What’s in a name? Getting out there and making graffiti allows normal people to develop a creative identity and live their dreams, and the pseudonym they choose can be the difference between being worshiped or laughed at. Although a good street name could set an artist on the path to becoming an urban legend, as our subculture has grown many artists have forged a solid reputation whilst avoiding the inconvenience of having a name altogether…
Arguably the very idea of using an abbreviated name emerged in the New York graffiti scene of the early 70s as an expression of ‘I exist, notice me’ that simultaneously functioned as a smokescreen to avoid arrest. Developed from artists scrawling just an alias and street number, such as TAKI 183 and Tracy 168 on the subway, those who saw the tags knew where in the city the artist lived but authorities could never track the culprits down. This allowed artists to connect with an audience of thousands, who whether charmed or disgruntled at seeing the tag would be unified in one thought, ‘who is this person?’
These names allowed the anonymous to become notorious, giving the writers a presence in an overpopulated cityscape plagued by dehumanizing isolation. Not only was the artist empowered by the reputation of being seen by so many people, but anyone who read the tag could share in the uplifting belief that creativity can give individuals significance.
However, as the number of people expressing themselves through spray-paint increased, links between street culture and the corporate world became harder and harder to distinguish between. While some artists started making an income through commercial graffiti commissions, other’s tags started to resemble logos or brands.
A desire began to rise in some writers to return to the underground, have no name and become truly anonymous. Many of the pieces that appear in Roger Perry’s 1975 ‘Writing on the Wall’ book, which documents the downtrodden British spirit of the time through London’s graffiti slogans, are unashamedly incognito.
This legendary book showed how anonymity was giving artists a voice to communicate on the same level as the readers of their work, the general public. The streets of many of the world’s big cities had become perfect pedestals to preach and expose political and cultural truths. As the prevalence of graffiti reached epidemic levels, police developed wiser methods to catch these ‘vandals’, meaning artists needed to find ways to produce work fast then make a quick getaway. The main weapon of the anonymous street tagger became the stencil.
Although this technique had been used early on in the development of aerosol culture, by the early 80s stencil artists had become widespread due to the increasing desire to create complex work that could be laid down quickly and efficiently time and time again, allowing artists to walk that same tightrope between anonymity and notoriety charismatically used by the very first urban writers.
One stencil artist of note is Blek Le Rat. This French pioneer made stencil street paintings with a subversive political undertone, using street rats as a metaphor for an uncaring corrupt city. His work was influenced by photographs of stencils that had been used as propaganda for Italian fascist dictator Mussolini. By referencing these pieces he helped to trigger a stencil revolution among the street artists of Paris, which opened the floodgates for the graffiti stencil to become a universal tool to spread ideas, subvert authority and influence normal people to have a voice.
The Palestinian liberation struggle has triggered many examples of normal people utilizing stencils to allow their struggle to be acknowledged. The price of being caught tagging in Jerusalem could be extremely brutal, meaning that anonymity is vital. These pieces have an edge of revolutionary protest that allows us to empathies with these young creative people whose lives are affected by political discord. The work of these Palestinian revolutionaries revitalizes the spirit of early graffiti, a universal expression of ‘I exist, notice me’ that gives us an insight into this inspirationally brave unarmed resistance.
Of course the stencil style hit the mainstream when British artist Banksy became well known in the late 90s, and it’s no coincidence that anonymity is such a massive part of his creative identity.
Banksy’s anonymity is his public persona, in the same way that visionary mask wearing artists in the music world like Daft Punk or Slipknot go incognito to strengthen their creative identity while simultaneously detaching themselves from celebrity obsession. Hiding their faces allows them to avoid the clichés that cheapen rock and roll by turning it into a gimmick, all the while wearing masks that are their own self constructed trademark.
While big name street art superstars strive for column inches making bigger and brighter pieces, there will always be unsung heroes of graffiti quietly stencilling away in obscurity, knowing that their work echoes the anonymous roots not only of our subculture, but of the human spirit that binds us all. ‘We exist. Notice us’.
In this irrepressible spirit of allowing overlooked stencil virtuosos to express themselves to the world we bring you WearThatART’s ‘Unknown’ art-tee collection. You see that ‘unknown’ link up there? That’s where you can browse our selection of shirts that feature works where the artist has remained anonymous.
I know what some distrusting readers may be thinking, ‘by using a piece of artwork that doesn’t have a name attached, surely ‘WearThatART’ avoid paying a cut to the artist?’ Well, being the respectful bunch of guys we are, 50% of the net procedures from each sale of an anonymous piece will go to the promotion of art or funds that take care of artists in the early stages of their careers. Meaning we’re not only giving our named artists some fantastic exposure and an income, we’re allowing a large cross section of the street art world who choose to be anonymous to spread their message further, simultaneously allowing these deliberately obscured graff preachers to support the spray paint soothsayers of tomorrow.