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Departments : In the Hood

Interpreting That Writing On the Wall

Further exploration of graffiti shows that this language of the street, which can rack up a small fortune in damages, can also tell observant police officers a lot.

April 01, 1998  |  by Al Valdez

Graffiti continues to be used as a written form of communication between street ganges. An observant patrol officer, police investigator, probation/parole officer, school teacher and gang member can read graffiti and collect valuable information about past, current and future gang activities.

Graffiti can serve several functions for the street gangsters. Among other things, it can be used to mark off turn boundaries, be a way to give insults to rival gangs, act as a warning of impending death, list fallen comrades, announce the presence of a gang in a certain area of the city or show gang alliances.

Gang Expression

A common way to miss the valuable information within graffiti is to not consider it as the written form of the gang language. Each type of gang may select a few phrases, words, numbers or symbols to represent its gang. These unique markings can be the key used to identify a particular gang member, just as a moniker will identify a particular gang member. The written language takes on a particular personality, just as the gang does.

One particular type of graffiti which is often ignored and misread is attributed to the groups know as "tag crews" or "graffiti artists" (see "In the Hood," March '98). These gangs, which originated in the New York area compiled an impressive portfolio of subway and train art. The trend spread West during the 1980s and now has become an international phenomenon. The members of these groups often clain they are not gang members because they aren't involved in the violent crimes associated with some of the well-known street gangs.

A good universal definition for a gang is: three or more people, bound by association and involved in crime (misdemeanor or felony). Keeping this in mind, it is easy to see how these groups fall into the gang category.

Seeking Recognition

Tag crew members are interested in one thing only, and that is recognition, first for their crew and secondly for themselves. Often, calling themselves graffiti artists, these crews can be responsible for thousands of dollars worth of damage to buildings, billboards, train cars, buses, walls, freeway overhead signs, overpasses and you name it.

Tag crews can have contest with other crews. The goal is to spread your crew's name on as many places as possible, within a specified amount of time. Usually, a boundary is set. The location boundaries can be a city limits or a freeway system within a certain city.

In the Los Angeles area, some crews have chosen the buses used for public transportation. The time limit can be a few days, like a weekend, or up to a week. The crew that gets its name "up" the most wins. This crew gets the most recognition and most fame within the tagger subculture. The concept is east to understand; the result can lead to millions of dollars work of misdemeanor damage, nationally. Since the crimes are mostly misdemeanors, tag crews are not given the police attention violent street gangs receive.

This can present a problem for local police and sheriff's investigators. Our resources are allocated where needed. If there is a violent local street gang or drug problem, available police resources will go there. Tagger crews, for the most part try to stay away from the ritual street violence that gangs have adopted. However, if a member of the tag crew is victimized by a street gang or another crew, some type of retaliation will follow. This leads, of course, to a violent confrontation between the two groups. These types of incidents can lead to a local gang war between two groups that have never fought before.

Many taggers who claim they do not want to get involved in the gang scene will also carry concealed firearms. These taggers claim they need the guns for protection only. Do not assume that taggers are always unarmed.

Tags: Graffiti


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