of masses mechanisms that '"'manipulate'"' the message in such a way to make it functional to other kinds of interests.As the TAG take advantage of trains and walls ignoring the artistic establishment, the virus take advantages of computers to enter in the houses of anyone.
This kind of viruses can be considered as an inderect and unidirectional communication system.
The '"'present'"' viruses' limit - if compared to TAG - is that are not still able to structure itself in a linguistic form while represent object of studies during particular meetings or conferences. This situation can evolve, anyway.
In any case, virus is, in my opinion, an important communication's model. It shows the willing to send messages to the world without showing interests for the receiver, the sender or the instrumental games connected at this act. The important aspect is simply the willing to send a message, without hidden purposes retrieval of advantages attitudes. The freedom of speaking to the world without being instrumentalized is constantly denied by the systems of the power that control the communications media.
Just in the last years a new form of pubblishing products connected to the electronic world is born. Although it takes advantage of informatics tools, the majority of the pubblishing houses involved apply the same information plotting methods commonly used by pubblishing houses distributing paper-based products. Legal and economical mechanisms facilitate the more powerful pubblishing groups that, consequently, control the cultural development of nowdays society.
I really think that the use of informatics tools must be supported by new kinds of message's spreading and presentation. Viruses, thanks to their distribution capacity and possibility of anonymously skip various methodsof controls, could be the right integrant form for a new kind of electronic issues. Spreadinh some Kbytes of texts by means of viruses could be the new way to carry out fanzines and alternative culture. Anyone would be able to receive messages from all over the world gratis. I am also persuaded that it will be of primary importance applying an ethical method in spreading these viruses that consists in warning the reader of the existence of the '"'virus-book'"' including the possibility of let her/him decide to delete or read the virus'message. Besides this, the possibility of an advertising agency to understand the excellent propaganda capacities of a virus and apply it to advertise its own products with subliminal-promotional viruses spreading all over the PC world.


"According to Fraser, four are the systems in which is possible to decompose a communicative interaction.

1. Verbal system
2. Intonational system
3. Paralinguistic system
4. Cinesic System" 5

The cinesic system [i.e.: communication through movements and gestures] evidently finds a difficoult realization with the exchange of telematic messages. This gap is filled thanks to a particoular expedient: the use of telematic small faces. These small faces are formed from some ASCII types of the keyboard (e.g.: ":", "-", "<", "/", ...) which, when written one after the other, reproduce with a certain accuracy some of the facial expressions. For instance if you try to read the following three types:
bowing your head at 90 degree in the anti-clockwise direction, you should face a smiling countenance of the kind that, in telematic communication, means "be preceded by a jocose sentence".
Here are examples of typical small faces6:
:-) sad or unhappy countenance
:-O surprised
:-/ hum
:^) teasing someone
:*) a kiss on the tip of the noise
To associate these faces with a sentence is useful to understand if the sentence itself has an ironical, serious or some other meaning; it has the same function that, in a usual dialogue, is carried out from facial expression, gestures or particoular intonation.
The use of acronyms is another way to obviate at the inadequacy of telematic language. Acronyms in fact not only speed up writing times, but are able to synthesize a concept in a mark. Here is a brief list7:

POV Point Of View
RTFM Read The Fucking Manual
TTBOMK To The Best Of My Knowledge
IMOBO In My Own Biased Opinion
BTW By The Way
ASAP As Soon As Possible


It is actually possible to consider digital signatures as the direct consequence of the tags writed on the walls or in the subway. The digital signature under the telematic messages, which is often a pseudonym, is not limited to a letter made name, but it assumes a graphic covering realized thanks to some particoular ASCII characters or through ANSI graphic. Digital tags are frequently associated with a sentence (origin) that became a motto, and are able sometime to express better than any other thing the kind of person who made the message. These digital signs, thanks to telematic networks, are able in a night time to let circulate everywhere in the world the graphic and verbal pseudonym with who we want to present ourselves to the others. Unlike wall tags, the digital quality of telematic tags make possible their own exponential duplication without a deteroration of the copy. This permit to everyone not only to imitate the style, but also to use again some parts of the original to create something new.
The digital tags evolution inside the telematic communities could give rise to new alphabets of communication wich, as happened for graffiti writers in New York ghettos, are developed from the bottom. Still as happened with graffito writers, the "artistic quality" of some signatures could create a market interest around them which could distort their meaning.

A.R.E. (Anonymous Routing Events)

Both street tags and digital ones are examples of what I call Anonymous Routing Events [A.R.E.] (Routing is the automatic exchange of messages in computer networks.) Mail art, fanzines, happenings, and so on are Anonymous Routing Events too. We have an Anonymous Routing Events whenever the means of communication allow to modify messages anonymously along the route and authors are not at the center of the communicational events.

(Note for Mattew Fuller: sorry but I don't find the correct translation of the italian word: DEMERCIFICAZIONE, the marxist term, so if possible for you to check it; tommaso)

In communication, the absence of names shouldn't be considered as the absence of social norms (anomos)8, although it migth be a sign of the absence of norms that are imposed from above. Rules should emerge from within social relationships and they make sense only within the social relationships they are emerged from.
Surely, an important feature of anonymous communication is that it evades the so-called market laws that so often are imposed on communication. Thus, we must '"'understand whether what we call de-materialization is a kind of DEMERCIFICAZIONE (Note for Mattew Fuller: the same problem of above), i.e., whether what it is considered a rarefied tie with physical reality is a loosened tie with the market system'"'9


The case of eletronic money illustrates the need of protecting privacy, and anonymity of communication. When we buy something in a shop and pay in cash, our names are not signed either on the banknotes we use to pay or somewhere else. In the transaction, we are anonymous. Thus, our privacy is protected. Names are not attached to money. When it will be possible to purchase through a computer network, anonymity of buyers and our privacy should be protected as well. It would be extremely dangerous if somebody could analyze what and when every single person buys. A detailed knowledge of that kind could be easily exploited by whoever is in power in order to judge whether somebody is socially 'useful' or not10.


We shouldn't understand 'anonymity' as a loss. Although anonymous, the expressive qualities of cyberspace communication are as good and rich as any other. Indeed, cyberspace communication permits to every person an even richer space of possibilities of expression. In the cyberspace, a person may assume a broad range of different forms and behave, as broad as her/his imagination suggests. Thus, what it is missing is only the 'bureaucratic name'. The virtual body never hides the real body and its behaviour.
An important property of cyberspace language is that symbols and metaphors are not expressed by abstract forms, i.e., forms that only 'recall' feeling and sensations. In the cyberspace, a fire could be represented by producing the tactile sensation of warm, not only by picture and sounds. Thus, language would represent reality by 'reproducing' it as closely as possible; as a generalizied onomatopoeia.
In cyberspace communication, the nervous systems of the communicating people will be 'connected' by the computer network. Thus, every persons will be a single neuron in the world nervous system: a gigantic network for the trasmission of impulses. Looking forward to future technology and linguistic possibilities, we must think of social communication olistically: what matters is not the name of a single part, what do matter is the global output that emerges in the connections of the every single part with every else. Again, what matter is the possibility of universal connection and what every single node behaves in the connection, not their names.

It is useful to think about the possible evolution of tags in the cyberspace. A signature could be made from many different 'media'. Pictures, sounds, writings as well as tactile and gustative sensations could be part of a signature. A signature will be an 'total experience'. The logic of cyberspace language should be reinterpreted as to catch up with names that will be virtual projection of the thing they name, instead of being an abstract 'necessity' that just describes the named thing. A virtual projection that will be able to simulate every sensations that the named thing can provoke, and even the memories that the named thing migth evoke.


(1) Historical informations on Graffiti writers are mostly from Andrea Nelli, Graffiti a New York, Lerici, 1978, Italy.
Also, see Tommaso Tozzi, Dai Graffiti all'East Village, graduation thesis at Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, 1984, Italy.
(2) From the beautiful essay Kool Killer o l'insurrezione mediante i segni, in Jean Baudrillard, Lo scambio simbolico e la morte, 1976.
(3) Furhter reading on this point are:
-R.Burger, Virus, Free Time editions, Milano, 1988, Italy
-J.McAfee e C.Haynes, Computer Viruses, Worm, Data Diddlers, Killer Programs and other threats to your system, St. Martin Press, New York, 1989, USA.
-M.Ludwig, The little Black Book of Computer Viruses, American Eagle Publ., Tucson (Arizona), 1990.
(4) The list is from Patricia M. Hoffman, Virus information summary list, Santa Clara, CA, 1991, USA
(5) From a e-mail message by Ugo, reprinted in Tommaso Tozzi, Conferenze Telematiche Interattive, Galleria Paolo Vitolo, Milano, 1992, Italy.
(6) See Curiosità: le faccine, in Telematicus, vol.1, n.1, or in Metanetwork 2000 floppy disk magazine, n.1, Global Pubblications, Pisa, spring 1993, Italy.
(7) For a almost complete see the e-mail message from Alfredo Persivale to Cybernauti with subject Acronimi, 08-01-1994, Message Area: Cyberpunk, Cybernet, Italy.
(8) Thanks to vitolo for pointing out the distinction.
(9) From Fiammetta, Feticcio, article/message in area message: Metanetwork Materiali Utenti, Hacker Art BBS, Florence, 055-485997, Italy, printed in Metanetwork floppy disk magazine, n.2, Global Pubblications, Pisa, winter 1993/94, Italy.
(10) For further information give a look at H.Finney, La protezione della privacy con il denaro elettronico, Extropy, vol.4, n.2, CA, USA, translated in italian in Metanetwork floppy disk magazine, n.2, Global Pubblications, Pisa, winter 1993/94, Italy.