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Graffiti: Classifications of formats with graffiti.

Classifications of formats with graffiti.

This whole movement was started with the tag. A tag is someone's assumed identity, the coded name. Tagging is the writing of that assumed identity. Every graffiti artist starts his or her career with getting a tag name and then learning to develop a tag style to go with the name. This name is chosen either by the writer or it is an extension of a mentor's name. It is this name, which is the core of graffiti, and the tag is the quickest and simplest representation of this coded identity. The tag is the subject matter, the structure of the art that is graffiti art. The work of the graffiti artist revolves around the development of the name. A tag is the one colour signature of the graffiti artist and their identity.

The tag name can be chosen for an infinite number of reasons. Often the name is chosen as a form of word play; KSINO, CRASH, BAN 2, DMOTE. Sometimes it is to indicate lineage i.e.; T-KID who is a protégé of Tracy 168. A name can be chosen due to preference for certain letters and letter combinations; A and E are preferred to U amongst vowels for instance. This is largely due to preferences in aesthetics with letters, rounded versus pointed. Kudos is given for having a cool name but it is what you do with it that matters. Style wise and otherwise. It seems to me a logical development of late capitalism that the artist late in the 20th century should use the name as the central theme for the work produced.

It is quite common that after tagging the same name for a while the artist inevitably retains a certain signature style, even if this is perceived as bad. After working on the tag form for an indeterminate period the writer inevitably begins on developing a piece style. This process might involve working on throw ups first or straight into rounding out the tag into a piece form. Transference occurs either way and the tag form is often the starting point of an outline or throw-up sketch. If the style is a throw up style the tag is rounded out into a throw up. If it is a piece style the tag is enlarged and blocked out. The enlarged tag form is then refined with the use of stylistic devices called bits, half caps, arrows, chips and cuts.

How does one judge the quality of a tag? Similar criteria to the critique of calligraphy should be used. A tag is a calligraphic form and volumes could be written on the calligraphic qualities that this work has introduced. The artist Ramellzee introduced the use of calligraphic naming devices and his own personal extensions of these terms to describe features of tagging and piece styles. These language he developed is a deeply personal one and almost illegible to outsiders. Flow is a common term, applicable both to tags and pieces. It describes the harmonic usage of curves and the ability of the letters to flow into each other when reading. A good tag or piece is said to 'flow'. The flow of a tag or piece is broken by excessive ornamentation, disjointed lines and line work or poor paint work. Writers also describe flow as 'funk' in certain groups. The opposite is also true though. Innovation is just as important to the tag form as other forms within graffiti art.


The 'Throw-up' is defined as "a name painted quickly with one layer of spray paint and an outline. Historically the throw up followed the tag in terms of formal invention. The tag, which is done with one colour, was then outlined with another colour to become a throw up and the start of the first masterpiece. In fact, a throw up is more likely to only be one or two letters from the tag name. The letters chosen are either the first two or the first and last letters of the name. A throw up is the extended painting of an abbreviated form of the tag name. Only very occasionally are all the letters from the tag name are painted. The purpose of the throw up is to use little paint in putting up your name. A throw-up stands out more than a tag, but a lot less than doing a piece. It is not however a sketch for the piece.
Visually a throw up can be distinguished by its simplicity in colour and design. Reductive in nature, a throw up is often a bubble-like rendering of each of the letters that are chosen to be the short hand reference to the tag name. A throw up is meant to be thrown up, quickly and large. The standard dimensions are one arms length square for each letter. Although some throw ups have been done that are two stories high. The throw up is often the seen as a non-essential item in the repertoire of the writer.

A throw up will rarely be more than two colors, a colour to fill in with and an outline color. If it is multi-coloured it will usually be due to the use of dregs of paint after a bombing mission. Certain writers will use the last of their paint after a bombing mission on throw-ups rather than risk taking the paint out of the train yards or spot. Carrying the near empty spraycans home, can be evidence of painting activity, if picked up by police. A throw up is usually done in two ways if painted with two colours. An outline is made with the fill colour, then filled in and an outline is made with a secondary and clashing colour. Or if the writer chooses, perhaps for speed, they might outline the throw-up with the outline colour and then fill between the lines with the base coat.

The fill can be done in a number of methods- straight solid fill with a fatcap, one line crossing back and forth within each letter or rough and raw. The one line continuing through each letter tends to create a illusionist effect, which adds a rounded feel to the throw-up letter. This method is also a quick way to fill the letter. Solidly filled throw ups are used when there is an excess of paint or when the surface to which the throwup is going onto is already bombed. If the surface is already bombed the throw up must be filled in to stand out against the background.

The outline of a throwup must be done to appear if not to be one hit. ‘One-hit' is a shorthand term for describing the process of painting a form like the outline or highlights in one hit. That is in long strokes running from point to point rather than short strokes joined together to define the line. The filling of the throw up should be or appear to be one hit. The continual back and forth should also be done to create a rounding effect, which further pushes the throwup of the surface.

Qualities particular to good throw ups is the same as criteria for all graffiti- can control, innovation in design elements, innovative use of colour and position and the ability to ‘get up', that is to be prolific. Qualities which are particular to throw ups is mass simplicity. A throw up should be no more than two colours and should be as simple as possible. The idea is to cause damage or to 'bomb' with a throw up. Overworking the throw up form is usually bad. Good throw-ups look simple and quick to paint, but must be well proportioned. All curves should be smooth and continuous. Each letter should be of similar size and weight.

Innovation within this form includes the use of drip designs, the use of the swastika as the center of a letter by REAS. This was an element designed to draw negative attention to his throwup. The use of only one line throw-ups. This type of throw-up is outlined in one consistent line. Other innovations include positioning of the throw-up i.e.; upside down and the numbers of throw ups done can also be seen as an innovation. For instance, the writer/bomber JA set a record for doing 100 metres of filled in throw-ups in a row in the popular LA river system.

It took a while stylistically for the throw up to take a place of its own. And many writers lamented the use of throw-ups as they covered many tags as well as cluttered the painting surface for writers interested in producing pieces. That was until a guy like IN produced 10 000 in a relatively short period, on New York trains and forced them forward as an undeniable presence. Acknowledged kings of throw-ups include the previously mentioned IN, as well as writers like BLADE and COMET and CAP. CAP ONE Morris Park Crew was notorious for going to war with most graffiti writers in the early and mid-eighties and crossing out writers work by going over them with his throwup and then intentionally leaving the piece sticking out to heighten the insult. In fact crossing out is commonly referred to as capping outside on New York City.


The term piece is applied to all graffiti paintings that are more than tags or throw-ups. The term is shorthand for masterpiece. The masterpiece was the third major step in the stylistic evolution of New York based graffiti. This step was achieved when the writer SUPERKOOL 223 added a fat cap to his spray can when tagging. The resultant tag was enlarged and then outlined to create the first piece. He quickly did another piece after this first piece and embellishments were added. The masterpiece was born, although it took a little while to gain popularity. Some writers saw that the paint used to produce one piece could be better used producing hundreds of tags.

For a painting to be considered a piece it must have at least two colours and have letter styling which has more effort put into it than a throw-up. Usually though a piece will have a minimum of an outline colour, a fill colour, a background colour and a highlight color. The main visual differences between a throw-up and a piece, is that a piece is filled completed and that the letters are more clearly defined. A throwup is usually only one or two letters out of the tag, while a piece is nearly always the full name.

The appropriation and shortening of the term masterpiece is intuitively a critique of the high art gallery system. A system where the idea of masterpiece is heavily tied in with the traditional notion of genius, connoisseurship and the monetary value of an artwork. In graffiti every painting is referred to as a piece and therefore as a masterpiece. A burner is the colloquial term used by writers to describe a well-executed piece or a masterpiece in the traditional sense.
Henry Chalfant's definition of a burner is "a well-done wildstyle window down wholecar. A burner is a winner." A burner is called such because it burns all competition or the space it is sited in. To be a true burner like any good artwork, all aspects of the piece must be finely executed and have an internal logic. These aspects include the outline, the fill, the cloud or background, the final outline and highlights as well as suitability of the site.

First Outline

The first outline is often a term for the original sketch on which the painting is based as well as the process to its translation to the train or wall. The importance of a good sketch is essential but just as important is the ability to transfer it faithfully. If this process is poorly executed the whole piece will be ruined. The first outline process is successful if the artist or writer transfers accurately the design or if the artist actually adds to the design potential of the space the work is situated in. The first outline is also call the 'mark up".


The 'fill-in' or 'fill' is the term used to describe the decorative colors used inside of the outline of the letters. It is added after the first outline is completed. There are an infinite number of fills available although a number of formats are extremely popular. A very common fill used in graffiti is the two or three colour fade with a one, two or three colour overlay added. BATES is a master writer who commonly uses this formula. Either way a writer can be recognized solely for ability as a colourist or for the ability to produce an unusual or individualistic fill. The fill in alone is not enough to produce a burner.

A good fill you must have a cohesive internal logic, the painting must be solid and not at all opaque. There must be no unintentional drips. If a common decorative fill like a two-color fade is used it will never be a burner but it may be viewed as good if it is an unusual and well-executed blend. A blend is a common technique and much like chiaroscuro, this technique must be undetectable. The blend is a technique, which is usually, learnt early in a writers repertoire but few writers master it. This technique is popular as it allows stolen paint, which is often, hodgepodge to be used together in a piece.

If the fill-in is to be a collection of grid-like lines then they all should be consistent and even in thickness. If a chrome effect is chosen it must be convincing. It is very common that each letter will be filled with the same fill-in. This is to say if a two color fade is being used it will be used in each letter. If a chrome fill is used it will be used in every letter. Like all rules, the intentional breaking of this aesthetic rule can bring delightful results. A writer renown for this is SENTO and he is one of the most conscious style manipulators and will often have differently styled letters as well as fill-ins.


The cloud is often a generic term to describe the background of a piece, but it specifically referring to a particular background type. That is usually circular formations of colour much like a simple drawing or iconic drawing of a cloud that a name sits on or in. Occasionally the cloud is a mixture of the circular cloud formation and other decorative elements likes stars. The cloud can also be composed entirely of these same decorative elements, a cloud of stars for instance. It is probable that the cloud concept was appropriated straight from the comics.

The cloud is often painted after the first outline is filled in and normally before the final outline is started. Some train writers though apply both the decorative aspects of the fill and the background after the final outline and highlights have been added. This is so that if the painting process is interrupted the writer will have their name at least finished. An incomplete panel is often seen to be more frustrating than no panel at all. A matter of bravado.

To distinguish a good cloud from bad, the normal critical considerations such as good can control, innovative colour combinations and clear execution of idea apply. A cloud should also always completely cover any tags, throw ups or pieces underneath it. It is a disrespect to leave another writer's work half-covered, a constant reminder of the work lost. This can often result in a conflict situation, which may be resolved in a number of ways.

Perhaps the difference between a good cloud and a badly painted cloud is best seen on the back cover of the book Subway Art. Let us compare the cloud forms used on the panel that says 'PYSCHO" to the 'PAIN' panel. The ‘PSYCHO' has used the mid-blue and sky blue combination for the cloud with great effect. Note how the Grey keyline also breaks into a cloud effect in some places. The cloud falters in that it doesn't completely cover the throw up underneath and this distracts from the whole piece itself, but overall very nice.

The cloud background on the 'PAIN' panel however is as poorly executed, as is the rest of the panel. The white is of poor quality and therefore has a Grey hue, which reduces the pop effect. The tags add a craziness to the cloud which is dreadful, especially when compared to the elegant and restrained tag styles of SEEN who did this 'PSYCHO". The half circles are poorly formed, and the dark blue used to outline the white for the cloud is only one line and barely visible. It does not create an illusionist of popping the panel piece. As the dark blue for the bottom of the two colour fade fill is the same as the blue used to outline the cloud the contrast is lost. Compare that to the way in which SEEN's use of Orange and Pink contrast to his cloud therefore producing a more energetic and easily registered piece. Note to the smooth blend of his two colour fade compared to the 'Pain' as well. In fact this piece is a good example of a well-executed public style piece by a master.

Simplicity is a key factor to distinguishing a good cloud. Overworking of the format is easy and lessens the effect. A cloud is usually one or two colours. A master will usually use two or three colours. The number of colours is usually related to the number of colours used in the fill-in. A silver piece only requires a one-colour cloud to bounce or vibrate off. Other effects that are added to clouds or used similarly to the cloud are stars or drips.


A background is the picture plane onto which the piece is grounded. The background is the rest of the painting other than the piece itself. The outside keyline is also part of the background. The background was originally a device to cover up other paintings on the train behind the piece. By 1973 in New York City the trains were so heavily bombed that a cloud or background was used to allow the piece to be distinguished from the rest of the work on the train. The use of background is seen by certain writers, as arbitrary. To produce a true burner though the background should be as considered as the piece. The background should never be more considered than the letter forms though. Graffiti art should always be primarily a concern with the development of letter styles and a primary emphasis on background nearly always results in a reciprocal loss in energies on letter styles.

There are a number of approaches to background and each approach indicates the pictorial concerns of the writer/artist. If a figurative illusionistic device is used such as a landscape, it is often used as it is chosen to pander to the public taste. Most writers avoid this cliched and often kitsch picture device preferring to work in an abstract way. Working with abstract and iconic bodies of colour to create vibrations with flat colour planes. Either in the cloud format as described previously, or in a number of other ways. These decorative devices include rectangular planes of colour, flames or colour bands. Sometimes however figurative elements like bricks and rocks are used in a semi-abstract way. A visual pun. In fact clouds in general can be seen in this way.

Over the last ten years there has been an upsurge in writers using illusionistic landscape devices in their backgrounds. This largely is a result of trends started by writers like LOOMIT. LOOMIT makes a living from painting murals and as such his vocabulary of landscape and figurative imagery is extensive. The use of landscapes in his painting is commonly seen as a co-option. A compromise between the commissioner of the piece, the artist and an understanding that the work must suit the owner more.


Shines or stars are the graphic device used to represent reflected light, a star or a form of radiant light. It is a painting device appropriated from airbrushed artwork and from the comic books. In fact it is a device which is common in a number of popular cultural forms in particular signwriting since the 1950's. It is a device used in a number of ways; as a convention to be played with, a device to create dynamism or a device that works in the same way as the bright lights found in Las Vegas. The term ‘shine' is often used to describe inside highlights, especially when applied to one side of letterforms.

A well-executed shine will have no visible drips and will create a reasonable shine effect. This shine effect is best described as a graphic note referring to the idea of light reflecting on the side of the letterform. The shine will use straight lines where they are appropriate, and will have a consistency of thickness in the line work. Like all design elements overkill lessens the effect. Shines are often used to disguise a fault in the high light line work, a wobbly section, a drip or broken line work for example. Usually the width of the line in a shine should be as thin as possible. The line work should never get thicker at the ends or tips of the shine.

Some formats you will find the shine comes include the four point star, the eight point compass style, double star, the glimmer and the big shine. The four-point star is just two lines intersecting at the center point of both. A puff of paint is often overlaid onto the intersection point of this star. The eight point compass style is similar to the four-point star except that it has four lines used. Usually like a compass though it has four points further extended than the others.
The Double star is much like the eight point compass except that the North, West South and East points are doubled up. The glimmer has a solid center with a faded outer ring, basically a dot much like a star as seen in a science book. The big shine is rarely used and it is an star of exaggerated size, usually in the four-point format. It is not very common, as it is difficult for most writers to produce long and straight lines.


The 'keyline' is the line, which runs around the outside of the piece. It is also referred to as the outside highlight. It is similar to the inside highlight in that its purpose is to 'pop' the piece. That is to push the letterform off the vertical picture plane and the background. A keyline is often used to sharpen and accentuate the final outline. Occasionally the keyline is repeated and used in a similar ways as action or movement is drawn in comic books.

Although the keyline is not essential to executing a masterpiece, it is usually used. Variation with the keyline format is also expected with all good writers. Variations include the repeated keyline, a device often used by cartoonists, the radio wave within the keyline as by SENTO, the broken dot keyline that CES from Rotterdam made popular. BATES used a Mondrian like grid format extension to the keyline as shown here.

The outline, keyline and highlights should all be done to appear to be done in one hit. 'One hit' is a term used to describe getting it right first time. The logic is if an any aspect has to be redone it obviously indicates a lack of skill. Any reworking of the painting is usually detectable to the eye. Aerosol is a medium that is hard to be precise with and the reworking of an inside highlight is easily spotted, for instance. The width of the lines will blow out at the point of intersection. One line often thicker than the other line. The reworking any of these features decreases the funk of the piece, although good writers can usually hide any design faults. The logic extends back to the painting of trains, where time and getting it right first time. It is this raw quality that is appreciated.

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