Into The Abyss:
A Personal Journey into the World of Street Gangs

by Mike Carlie, Ph.D.        
Michael K. Carlie
Continually updated.

~ Table of Contents ~
Home | Foreword | Preface | Orientation

What I Learned | Conclusions
End Note |
| Appendix
Site Map / Contents
| New Research

Up-To-Date Gang-Related News

Part 14:
Graffiti and Other Gang Identifiers

Graffiti: "An inscription or drawing made on some public surface 
[as on a rock or wall]: a message or slogan written as graffiti." 

(Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1993, p. 506)

Gang members use a variety of ways to communicate with each other and to symbolize their gang affiliation. Among 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.


Gang Graffiti 

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 all."  

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.

Field Note: 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 sub-culture, 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 on doing."

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 graffiti.


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 of the 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. (Katz and Webb, 2004, p.  268)

Taggers and Tagger Graffiti

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 "placas." (An 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, sign, or gang moniker.


The above diagram 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. Texas Gangs

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 the "Manual 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.

finger spelling chart

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 are a ofttimes considered a rival gang). Likewise, Bloods sometimes wear Kansas City CHIEFS jackets (the football team) to signify Crips Hated In Every F--king State.

Field Note: A Hispanic gang specialist told me "Most of these [Hispanic] gangs got their start in prisons. Since 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 place.

"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.  

Field Note: 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 heads."

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.

In Closing

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 tattoos 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.


Additional 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 Dictionary.

Explore tattoos at Gang 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 offers one 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: Latin Counts, Vice Lords, Aryan / White Supremacist, Bandido's (MC Club) Jacket and "Numbers and Symbols" from all sorts of gangs as found at Gangs Or Us.

You can learn about tattoo 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 Graffiti Hurts.

2002 Michael K. Carlie
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author and copyright holder - Michael K. Carlie.