ArtSpeak: How Do You Call Youself?

Micol Hebron

A Taxonomy of Artists’ Auto-Appellations

Though empirically meaningless as a string of letters, names are among the most charged linguistic signifiers. A “funny” sounding name can be a junior high student’s social downfall, while a catchy, elegant name can enhance an actor’s potential for stardom. Rife with potential connoted messages in their phonetics and orthography, names can attest to—or hide— a person’s pedigree, ethnicity, gender, family tradition, and even age. Some people even believe that names are augurs of personality traits or career paths. “What is your name?” in English assumes that a name is preexistent and a given. But in romance languages, the same question is posed in a more forgiving and empowering manner, and is translated as “How do you call yourself?”—as if one has a choice about it.

Parallel universes and the same name syndrome1

Sci-fi theories of a parallel universe can taunt a person’s confidence in his/her own unique existence. “Somewhere ‘out there’ is someone who looks like you, has the same name as you, the same thoughts as you, etc.” And if we change our name, what is to guarantee that there isn’t someone else with that same name?

American filmmaker Alan Berliner was so intrigued by the “same name syndrome” that he sent a worldwide dinner invitation to anyone who shared his moniker. Twelve other Alan Berliners RSVP’d from around the world. Over dinner they discussed the relative impact of their name upon their identities. Berliner documented the project in his 2001 film The Sweetest Sound.

There must be a proliferation of same-name syndrome situations in France. New French parents are obligated to name their child with a selection from a national name registry. In the U.S., anyone named James Smith can join the Jim Smith Society.2Today the Jim Smith Society boasts a membership of over 4,000 Jims.

Artist name classification

There are many reasons for a person to change his or her name. Aliases generally serve to either mask or enhance one’s identity. Fugitives, taggers, terrorists, spies, criminals, witnesses and stalkers most likely would change their name to hide their identity. Émigrés and divorcees might seek a new name to consciously reject their old identities. Those who have careers that depend on a persona—actors or musicians—change their name in service to their own celebrity, attempting to raise their own profiles and recognition.

While visual artists may also change their names to enhance fame, the art world seems to offer a few other causes for altered appellations as well. Artists frequently have fickle personalities. The process of art-making is at times bipolar, functioning simultaneously as an outlet for expressing sublimated desires as well as a means of subterfuge that the artist can hide behind. Some artists use pseudonyms for their different roles. Dada collagist Kurt Schwitters used a different name when he painted portraits for money— presumably because he did not want to publicize the “sell-out” factor of doing such pedantic, representational work. A young artist I know uses one name while making art (Lawrence Rengert), but is “Chasing Rainbows” when he performs as a musician.


In the Renaissance, many European artists— especially the Italians—were known only on a first name basis: Michelangelo, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Masaccio, and Caravaggio, for example.

This legacy continues today with Italian- American greats such as Fabio (Lanzoni) and Madonna (Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone), as well as with artists and performers of other nationalities such as Cesar, Arman, Brassai, Bjork (Gudmundsdottir), Cher (Cherilyn Sarkisian La Piere), Peaches, Beck (Hansen), and Christo.3

Noir photographer Arthur Felig was christened with the nickname Weegee (after the Ouija board game) because he seemed to have the psychic ability to arrive on the scene of the crime before anyone else. (His secret was a police radio that he listened to constantly.)

Micol Hebron, "anonymous," 2004

Micol Hebron, anonymous, 2004

Names and numbers

In today’s text-message-happy and technosavvy culture, there are surprisingly few artists who incorporate numbers into their names. San Francisco based site-specific street artist Ricardo Gouveia uses a conflation of his first and last names with a numerical suffix to indicate the current year. This year, his name is Rigo 04. In the past he has also been Rigo 23, which presumably was his age at the time. This nomenclature also offers a handy shortcut to chronological historicizing of his work.

Rigo 04’s antics are reminiscent of Prince Rogers Nelson’s (aka Prince) sign-name that he adopted from 1993–2000. I was happy to recently learn that his name can be approximated as an emoticon: O(+>

Also a numbers guy, Outkast frontman Andre Benjamin is more popularly known as Andre 3000, which sounds a bit too much like a product brand or model to me. Hey, guess what, I just bought a brand new Andre 3000!

Artists’ group names

Like rock bands, artist groups frequently create a name for their collective that unifies the members with a singular identity. Some former and current artists’ groups include: The Guerilla Girls (feminist activists whose members assume the names of underrepresented women artists in history); LA’s neo-feminist Toxic Titties; the Elizabeths (who revel in the same-name syndrome); Art and Language; General Idea; Act-Up; British sass-tivists Bank; the German Bernadette Corporation; Assume Vivid Astro Focus; Red Krayola (artist rock band); San Francisco’s Ant Farm; (S)language; the Kipper Kids; and Los Super Elegantes, to name a few.

The style of name is often similar to that of rock bands, with the exception that artist groups rarely have a front-runner (like Joan Jet and the Blackhearts). But just imagine the possible billings: Paul McCarthy and the Condiments; Baldessari and the Dots; Beecroft and the Bulimics; Fontana and the Slashers; Liza Lou and the Beaders; Dan Flavin and the Glowtubes.

Objectifying the body and its image

Artists who use their body as their medium arguably have the most legitimate reason for a name change. If the body is to be seen as an object per se, it becomes necessary to relinquish the birth name of the person inhabiting that body. French carnal artist Orlan baptized herself as Saint Orlan in 1971, and has been surgically modifying her physical appearance ever since. Cyborgian performance artist Stelious Arcadiou is better known as Stelarc.

Porn stars, performance artists and drag queens often have fictional names while on stage or in the spotlight. In this category, stage names most likely originated with the tradition of masking one’s real identity while doing something “shameful” or illegal (such as stripping, prostitution or, at one time, cross-dressing) or with the intention of creating a sexual alter ego. Porn star-cum-performance artist Annie Sprinkle is a pseudonym. Other names in this category include Vaginal Davis (Vag); John Waters’ frequent star, Divine; Divine’s corporeal antithesis Twiggy; Warhol devotee Candy Darling; Genesis P-orridge; and Cosey Fanni Tutti (which in Italian roughly means, everyone’s doing it like this).


Perhaps the most common impetus for name change derived from the two world wars and ensuing immigration. Numerous artists were exiled because of their work, their ethnic identity or both. Upon arriving in the U.S., many avant-garde artists changed their names, perhaps to forget about the reason they were booted out, perhaps to begin anew and more quickly assimilate.

Anti-fascist collage artist John Heartfield changed his name from Helmut Herzefelde long before he left Germany. In acts of abbreviation, Man Ray evolved out of Emanuel Radnitsky (or Rudnitsky), Mark Rothko was condensed from Marcus Rothkovich, and of course Andy Warhol was initially Andrew Warhola.

For artists and actors alike, name changes seem to be part of the “branding” process. The bias for white and/or bland sounding names, names that do not imply “otherness,” has persisted through the cold war and into today. While some foreign sounding names are trendy (Versace, Prada) names that sound Jewish or non-western seem to be more “risky.” The Anglicization of names can be good for business in all fields. Entrepreneurs Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren may not have been so successful if they had marketed their wares under their birth names. Can you imagine a subscription to Martha Kostrya Living, or chic Polo Ralph Lifshitz outfits?4

The Austrian experimental filmmaker and inventor of “touch cinema,” Waltraud Lehner (AKA Waltraud Hollinger) took the phonetic first syllables of her names (“Val” and “Le”) to form Valie and referenced the capitalization of artists’ bodies by taking as her last name the name of a cigarette brand—Export.

Like Valie Export, Judy Gerowitz sought emancipation from the patriarchal origins of inherited names. She renounced her family name and took as her last name her hometown at the time: Chicago. In doing so, she ironically joined a long line of ancient artists (mostly males) who were named after their hometows (Leonardo da Vinci being a famous example).

Marcel Duchamp was one of the few male artists of his generation to famously adopt a female persona as rRose Selavy (though he had a male alter ego as well: Richard Mutt).

Name clones – Claim knowns!

Despite the postmodern assertion that “originality is dead,” it is nonetheless a noteworthy occurrence to discover that any two people have the same given and family names. As with physical clones, name doppelgangers can be both exciting and threatening. It might be exciting to discover that you have the same name as a great historical figure. For those seeking fame for themselves, however, someone with the same name—who is also seeking fame— might be a disconcerting threat. I have often wondered if the Katies Grinnan and Grannan are concerned that ignorant viewers may confuse the two artists’ identities.

Without a protective sense of entitlement to one’s name, there could be some amusing collaborations in the art world. Imagine what the art of Eric Laura Owen Moss, Mary Mike Kelly, or Uta Roland Barth might look like!5


My gratitude to those who offered suggestions for names to include in this article! (Ghost contributors were: JB, PP, ET, EP, ET, KR, EC, W, RE, SSB, and DC.)

If you have any comments or contributions to the topic of names, or any other linguistic phenomena in the contemporary world, please write to:

Micol Auneaux is an artist and educator living in Los Angeles.


  1. Coined by Alan Berliner, etestsound/.
  2. Learn more about the Jim Smith Fun Fest and Internet Jims at www.jimsmithsociety. com
  3. Christo is arguably now “christoandjeanneclaude” since he and his wife have become a single entity (the “and” becoming part of their name). Hungarian Christo was born Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and his wife Jeanne Claude (American) was born Jeanne Claude Denat de Guillebon.
  4. Hundreds of true names can be found at www./
  5. These names were originally presented during Gagosianz, a performance by The Elizabeths in 2002
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