Graffiti and Other Gang Identifiers
inscription or drawing made on some public surface
[as on a rock or wall]: a message or slogan written as graffiti."
Dictionary, 1993, p. 506)
Gang members use a variety of ways to communicate with each
other and to symbolize their gang
the most common are the use of graffiti, tattoos, wearing certain brands or colors of
clothing, wearing clothes or other accessories in a certain way (i.e., folding up one pant's leg or the
other, wearing a belt buckle to the left or right of center), throwing
signs, and the use of
argot (the specialized language developed by most groups, including gangs).
Although I am not fluent in "gangese," I did learn a little about
each of the following.
the topics below or
continue reading down the page ...
|Field Note: A national educator on Hispanic gangs told me "Hispanic
graffiti differs from the graffiti of black gangs. It's much more ornate.
And the gang's name
always appears larger than the individual writer's name. That's
significant because it honors the fact that the gang is more important than the
individual in it. It's not like that for black gangs at
He also said
"Graffiti identifies gang territory, spooks rivals, and
communicates messages from one gang member to another and from one
gang to another. Another method that gangs use to mark
out their territory is by draping a pair of tennis shoes that have
been tied together by their laces over telephone wires or high in
tree limbs. This can be done by the gang to mark its territory
or by a rival gang to show disrespect of another gang's turf. The brand of shoe or color of shoe lace will denote the gang which
has 'thrown the shoes.'"
Jonathan Kellerman referred to graffiti as "the
hieroglyphics of rage." (Kellerman,
1994) I didn't even pay
attention to graffiti prior to conducting my research on gangs. I
thought it was just some nonsense kids spray painted
on walls, doors, telephone poles and elsewhere. I thought they were just
vandals. I didn't realize how
important graffiti could be until I was well into my research.
The picture (left) is of
Sorenos graffiti. The Spanish word "sur" means "south," and, as
used here, is a symbol of a southern California Hispanic gang.
The "13" is a reference to the thirteenth letter in the alphabet
- M. The M in Spanish is "la eme," which, in gang
terminology, refers to the Mexican Mafia. Picture
courtesy of Jon Wade, with permission.
Amsterdam is one of the world's most beautiful cities. But its historic center, an area with approximately 7,000 buildings on the
Dutch National Historic register, is shoulder deep in graffiti. There are
neighborhoods in Kansas City where gang graffiti has remained posted on
walls for over a decade - and no one dares remove it or paint over it.
A gang unit member who specializes in Hispanic gangs told me "Graffiti is
symbolic language. Many of the markings of gangs are symbols
and they have symbolic meaning for gang members. Some of these
symbols are so meaningful that disrespecting the graffiti can be lethal for the
person who paints over it or disrespects it in some other way.
"If you come to know what the various symbols mean you
can better understand the gangs' language, come to view the gangs as a
get to know who belongs to the various gangs, where they live, as well as what
they may have been involved in, what they are doing, and what they are planning
The picture at left shows the initials
"B" and "P" as sprayed on a city utility box. The picture at right, taken at
another location in the same community, indicates what the letters stand for
("Brown Pride"). Picture courtesy of Jon Wade, with permission.
I was riding through a neighborhood in Kansas City and saw a
roster of monikers - an entire gang's membership - painted on a telephone pole. It
was a symbolic gateway, a marker, an entrance to the gang's neighborhood, and a clear indication of who
owned it. Steve Nawojczyk wrote "Graffiti has been called the
newspaper or bulletin board for gangs and communicates many messages,
including challenges, warnings, and pronouncements of deeds accomplished or
about to occur." (Nawojczyk, no date, page)
Among other things, graffiti communicates who's around, who's with who, who's disrespecting who, role call
(a roster of gang members),
the hierarchy of gang members in a gang, the strength of the gang, which gangs are claiming
what territory and which areas are in
dispute. It may also be an advertisement for the type of activity in which the gang was
or is still involved
and an announcement of who's getting ready to attack who (a moniker or gang member's name that is
crossed out with an "X" is the likely target for an attack or
murder) or who's already been killed.
Some communities have taken an aggressive stance against
graffiti and use the "Four R's of Graffiti."
Report it - call the police and tell them where it is.
Read it - police will gather what intelligence
they can from the
Record it - police will take a picture of it.
Remove it - after the police have visited the site and
taken their own pictures of the graffiti, remove it.
Each of these steps are important, including the removal
graffiti. That simple act makes a statement to the gang about the neighborhood's refusal to be dominated or intimidated by
them. That is a language most gang members understand. Neighborhood
residents who fail to remove graffiti are viewed as frightened and weak by
those who created the graffiti.
It has not helped that there have been instances of gang members attacking
people who attempt to remove or cover their graffiti.
Should the police remove the graffiti? Some departments do
that, but they, too, may encounter some difficulties in the process. As Katz
and Webb found,
Officers in the graffiti detail
expressed a great deal of frustration with their jobs. Citizens were
expressing concern about graffiti in their neighborhoods because of the
public perception that graffiti was associated with gang violence. On
the other hand, the graffiti detail's status was low within the (police)
department, and within the gang unit, because of the nature of the
crime. Graffiti officers frequently noted that they were responsible for
all of the city's graffiti, gang-related or not, largely because no one
else in the department viewed it as an issue worth addressing.
and Webb, 2004, p. 268)
Taggers and Tagger
Taggers are artists, or at least many of them think of themselves as
artists. While their graffiti may be artful, it also represents an act of vandalism (since they often
post their art on public property - sides of buses and trains, sides of
commercial businesses, walls, etc.). Some art museums have been known to display
tagger art in special exhibits. Latino gangs may refer to tagger graffiti as
Urban Ethnography of Latino Gangs in Los Angeles and Ventura County.)
Some taggers are members of street gangs, although they
may or may not be involved in the day-to-day criminal activity of the
gang to which they belong. Instead, they proudly display their "art" which sometimes includes artistic or explicit references
(name of the gang, logo, etc.) to the gangs to which
they belong. They also typically "sign" their art with their name,
of gang symbols compliments of the
Administrative Office of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit
505 N. County Farm Road, Room 2015, Wheaton, IL 60187
A casual stroll through the streets and alleys of major
cities in the United States, the Netherlands, and elsewhere would reveal one mural after
another, many created by taggers. There are examples of the mural tagger art
above. The piece on the bottom shows the apparent work of a gang member
throwing up some graffiti over the tagger's work ("F-ck Rom," etc.).
While tagger graffiti may be artful, it is still vandalism
and it may well become a significant territorial marker or billboard for an
area gang. Like graffiti, communities should do what they can to have it
recorded and shared with local officials, then removed.
|"Tats." Ink and dye designations of
affiliation, love, and hate permanently etched into the human
skin. Tattoos are much like graffiti, communicating one thing or
another to other people and making a statement to them about one's self. Among other things, they may signify
gang affiliation, status in the gang, past ventures, and serve as symbols for
memorials to gang members, family members, and significant others who have died.
Tattoos may symbolize and communicate past life
experiences, the "manliness" of the person who suffered
having the tattoos etched onto his or her body, and they often intimidate others. They
certainly intimidated me.
That's why I never looked at them or their carriers very
closely. Now, I eagerly inspect any willing gang member's tattoos so I can learn more about
what they mean or whatever else the tats may reveal. In every instance, gang
members were eager to show them to me.
Throwing Hand Signs
|Hand signs (sometimes referred to as
Alphabet") are used by gang
members to communicate gang affiliation and as a shorthand for communicating
desires, threats, anger, disrespect, or just about anything words could transmit. They are the sign language of gangs.
It is not uncommon to find gang members using standard
hand signs to communicate their gang affiliation and other messages.
Above is a chart of the American Sign Language alphabet, used by many
gang members, as well as the deaf and hard-of-hearing, to communicate
with one another.
Clothing, Accessories, and Colors
British Knights is a brand of clothing. The company
uses the logo BK on their products. Crips like BK clothes because they
use BK as a way of signifying that they are Blood Killers (Bloods
ofttimes considered a rival gang). Likewise, Bloods sometimes wear Kansas City CHIEFS
jackets (the football team) to signify Crips Hated In Every
|Field Note: A Hispanic
gang specialist told me "Most of these [Hispanic] gangs got their start in prisons.
inmates are not allowed to wear belts, the baggy pants were worn below the
waist. That's where the trend of 'saggin' [wearing one's pants below
the waist] came from. It always amazes me that the street gang
members have no idea why they do some of the things they do - like saggin' -
and don't know the history behind them.
"Prison gang members considered any inmate a fag [homosexual] who allowed the skin
above his knee to be exposed in public. So inmates always pulled down any
shorts that they wore so the hem was below their knees. Today,
that has translated into three-quarter length pants among gang members and,
again, they don't even know why that is done, or why it was done in the first
"Bloods and Crips ripped off their colors from the Hispanic
gangs. In the California prison system the only two colors of
bandanas could be worn by inmates - red and blue. That's how the
Hispanic gangs got their respective colors. One day a Surenos [southern
California Mexican Mafia] gang
member began wearing a red bandana and his amigos began wearing red, too. The
Nortenos [northern California Mexican Mafia gang members], of course, started wearing the
red bandana to separate themselves
from the Surenos. I bet there isn't a Crip or Blood anywhere that
knows why they wear red or blue!" (Read
another point of view.)
Clothing of various colors has, for centuries, indicated
one's gang affiliation. Red is for Bloods, blue is for Crips, unless
you're in another country where red and blue signify membership in other
gangs. Orange and green are the colors of two faith-based gangs in
Europe. I don't know if any gangs are into pastels (my favorite), but
there are a rainbow of colors attributed to gangs across the world.
Accessories such as necklaces, bracelets, pins, and rings
also may signify gang affiliation. The problem today is that much in the
way of gang attire has crossed over into the youth culture generally and is worn by youth who are not gang affiliated.
A national educator on Hispanic gangs mentioned that Hispanic gang
members "like to wear belts with buckles that have their
initials on them and they like pants with big pockets. That, of course, was because many gang members write graffiti
or do tagger art and need a place to put their spray cans. They also like 'hoodies' [sweat shirts with a built in hood]
because they can conceal their identity more easily and appear more
menacing to outsiders when they pull the hood over their
The Use of Argot
When discussing gang culture the topic of
argot was introduced. Argot is the special language of a group and
gangs, like dentists and lawyers, have a language of their own. References
to "homies" and
other terms signifying one's knowledge of gangs may be indicators of one's
own gang affiliation.
Wannabes are known to sometimes brandish tattoos
and other identifiers in their effort to be recognized as gang members, get
arrested, and build a reputation for themselves. More experienced gang
members tend to camouflage their gang membership in order to avoid detection
by police and other rivals. Some gang members are even opting to have their
removed (tattoo removal
service in California) - either because they want to escape detection by police or
because they want to distance themselves from the gang (i.e., quit, get
married and find legitimate employment). Some even try to leave their gang,
which is our next topic.
Resources: You can
Wipe Out Vandalism and
Graffiti. You can learn more about
graffiti interpretation. To learn more of the argot of gangs, explore the Rap
Explore tattoos at
Training and at GangsOrUs.
You can explore hand signs at Gang
Hand Signs and the work of tagger
crews in New York City. This Gang Training site
of the most extensive sites on graffiti on the Internet. GWC, Inc.
also provides links to the more well known
graffiti of Gangster
Disciples, Latin Kings, Vice Lords and others in the right-hand
margin of their "Introduction - Gangs in America."
Click on any of these graffiti sites,
should they interest you:
/ White Supremacist,
(MC Club) Jacket and "Numbers
and Symbols" from all sorts of gangs as found at Gangs Or Us.
You can learn about
removal in San Jose (CA) and in
Fairfax, Virginia. You can read about
what is it
like to have a tattoo removed. The National Crime Prevention Council
also provides suggestions on
how to deal with a graffiti problem in your community. For more on
graffiti reduction, visit
Michael K. Carlie
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writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.