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The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver: “Markings”
9th Jul


The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver: “Markings”

(about tagging, “broken window” theory, marking, preference and communication)

Recently in and near Goodale Park there has been some tagging activity, which I am loath to share visually for fear of reinforcing the behavior. But I’d like for you to think about it with me.

I’ve experienced this same behavior closer to home. Periodically, during still, silent spaces in the night, taggers furtively pass down our alley in the darkness with spray paint or thick markers to quickly scrawl their “symbols” on our 300-gallon trash containers and commercial dumpsters. The next day, as soon as I realize what has happened, I grab my rubber gloves, a can of Goof-Off, and a stiff brush, and I methodically remove every discernible vestige of the tagger’s marks.


Over the years, I have found that if I don’t attend to this right away, or if the symbol is still identifiable after my scrubbing, other local taggers will soon add new “tags”, and my work will grow.

This “fix immediately” strategy is based on the well-known “broken window” theory (which posits that eliminating one bit of urban disorder can avert greater disorder, or even crime). It has worked well for me with respect to reducing the dog poop on our tree lawn and the trash in our back alley curb, too. Even though I apply this theory effectively on all three of these issues, the tagging “symbols” that are left to accumulate on the dumpsters seem different somehow from piles of poop multiplying in the tree lawn, and also different from trash increasing in the curb.

In addition, tagging seems similar to, yet distinct from, graffiti. Both tagging and graffiti mar other peoples’ (or community) property (whereas poop and trash merely clutter annoyingly), and my “repair immediately” tag eradication strategy also works to reduce graffiti. But unlike graffiti, tagging is not artistic, decorative, or protest-oriented. The symbols aren’t waste, nor are they litter or graffiti. They are something much more interesting.

The purpose of tagging is not (as its name might imply) about putting a label (like a description, or a price, or identifying information) on an object, although that particular marking behavior (labeling) does seem to come pretty naturally to us. We all certainly put our “symbol” (signature or name) on things that are ours (books, toys, tools, school assignments, etc).

Hammer Label

But tagging is not about traditional ownership. Those who own property or belongings in the traditional sense don’t have a need to “tag”. They put up official signs, or fences, or they just write their name on their stuff. Labeling is putting your name (or symbol) on something you own; taggers put their symbol on something that they don’t own, for a somewhat different reason.

Instead of resembling a label, tagging is much more like “marking” (what dogs and wolves do). Tagging and marking is like announcing “I was here, and I’ll be back; I consider this to be my turf.” It’s about territory. Farley Mowat wrote about an intimate experience with territory and canine marking in his book Never Cry Wolf, as he described his study of wolf behavior in Canada.

never cry wolf

A particular male wolf continued to travel back and forth on a path disturbingly close to his tent, until Mowat “marked” an approximate circle of “his” territory with his own urine, peeing on rocks, moss, and trees. The next time the wolf walked down the path toward the tent, it stopped suddenly at the perimeter that his human neighbor had established, and then carefully traveled the circumference of that new territory, adding his own mark to each tree and rock that had been peed on by Mowat. This is essentially the behavior of any local taggers wanting to establish their presence in a specific territory; they travel around and add their symbols to each dumpster and wall that has already been marked.

At this point, it is interesting to me that although the marking behavior of canines and humans is similar, there is a meaningful difference that isn’t immediately obvious. Although we’re studying the same behavior (marking), the senses being used are different. For dogs, it’s their sense of smell (urine), and for us it’s our sense of sight (ink and paint). I think this is a big deal, and not just because the senses are different. The senses that are used are more significant.

I think that the means of establishing/marking territory is based on a species’ preferred perceptive sense. For example, we trust our sense of sight more than we trust our other senses; it is our best-developed sense. If we smell chocolate chip cookies, but don’t see any, we assume that we must be mistaken.


It’s logical, then, that we rely on visual methods to get attention. And I think that this reliance on the preferred sense is true not just for dogs and humans, but for all species. Along with dogs’ sense of smell and humans’ sense of sight, birds are more attuned to sound, and so the males often use specific songs to mark their territory. Spiders and moles favor their sense of touch, feeling the presence of others in their territory through vibrations. We can determine the preferred perceptive sense of a species by observing the way in which it establishes territory.


We typically don’t pay attention to the symbols or marks of other species; we’re ignorant of their territorial signals. Inter-species communication is difficult, although Farley Mowat was able to do it by appealing to the other species’ preferred sense. We experience a similar challenge with intra-species (human to human) communication, trying to convince, explain to, reach, and be noticed by others. We succeed when we appeal to communication preferences. For example, I find that explaining my point of view to my co-worker works better when I use emotion and gut feeling; convincing my mother is more successful when I use logic; getting the attention of my preschool neighbor is most effective when I appeal to authority or expert opinion.

When we want to communicate with people who are different from us, we need to use their preferred “sense”, even if that’s not our favorite style. So, in other words, if the taggers want to establish some territory in Goodale Park, maybe they could sponsor a planting bed.

Circle Bed

The Sesquipedalian Dumpster Diver

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