The sign is the name

2.1The act of naming was crucial in the development of surface signage, by enabling the legal and cultural evolution of inscriptions, and their institutional appropriation. On surfaces, names can be means or ends: they can occupy territories without disclosing identities; or they can advertise brands, identify artists and strategically guide attention. ‘Who made that?’, one often hears when walking around areas rich in street art, or reads in the comments section of social media picture posts. Naming generates uniqueness and recognition, and enables extraction of specific works and their makers from surface environments. In this respect, it is often the name that makes the street artist, even if the graffiti writer was displaying it more frequently and directly. Without names, there would be no artists, there would be only expression (what a wonderful world that would be). The name makes the sign, it rises and qualifies it, but it also significantly alters it. In fact, the named street artist is fundamental to legitimising and empowering the cultural field of street art; which is something I discuss in the following chapter.

Names come from the need to create taxonomies, to distinguish objects and classes. They illustrate the power of language to shape reality, not just describe it, which is why the unwanted surfaces signs are called graffiti, while the desirable ones are called street art (irrespective of the formal differences between them). Names create commonality and enable recognition of phenomena that did not previously exist. They produce identity, behavior and perception, and justify their performative enactment: we don’t want graffiti in our neighbourhood, and street art is one of the best-selling subjects in the local bookshop. The ways in which these names and categories have been acted upon, makes the object of the following chapters.