My name is my name

The young drug lord, Marlo Stanfield, in The Wire’s Baltimore, pronounces everything from hamburger orders to death sentences at a muted volume in a monotonous rhythm. Not even when he is caught in a raid does he lose control of his voice. His feelings and thoughts are wrapped in a layer of thick fog. His voice reveals nothing more than the literal meaning of the words he utters. He listens more than he talks.

At the end of the final season, Marlo is in custody with two cronies. While interrogating them to uncover who squealed to the cops, one of them mentions that people have been talking about him—by name, in public. Marlo jerks back as though he’d been slapped.

“He used my name–in the street?”

They flinch, and try to change subject. But, they are forced to admit that Omar—one of the series’ strangest characters—had gone around and talked about Marlo. Omar had said that Marlo was too cowardly to dare show his face in the street. “But it was nothing … Nothing man, just talking shit,” the two professional killers agreed.

Marlo cracks, and his voice breaks out in full force, like an animal who suddenly discovers it was no longer trapped. It is completely different from the vigilantly disciplined monotone we’ve come to recognize as Marlos’ voice. It is barely possible to distinguish the words in the rage that erupts:

“My name is my name!”

The words are tautological. But not only. What he actually says—what he reveals—is that his name is his most powerful weapon. It is the name—and nothing else—that maintains his position. The fear that gave him power is based on the name, rather than his person. It is worth more than his sophisticated logistical systems, than all of his suppliers, lawyers, drug dealers, murderers, and errand boys together. Therefore, it is crucial for him to maintain control over it. Only Marlo has the right to define his own name.

The name is the strongest tool, but also the most fragile, because if it loses its imaginary charge, there would be nothing to secure Marlo in his elevated position of power. If he were to lose the name, he would inevitably fall.

The name is the unstable foundation of identity. Marlo's outburst shows that he is painfully aware that without his name, he could be anyone—or no one at all. That someone might utter the name in public without fear—and thereby redefine its meaning—is a deadly threat.

When he later announces himself by name to the drug dealers in the street, he finds that he is merely waving a poor replica; his name means nothing to them now. It has already been erased from the city’s short memory. It has been returned to its primordial state as an empty sign.

“Your brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is,” writes design strategist Marty Neumeier in The Brand Gap.

Marlo is the embodiment of this formula. His business as a wholesaler and retailer in the drug industry seems more like a front for his actual role as a self-taught marketing genius. In fact, he would have been able to devote himself to anything; drugs just happened to be closest to hand. He is a prodigy in the nihilistic era of the brand, where the core of every company's business is to control how they feel about the name, and what they say about it.

Running a business is not really about making products, it’s all about branding: making a name for yourself and nurturing it. It’s about spinning fictions and dreams that associate the name (the brand) with values such as “joy” and “freedom,” which, of course, outperform banal product characteristics, like the honeyed taste of cola. This does not mean that the product is no longer needed; it is. But it is not needed as a coveted, autonomous object. It is merely needed as a sign of a branded experience, and an acknowledgment that a relationship has been established between the brand and a customer.

If the name previously represented the product, this ontological relationship has been reversed; the product is now merely a signifier for the much more valuable sign of the brand (the name) itself. In relation to the brand, the product is inferior, replaceable. Therefore, trademark owners let subcontractors in distant, low-wage countries take care of its production. This is not only significantly cheaper, but it also increases the distance between the location of the product’s production, and where customers live. Customers’ pure perception of the brand will not tainted by the reality of the product’s production.

The brand was established as a way to create perceived differences between mass-produced goods that were virtually identical. As early as the late 1800s, this value-creating name trick was used when logos such as Heinz and Campbell’s Soup appeared on packaging. But the brand's triumph did not take place until 100 years later, when Philip Morris bought Kraft for nearly $13 billion—six times more than company was worth using traditional valuation principles. It was the name (the brand) that motivated the gap between the book value, and the actual price tag of the company. It was a gap so large as to prove beyond any doubt that the era of the brand really had come.

In the same decade, the 1980s, another name-obsessed practice had its worldwide breakthrough: graffiti, and tagging.

If branding was a child who grew up with unlimited resources, graffiti had to cope on its own from day one in the streets of Cornbread’s Philadelphia. During the 1980s, graffiti managed to sneak into the fine art galleries, where it was converted into visual art, transfigured into an investment instrument. But nevertheless, it has remained controversial, probably due to the fact that it never put up with staying within the jurisdiction that was opened for it. Graffiti has never been blessed by the political and economic rulers’ cool kiss.

The fight against graffiti is, of course, entirely logical, because it is constantly committing violence against what is holiest of all: the sanctity of private property. Hence, society’s acceptance of graffiti drops as private ownership increases. This is evident in cities like Stockholm, where the former right wing governments’ ambition to totally obliterate graffiti directly coincided with its even more aggressive effort to abolish of the public sector.

The political power in Stockholm allowed urban development to be dictated by the war on graffiti. In paragraph seven of the city’s “scrawling policy,” we read, “Stockholm should, upon rebuilding, seek a design that prevents and hinders” graffiti. The city is being transformed into an inverted fort, built to defend private property, and the people who own it, not from the outside, but rather, from its own citizens. In this fort, there is no graffiti.

Today, cameras register the names written on the walls—the graffiti artist’s tag—so that they can be immediately erased; those responsible will be identified, and brought to justice. If an advertisement poster is torn down, it is hastily put up again. The company advertising receives financial remuneration for the time its name was absent.

Of course this is how it is. Because branding pays; graffiti steals. Branding builds; graffiti destroys.

Branding and graffiti are opposites, however, they are enigmatically united in their fetishistic attitude toward the name.

The logo is a company’s signature, a specific way to write its own name. Today, it is usually understood as the symbol of the immaterial brand. An actual brand is a steel instrument used to sear (to brand) a symbol of ownership into the skin of livestock (and historically, slaves). But one can also see the logo—today’s brand—as an interface between fiction and reality, between visible and invisible, something that both shows as well as hides.

The face of the logo, the dream the brand would have us believe it can realize is displayed. Beneath it is the actual dream machinery: the incredible sums of money and the immense network of operators, all financially linked to each other. There you also find reality: its flesh and wounds, its cold metal, its conveyer belts that never stop, its noise, its 14-hour work day. You find the factories, and the people who work in them. They are only temporarily connected to the companies that own the brands. They can be replaced at any time with others that can deliver the same thing, only cheaper and faster.

The fiction that the logo represents is rarely based on a true story. But it does not matter, for it is true though, if enough people believe in it. When this happens, the real is replaced with the imaginary. The fiction becomes more real than reality.

A brand that is perceived as good can consequently afford to do evil, without being perceived as evil, as evidenced by the brand that tops the list of the world's most valuable brands: Apple. According to Interbrand, a brand consultancy, Apple has increased its brand value from $21 billion in 2010 to $98 billion in 2013. During the same period, there was a wave of suicides at a factory in China that manufactures Apple products. The reason was the appalling working conditions.

The carefully drawn logo (a brand) manages just fine without reality. The qualities and values it represents only exist as a collective notion—an abstract idea.

The name of an Earth-bound person does not allow the same freedom. The person that name represents will never escape their name. Without the living or dead bodies to which they are bound, people’s names would be without any function whatsoever.

In Swedish, it is said that we “carry” our names. But maybe it would be more proper to say that we “inhabit” them. In that case, you occupy your name as a temporary guest. A name might be like a room in a hotel in which there is always a vacancy. Some rooms might be reserved for specific families, but the majority can be used and reused freely.

The rooms are sometimes decorated with meanings, but in general, they are sparsely furnished. Just the essentials are there, to identify gender, class, nationality, and ethnicity. Then it’s up to each individual to furnish them as they please. Some rooms bear traces of those who lived there before. In others, there are lost items, and portraits of famous guests. There are also rooms that nobody wants to rent, with spots of dried blood that are impossible to wash off.

Most people remain in their name throughout their whole life. They may not always feel completely at home—perhaps because the name is too boring, too anonymous to live up to what they want to accomplish—but still, they remain nonetheless. Because you do not casually change a name. To change one’s name raises questions. Therefore, you need a simple answer.

As was with my grandfather. He changed his name from Svensson, the most common surname in Sweden, to Soneryd, because another Svensson lived in the same house, which led to the mail often being misdelivered. The rest of the family took the new name with joy. The old name was so common, so boring, and they had been given a legitimate reason to replace it: the mail. It is important that it be delivered correctly.

Even my great grandfather on my mother's side had a good reason when he changed his name from Glad—which means "happy" in Swedish—to Genvik. He was not particularly merry by nature, and did not want people to think that he went around being happy all the time.

Others flee their names, to escape an accusation, or a punishment. They escape to a new name, where they think they'll be able to stay without being constantly shadowed by their own history.

But a new name is far from a safe hiding place, to which many known criminals can testify. One such criminal is the spy, Stig Bergling, whose new identity as Eugén Sandberg Sydholt was soon revealed by the media. The old name bounced back to him. Suddenly, he was Stig Bergling again, and there was nothing he could do about it.

It says a lot about the difficulty of determining your own identity; you need an acknowledgment from the others in order to be who you are. Thus, by taking away someone's name, and give them another, you can take control of their identity. It is an effective strategy used by both bullies in school and totalitarian states.

To escape one’s name is, nonetheless, a risky operation, which not only requires skill to succeed, but also luck. Maybe it’s wiser to justify a change of name when there has been a change of character, as the Florentine family Tornaquinci did in the 1400s. They changed their name to Tornabuoni, which means, “those who have turned good.” In this way, the new name included a reference to the old, and, at the same, time openly declared a change.

Without such a declaration, the name change must be combined with a more thorough disappearing act in order to be realized.

It is not enough to leave your name. You must also abandon the places where the name still lingers, waiting to be reunited with you. This is what Lee Lozano did with Dropout Piece in 1972, which became her withdrawal from the art world, and the name she had built. But, it was also an entry into new contexts—contexts that she herself created—where she continued to make art. Her new name was “Lee Free.” Then, she called herself simply “E,” as in Energy. It is the emptiest name you can imagine. And the freest.

In a “private notebook,” dated April 1970, Lee Lozano wrote in large letters: “I HAVE DECIDED WHAT I DON’T WANT AND AM MOVING AWAY FROM IT, TOWARDS (O JOY!) THE UNKNOWN (THRILL OF ALL THRILLS).”

A new name is a vessel. You can take it to get away, or to go forward. But you do not necessarily need to leave your old name just because you take a new one, for there is nothing that says you have to limit yourself to only having one.

The tag visualizes a name, an additional name. It makes no claim to be the only name. It is a nom de guerre, a pseudonym, an alias, as Subcomandante Marcos, Stendahl, Che Guevara, Theres, Pierre Angélique, or Spiderman, a functional costume, tailor-made for a specific task.

These are illegitimate names we’re talking about here. Just as with children, names can be legitimate or illegitimate. A legitimate name, or a legal name, is one that is in the Public Records and represented by a birth certificate, or a passport, or an ID card. It is the very definition of a legitimate name. All names that are not in these records are illegitimate. Although, they, of course, sometimes occur in other registries.

Whether the name is legitimate or illegitimate has, therefore, nothing to do with whether or not there is someone who bears the name in question. That is clearly shown by the brand. Its name does not represent a human being, just a dream lying like a fog over the circumstances that are real. That doesn't prevent it from having the status of a legitimate name. The brand name was accepted as legitimate at the same instant as it was recorded. Thereby, it also provides protection against imitation and doppelgängers. To act under a brand name that you cannot show on paper that you own is punishable by law. It is a criminal offense to even use a name similar to such a name.

The name of the brand is the absolute opposite of the name of someone who has no papers. Their name is by definition illegitimate because it does not exist in any record. If that name does not exist, then that person does not exist. They do not get any more real by breathing. Anyone caught without a name is therefore rejected immediately because they do not exist.

The line between illegitimate and legitimate—between true and false—can be difficult to assess, concerning names. But nevertheless, it’s there. For the brand, it is as important that this difference exists, as that the legitimacy of a name be based on something other than the mere presence of a person who bears a name. The disembodied brand can never go out and say, “It is I who is Coca-Cola.” Therefore, the brand is not only totally dependent on the media, but also on the law, which has created the small medals registered (®), trademark (™), and copyright (©), with which the brand decorates its name. These medals are attached to the logo, and certify that the name is legitimate. In that way, they act as guarantees of reality.

If the brand were a person, it would be the perfect citizen, as it proudly shows off its ID card in just any context it is mentioned. The graffiti tag, on the other hand, operates in a reverse logic: it hides the person who wrote it. If there is something the logo is hiding with its ™, ®, and ©, it is that there is not anyone really there.

The tag has never had any problems with its sense of reality. You can doubt neither that it exists, nor where it exists, nor that someone has written it. Someone is guilty of it. But even though the name is there, it does not reveal who is responsible for it. The ties to its owner were cut off at the moment its maker disappeared from the scene.

Today, maps show not only geography (forests, mountains, lakes), political boundaries (countries, cities, municipalities), and architecture (buildings, bridges, streets). They also show people. In real time, it is possible to track our movements in both physically, and digitally. We leave our signature everywhere in the form of codes we enter, phone calls we make, and credit cards we use to pay.

Those in power are eager map readers. They want to know everything about us. And we let them also know almost everything. For them, it is not the presence of spray paint on a façade or a subway car that is the big problem with graffiti. The problem is, rather, the fact that this particular symbol obscures the identity of its maker, rather than revealing it. What arouses their fear and anger is that they do not have a clue who did it. And, even more so, that it so clear to everyone that they have no clue. Everyone who sees the tag can see this fact. That's why “zero tolerance” has come about, and that is why it is so important that the graffiti be removed quickly. What they are really afraid of is not that more people will get a taste for writing and painting on private property, but that more people will start using unregistered names, which threatens to sabotage the entire concept of private ownership.

Security companies and the police—who request identification from young people outside shops selling spray paint, who are out at night in pursuit of graffiti artists—are, in fact, without even being aware of it, hunting for meaning. They are involuntary name spies. They think they fight vandalism, but they actually work with mapping, and defining names, which they do by restoring broken relationships between words and objects, and by linking illegitimate names with the legitimate, by reconnecting these disembodied signs to their intended (or unintended) meaning.

Signatures are not as modest as they look. They are powerful signs maintaining the political and economic status quo. The first signatures were burned onto the animals and slaves, brands which clearly announced who owned them. Still, most signatures are found on contracts, agreements, and other documents; they have to do with ownership and transactions.

The tag is another type of signature. Sure, it is a rebellion against the dominance of official signatures, because it blatantly ignores in the current ownership structure. When it is written, it does not care at all about the angry protests of the people whose signatures are on the legal contracts. At the same time, the tag has absolutely no intention of replacing them (which would be totally superfluous, as the tag does not differentiate between what is mine and what is yours).

The Swedish author Willy Kyrklund once wrote five lines about graffiti, which he finished by asking if it had not achieved the rare feat: “the message without content.” In some ways, he was right. The tag doesn’t produce the same meaning as other scriptures or images. It is just a name; a name which refers to someone, but to whom almost no one knows. The tag is a name that appears in a visual form, a form which is almost impossible to decode into the letters of the alphabet. It resists being read.

The tag’s resistance suggests that we should relate to it differently than we would relate to a written sign. If we are to extract any meaning from it, maybe we should not read it at all, but instead, listen to it, because even though it’s written, it has more in common with speech, song, music, and Shiva’s dance of destruction, than written language.

The tag is an act camouflaged into words. It is written because it wants to be written. It destroys because it wants to destroy. And it is apparent that it is proud of its sabotage. It immediately takes the blame for the damage it caused. It is simultaneously both a crime and a confession. But it is never permanent. Just as the dance is temporary, the tag is short lived. Even as it is written, it knows that it will disappear. Therefore, it must be repeated. Over and over again. Destroy and be destroyed. Destroy and be destroyed.

The tag destroys by taking place on top of the existing layer of legal meanings. It destroys by rewriting. It destroys not only property, but first and foremost, it destroys the established way of understanding the city, in accordance with the fact that urban space is primarily a place of consumption, labor, investment, and private ownership. By transforming the city into a surface for text, the tag makes space for human endeavor. By writing over the existing messages, it makes us pay attention to them. It makes the invisible instructions that govern the ways in which we live visible, instructions we have repeated so many times it is as though that they were written into our bodies.

The tag makes the city less permanent, more malleable, and open to change. It relates to the city as if it were drawn in pencil rather than cast in concrete and set in stone, which means that the city can be repeatedly erased, rewritten, and written over. It is a sketch in progress. It is not necessarily limited to be what it happens to be right now; we are not bound to follow its instructions forever. For it is not just that the city determines our actions. Our actions also build the city. What the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about the meaning of words is also true for the city: the meaning is the use.

I once asked Dwane how many times he has written his name. He said he did not know, definitely hundreds of thousands of times. Although he has been at it for over 30 years, he is not tired of it. On the contrary, he has increased his pace considerably since 2011, when he made his first tag in the Writing My Name Until It Matters project.

Writing My Name Until It Matters is an ongoing process, by necessity, with no end, because the only way to make destruction permanent is to repeat it. Destruction is fragile, perhaps the most fragile thing there is. The act is instantaneous, and the marks it leaves behind it will never last for long. Tags are cleaned, washed away. This process says that we do not want to hear: that nothing is permanent; that everything—without exception—will sooner or later disappear.

Dwane’s confirmation of destruction is total. He is a literal destruction fundamentalist and Writing My Name Until It Matters is an attempt to stage and capture the moment of destruction on a canvas. It sounds like an impossible project. Dwane himself is well aware of the difficulty of transferring the graffiti to the tabula rasa of the canvas, as graffiti basically is a practice that overwrites and rewrites, rather than starts from scratch.

In order to destroy, there must be something to destroy. In Writing My Name Until It Matters, graffiti is its own genre, with its own traditions, its own medium. It is his own name that Dwane attacks again and again. He turns graffiti’s inherent appetite for destruction against itself.

The canvases are damaged and dirty, with holes, marks, and imprints of shoes that have passed on them when they lay on the floor in the studio. Some of the paintings for an exhibition were first thrown out the studio window before they were transported to the gallery.
For Dwane, the street is a canvas, and the canvas is the street. The name is repeated so many times that it is obliterated; it is a prolonged and violent suicide attempt of the artist as an author. It is as if Narcissus finally had enough of his reflection, and smashed the mirror.

For the owners of big brands, this is nothing more than an apocalyptic fever dream coming true. For Dwane, it is a relief, because what is left on the canvas is only what is most important: Shiva’s dance. Destruction, the brittle destruction.

Jens Soneryd, "My name is my name", published in Dwane/Graffiti Microcosm, Nilleditions, 2014.