Once upon a time I collected signatures of famous artists. After that I had a fixation with Les Nabis, a movement founded by Pierre Bonnard and Jean-Édouard Vuillard, because they could magically integrate extremely busy backgrounds into their paintings. Then came my fascination with renaissance masters like Hans Holbein the Younger, and Pietro Perugino and their rendering of hands and feet. This naturally led to shoes.
These flirtations abruptly gave way to new preoccupations, like Yayoi Kusama’s infinity rooms, the golden spider silk cape at the V&A, innumerable 7th-stations-of-the-cross, the make-up and body armour of Tolkien’s Orcs, Richard Wilson’s oil room and, yes, Stelarc’s third ear.
All of that was before my introduction to the street art in London and the work of Skeleton Cardboard, Vhils, Borondo, Pang and the mysterious Italian artist ‘Blu’. Their magical approaches to the genre are inspirational and have led me to the most scintillating art, places, and people.
Well this summer found me in Progreso, a small beach town in the Yucatān. It is an area of Mexico where street artists are just beginning to emerge from the shadows. Even though they are no longer assumed to be gang members, thugs or emerging cartel members, the legal street art scene still feels so new that the artists’ old habit of nervously looking over their shoulders remains hard to shake off. Quality work is already hitting the walls in this region, and soon I expect that the street art tours will begin. But for now… taxi drivers have no idea where to take you to photograph street art, and a request to stop for a photo might elicit some politely stifled laughter.
Obviously this fading cloak-and-dagger atmosphere along with my hoarding tendencies have proven irresistible for me, and my new passion simply had to be – the collection of street artist’s ‘tags.
The style of the tags that I found ran from an intentionally simple alphabet motif to ambiguous, complex and undecipherable symbols. The results hint at either open personalities with a willingness to be self-revealing, or else they appear coded, which might signal a desire to guard their identity and reserve it for ‘insiders-only’.
Ultimately a street art tag is akin to a stage name; it is more about concept and presenting a character than an artist’s real name. It is self-imposed personal branding, as distinctive and important as the exclusiveness of Polynesian tribal tattoos. They illustrate an artist’s “I was here” moment”.
The tag is the artist’s final flourish. It is the artwork’s calling card, and the declaration of an end to a creative process. It is now camera-ready. So here we come and . . . Bom Dia!
Sometimes something can look beautiful just because it’s different in some way from the other things around it.” Andy Warhol
Note: This project does come with a few cautionary warnings. Forget trying to defy sunstroke; midday in the summer temperatures hover at an intense 38-43º degrees, so carry water, a hat, sunscreen and a camera – in that order.