Tags and codes

Graffiti tags are like the scents left by animals to mark territory. The territorial call signs of birds presumably fill a similar function.

Territories are defined as much by secret conventions as they are by walls and boundaries. As explored in my previous post, one of the technical terms for such sign conventions is “deictic” — the ambiguous, hidden, conflictual, and agonistic means by which agents identify spaces as their own, through a language aimed at a particular group that knows the code.

Taggers claim space

There’s a political aspect to laying down tags, especially if we think of tags more widely as labels, insignias, brand marks, street signs, signposts, placards and names. One group or class can assert its power by labelling, branding and tagging the world in ways that are conspicuously its own — as when an invading or colonising nation changes all the street signs of the subjected territories into its own language.

The introduction of brand signs (Coke, Nike, MacDonald’s) serves a similar purpose, and features in Melanie Kline’s critique of branding.

The infrastructures and products of pervasive digital platforms are of necessity sourced by large corporations in tandem with governments and regulators. Active citizens criticise corporate interests that tag and brand spaces, services, networks and people.

Formal tagging also represents a bureaucratic attempt to avoid and settle disputes, or subjugate dissent, whether by colonisers, capitalist hegemony, or pragmatic and consensual social ordering. One of the claims made of global capital and bureaucratisation is that they label everything, and in so doing tend to make everything the same. Or at least they suppress difference and diversity.

Tags and resistance

Contrary to such narratives of hegemony, there is a certain independent autonomy that disregards homogenising organisational structures, or at least works to exploit them. For example, in his book Step by Step: Everyday Walks in a French Urban Housing Project Jean-François Augoyard championed “appropriation” as the operative term for tactical resistance. Inhabitants are capable, through their micropractices that cut across the grain of the grand design, of taking over a place.

Not least amongst the citizens’ methods for this is the phenomenon of naming: “the inhabitants carry out a veritable process of place naming” (80). In fact they may purvey a kind of un-naming, a wilful removal of labels, i.e. not recognizing the names supplied by the developer, misusing the official appellations — reconfiguring the tags, analogous to the formation of digital “folksonomies.”

Residents might think of inhabited places as tagged with their personal signs, that are given expression only loosely by personalised labels on doors: this is “Mike’s room,” “Wendy’s cupboard,” or “the box room.”

Photographs, ornaments and souvenirs are also amongst the means by which residents tag their habitats. Placing an object in a space colours and influences that space anyway; placing objects of our own choosing leaves our mark, and personalises the environment.

For Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, the reality of a house as a home is subject to constant “re-imagining” (17). The placing of “memorabilia” brings the former occupants to mind. Tagging still exhibits this strong temporal aspect whether deployed territorially or habitually. By analogy, social media posts, pages and profiles provide similar opportunities for personalising and claiming information space through tags — within the restricted vocabularies of digital platforms.

So tags are linguistic, social, locational, temporal, territorial and habitual. The presence of tagging in the context of habitat provides further evidence for the primacy of the small move, the temporal shift, the nudge by which pervasive digital devices and their spaces operate. In these and other respects, the operations of tagging are not so distant from the way graffiti artists, doodlers and scribblers claim, sign and autograph space.

I’ve adapted this post from: Coyne, Richard. 2010. The Tuning of Place: Sociable Spaces and Pervasive Digital Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press pp.120-124. Also see post The Creosote Code.


  • Augoyard, Jean-François. 2007. Step by Step: Everyday Walks in a French Urban Housing Project. Trans. David Ames Curtis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. First published in French in 1979.
  • Bachelard, Gaston. 1964. The Poetics of Space. New York: Orion Press
  • Chmielewska, Ella. 2005. Logos or the resonance of branding: A close reading of the iconosphere of Warsaw. Space and Culture, (8) 4, 349-380.
  • Kline, Stephen, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig de Peuter. 2003. Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture and Marketing. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press


  • My colleague Ella Chmielewska has theorised the politics of street names in Chmielewska, Ella. 2005. Logos or the resonance of branding: A close reading of the iconosphere of Warsaw. Space and Culture, (8) 4, 349-380.
  • The first image is a fragment of the Berlin Wall on display at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin 2014. The second is a wall in Leicester, England 2019.


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