March 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 12
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Tagging- Art Form or Vandalism
Looking Back
Saskatchewan grain car spruced up
Back about 13 years ago I got interested in an unusual expressive phenomenon that seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. What caught my eye one day back then was a tag left on the old abandoned Ridgemont School in Fernie near where I lived at the time. It was very ornate and colorful against the school’s white stucco walls and I discerned the name Derek in its artful lettering. This appeared to be not your normal run-of-the-mill graffiti, which back then was usually offensive and crude. It had style and was thought out.

Shortly after the school was tagged the new concrete skate board park near the tracks was hit with several tags including once again by Derek. Most times it is near impossible to translate a taggers lettering and as I stood trying to figure out what the other skate board park messages were (if any), a grain train roared by. As we all know, these days, those hopper cars have been turned into a parade of colourful imagery, messages, signatures and exotic line drawings. This 2005 grain train was my first exposure to what I would call a fast moving colour palette of social commentary.

I have been studying this art form, if you can call it that, ever since and cannot resist stopping near the tracks to watch when one of those hell-bent-for-leather grain trains charges though our valley. That is happening a lot these days as the rail company’s scramble to move that tremendous backlog of grain west and east. It has reached near crisis levels and farmers are not happy.

So whether empty or loaded, the grain trains are usually a veritable cornucopia of color with obvious and not so obvious messages. Since they rarely stop here for long one has to wonder where all this bombing and tagging is taking place. Presumably it is done at night or at obscure prairie sidings where these cars sit idle for longer periods of time. There are hundreds of websites on this phenomenon with advice on things like technique and how not to get caught. They are a whole world unto themselves. Their supplies include exotic spray paint cans with wide or narrow special nozzles that can be attached to them.
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Whether it is a bare factory wall, a hopper car or an underpass, it seems they are all fair game to the tagger. It appears at times that they are looking for a level of fame or notoriety by the exotic and/or difficult location they choose. The tougher it is to get to the more they impress their fellow taggers. This is what I discovered on Sunday when I revisited the old Mohawk tipple east of Bellevue. I had noticed recently that a large blue tag had shown up on its east wall and so I tramped through the crusty snow to this iconic piece of mining heritage to get a closer look.

On closer inspection I noticed more tagging on the south side and was drawn inside to the old inner workings of this massive, more than meets the eye, remnant of our mining past. Inside the tipple I found a mix of messy local rude and crude scribblings but also some spectacular tagged artwork that must have taken a long time. Given the remote abandoned location of the Mohawk I guess I was not surprised to find that it was eventually tagged and tagged hard. It is a shame to see this time worn concrete and brick sentinel turned into a canvas for obscure messages.

I noted one simple black saying scrawled on a wall that said: “Not all those who wander are lost.” It is a line from J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem called Song of Aragorn.

“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

Across the way on another wall were four large letters NMFO with the tag “bass nympho”. I did a lot of net searching for interpretation on the multiple tags there but mostly came up blank. A similar image of NMFO showed up tagged differently (as in computer tag) with the tag words “street urban street art calgary”. I tracked one taggers signature to Calgary with some mention of him being a renowned tagger on blogs. Looking for the meanings of some of these tags and who they are will drive you nuts. There is a whole subculture to this and it is a worldwide phenomenon.
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In a remote hard to reach corner I found some ominous looking black letters on a blue background that spelled SAUM. It has two tags (author’s marks) on it – HSK and DESV 16. I’m guessing the 16 indicates the year. SAUM is a word that can mean one of three things. Firstly it is an Arabic word for fasting and is one of the five pillars of Islam. Secondly it can mean a herbaceous border found at the end of a woodland. And lastly it can mean a powerful 7mm rifle cartridge. I’ll let you decide which one fits.

There are dozens of interesting terms commonly used by taggers. For example:

Crew: A group of taggers working together with their own distinct name, usually consisting of three or more words. Eg. ACM-Aerosol Criminal Madness or YPN- Your Property Next.

Piece: Short for masterpiece. A mural or elaborate large scale painting of one’s tag utilizing different colors of spray paint. It is a large, complex, and labor-intensive graffiti painting. Pieces often incorporate 3-D effects, arrows, and many colors and color-transitions, as well as various other effects.

Racking: Shoplifting spray paint cans, aerosol nozzles, liquid shoe polish or markers

Throw-up: Larger than a tag. In bubble or balloon style letters using one color and appear as an outline.

I found a throw-up inside the tipple that matched that blue tag you see outside on the east wall from the highway. No color, just the same identically drawn balloon style letters. If anyone can translate what it says I would love to hear from you! (see pic)

Getting back to the grain cars I have observed some spectacular efforts moving through here. Sometimes they are social commentary like “9-11 TRUTH NOW” or “IMPEACH ALAMO”. Impeach Alamo shows up on several cars and on one in black lettering off to the right side of these giant letters are arrows pointing to the smaller words: “Abe Lincoln Brigade”. Like I said their meanings can be challenging. That brigade was part of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and was the first American military force to include blacks and whites integrated on an equal basis. Anthony Peressini from Blairmore was killed in this conflict. He served in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion and was one of 721 Canadians who didn’t come back from that awful war. It is entirely possible however that the taggers (AMFM and D2F), who sign these Alamo pieces, call themselves the Abe Lincoln Brigade. Who knows?
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For the average property owner being tagged is considered an act of vandalism, deliberate damage to public or private property. The costs of cleaning up this type of graffiti can be huge. In places like Calgary sometimes an anti graffiti coating (called a sacrificial) is used which is a clear polymer to protect the surface. If it is tagged one can power wash off the work and reapply another sacrificial layer without the original surface being damaged. Locally there have been several “attacks” in our downtowns in past years but they were crude and more like sheer vandalism than artwork. What we are seeing today is much more refined and tolerable.

There are two views to this distinct piece of modern culture. One side sees art form and creativity, the other sees deliberate destruction of property and defiance of the rule of law.

It seems to me that tagging has been around for a long, long time. Cave art in itself could be considered a form of tagging. There is no denying that expressing yourself through art is exciting and challenging. As usual the boundaries of what is art and what isn’t are always in dispute.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the artistic ability of taggers could be redirected towards something constructive instead of destructive? Imagine the mural possibilities here in the Pass.

Author’s Note: How is it that those amazing potash trains remain unmarred by this phenomenon? Not one car… Interesting!
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March 21st, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 12
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