The ability to conduct image-based, non-invasive cell tagging, independent of genetic engineering, is key to cell biology applications. Here we introduce cell labelling via photobleaching (CLaP), a method that enables instant, specific tagging of individual cells based on a wide array of criteria such as shape, behaviour or positional information. CLaP uses laser illumination to crosslink biotin onto the plasma membrane, coupled with streptavidin conjugates to label individual cells for genomic, cell-tracking, flow cytometry or ultra-microscopy applications. We show that the incorporated mark is stable, non-toxic, retained for several days, and transferred by cell division but not to adjacent cells in culture. To demonstrate the potential of CLaP for genomic applications, we combine CLaP with microfluidics-based single-cell capture followed by transcriptome-wide next-generation sequencing. Finally, we show that CLaP can also be exploited for inducing transient cell adhesion to substrates for microengineering cultures with spatially patterned cell types.