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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

Increase In Size

Some tag crews have gotten so large that subgroups develop. It has gotten to the point where telephone area codes are being used to identify the subgroups. This emergence of subgroups is similar to the development of "sets" in Blood and Crip gangs or the "cliques" within Hispanic gangs. Tag crews also migrate, just like other street gangs.

They can easily develop new tag crews in other countries and states. These new groups will have a tendency to have conflicts with the locally established street gangs. Tag crews can be as small as three or four and as large as 300 to 400.

No one knows the exact number of taggers in the United States. One thing for sure is that tagging phenomenon is worldwide. Taggers have placed their graffiti in the Chunnel (tunnel beneath the English Channel), on statues in Europe, and freight train cars throughout the world.

The tag crews have also broken the race and gender barriers that still exist for many street gangs. Taggers can be as young as 13 or 14 and most are between the 15 to 18 age group. Tag crew members have come from the ranks of street gangs, as well. Some gang members have joined in an effort to escape gang violence.

Most tag crews do not claim turf. They have the flexibility to go anywhere they want, to place their graffiti or "tag." The method of travel for many taggers is the public bus system, but the use of a personal vehicle is also very popular.


Many taggers will have a photo album of their work. Some even have a sketch book where they will draw and design their work before placing it on a wall. Almost all taggers use spray paint as their first choice of medium. As a result, a serious tagger will also have a variety of spray paint tips, to control the width and amount of paint that is sprayed. Almost any type of spray paint will be used, but the most popular brand is "Krylon."

Some cities have special ordinances which require local retailers to keep the spray paint in locked cabinets, behind the sales counter, because taggers can also "rack" or steal their paint.

Tag crew members can spray up a wall with their crew name and moniker or "tag" and a few are talented enough to design and paint large murals, often called "piecers," These can be larger and complex works of art. Most of the illegible tagger graffiti is completed by other crew members, called "writers."

Some taggers specialize in placing their graffiti in high locations, such as freeway overhead signs and billboards. This is called going to the heavens." Some taggers try and look for the most remotely accessible areas because many people will see their graffiti and it will also be very difficult to remove (buffing). Other taggers will specialize in "mobbing" buses. Here, a small group of crew will literally assault a bus. Some holds the rear door open, preventing the bus from leaving. The other members will start spray painting the bus. The entire assault takes only a moment or two but the damage is done. Some taggers will hang out of a window, seven or eight stories high, to place their graffiti. Yes, even parked marked police units have been hit.

Other commonly used tools can be broad tip markers, paint, sticks, and etching tools. Window etching has become very popular amongst the bus riders. Etching on store display windows in malls can cost the owner several thousand dollars in replacement costs. Tag crews use graffiti as a source of acknowledgement and fame. Their graffiti is not street art.

Be safe!

Al Valdez is an investigator with the Orange County( Calif.) District Attorney's Office and author of the book, Gangs.

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