Graffiti & Gangs


Graffiti. More than pretty pictures; it can signal a war ready to erupt in your neighborhood. It used to be kids with cans of spray paint spraying their names, or I love Judy on the side of a building. But graffiti has become the written form of language for gangs. The graffiti can be information about past, current, or future gang activities. Graffiti can signal many things. It can mark turf boundaries, threaten another gang or rival member, announce a gangs presence in a particular area, and many other things including death threats. Some people can not “read the writing on the wall”, in other words, the graffiti is not written in common words or sentences we are all used to. Usually, a gang will use a few words, phrases, numbers or symbols to represent their gang. Gangs usually also tag their moniker names, nicknames given to members (such as happy, joker, etc.) Graffiti can be anything from a simple one-color scribble of a symbol or initials, to an elaborate multicolor mural on the side of a building.

Aside from the gangs for a moment, there are taggers. Taggers may work alone or in a group at times, but they usually are not confined to a particular area, and usually are not associated with the same kind of street violence that the street gangs are known for. Near my area, there was a group of “taggers” working the area. This type of “graffiti artist” usually is just that, graffiti artist. Usually not associated with a street gang, the taggers usually just spray pictures or spray their moniker names in as many places as they can, usually just for recognition. The ones near my area used a train barrier wall to display their pictures. One thing that I’ve noticed is that some of these taggers are actually pretty good. If they replaced the spray cans and concrete walls with paintbrushes and paper, they could probably earn a living doing the same thing that most call vandalism now. It takes millions of dollars each year to cover the graffiti now displayed almost everywhere you look. I have passed by a location several times in a night while on patrol without seeing anything suspicious, but when first light hits in the morning, the same area is covered with graffiti. Although taggers are usually annoying and bothersome, they are usually harmless, not wishing to become involved in the violence associated with the street gangs.

Street gang graffiti is the graffiti to be very concerned about. I’m sure you’ve driven down a road and saw some writing on a wall, overpass, building, and not thought much about it. What you saw, probably meant nothing to you. But that may have been a threat of impending death to a rival gang. A slap in the face is for a rival gang to come into an area and cross out or deface a rival gangs graffiti, replacing it with their own symbols. In my area, the biggest gangs are Nortenos and Surrenos. These are usually identified as Norte and Sur, or XIV and XIII painted on the side of fences, garages, houses, etc. There are a lot of small gangs which have formed using their own gang name, usually reflecting the area or location where they live, but they are almost all in alliance with one of the above sects. The most common colors for the gangs are red or blue. I have seen innocent people shot for simply unknowingly wearing red or blue in a rival gang’s area. A lot of gangs have become aware of increased penalties for gang association, and some have gone to wearing neutral colors. But they wear the red or blue underneath the neutral colors, and most carry a bandanna with their color of choice in a pocket, able to be quickly displayed when needed. It doesn’t take long for a quiet, peaceful neighborhood to turn into a loud, noisy, and dangerous place to live with gangs, comes drugs, noise, graffiti, and gunfire. It is common to go into a gang infested area and see graffiti covering almost everything, bullet holes in houses, cars, and people afraid to come out of their houses. The scary part is seeing children playing in the same area. Unfortunately, gang members have children too, raising them in this dangerous situation. How did it get this way? People would rather hide in their homes instead of getting involved in neighborhood watch groups, getting police assistance, and rallying together to rid the neighborhood of the problem. You cannot do it alone, and the police cannot do it alone. But together, a gang infested neighborhood can be cleaned up. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.

Chances are that you live in a nice, quiet neighborhood without a gang problem. But it could change, wherever you live. A gang or gang member is probably living a lot closer to you than you think. Maybe right next door. And it doesn’t take much for the gang to start hanging out at a particular member’s house.

The first thing you might notice is increased traffic, cars, and people to a particular house. Then you might start seeing graffiti in the area. Usually a gang banger wont tag their own house, but they will tag the area. Walls, fences, even the street or sidewalk. (Although I did see a group of wanna be’s tag their own house. Might as well paint a target on it since it was shot up within 2 days).

Here are a few tips if you suspect gang activity in your area. (If gang activity is already heavily established in your area, it is harder, but not impossible, to get rid of).

· Don’t ignore a problem. A problem will get bigger if ignored. If allowed to “hang out”, a gang will quickly claim the area as their turf. It won’t be long before graffiti covers everything and gunshots ring out. If you see people starting to hang out at a location, drinking, gambling, and even illegally parking call the police. You can remain anonymous, and if the problem people get “harassed” by the police enough, they will leave for another location where everyone looks away and allows them to terrorize the neighborhood.

· Dont be intimidated. Gangs work on intimidation and violence. In most areas, people are afraid to stand up to the gangs. I have been to the scene of a shooting where 40-50 people witnessed the shooting, but not one will talk to the police. (Some will come to the police station or call in a tip anonymously later). This intimidation is what fuels a gang and gang activity. By no means should you stand up to a gang physically; you do it through the police and as a neighborhood group. A gang will not remain in an area if their intimidation does not work, where they are constantly reported, where they can be driven out.

· Call your local police department. In this day and age, almost every police department has a gang task force, or at least a gang expert. Talk to the gang unit; tell them of your observations, any graffiti you see forming. They are the experts in your area, and they can tell you if this might be a kid playing with a spray can, or if it is a serious problem forming that they need to be aware of. Gangs forming in an area are like a health problem. If it is caught early enough, it can be solved rather easily. If allowed to grow and fester, it is harder to get rid of.

· If you see graffiti, report it immediately to the owner of the property, the police, or your local code-enforcement division if you have one in your city. If allowed to stay, it invites more graffiti, rival gangs coming in to tag their names, and a turf war erupts. The police know this and they dont want gangs infesting neighborhoods either.

I used to live next door to a painter. A nearby concrete wall became the “billboard” for a local gang that formed, and they tagged it daily. My painter neighbors wife took all his scrap paint, and every morning she would go to the wall and paint over all the graffiti. The next morning, more graffiti. Off she went again with a brush and bucket of paint. Eventually, the gang got tired of having their tags painted over, and they went somewhere else. I dont recommend standing up to gangs like my neighbor did, because it could be dangerous, but this shows how determination and persistence drove away a gang. And this was just one woman. Imagine what an entire neighborhood joined with a police force could do. The gang may not go far, but the more resistance they meet, the more likely it is that they will leave. If your block succeeds in driving out a gang, but the next block down ignores the problem and lets it form, it is still a problem for you. Bullets travel miles.

· Be persistent, slumlords can be held responsible for owing a problem house (gang or drug house). I have seen neighbors get together and sue a landlord (and win) for allowing a problem to exist in a rental property. Property ownership is public record, and a strong neighborhood watch group can easily find out the owner of a problem rental house. Chances are, the owner may not even know a problem exist. And if a landlord does know of a problem, and ignores it, he can be sued. Most would rather evict a problem tenant than to be sued by a whole neighborhood.

· If a gang is formed in your area, chances are that you hear a lot of gunfire. A simple handsign from a passing car can erupt in a gunfight. Be a good witness. Dont put yourself in danger, but if you witness gang activity, a drive-by shooting, even just a gangbanger shooting a gun in the air, call the police. You can remain anonymous. Give a good description of the shooter, where the gun is, (a garbage can, waistband, on a girlfriend, etc.) so the police can protect themselves and apprehend the suspect. Guns are kept in bushes, garbage cans, and mailboxes. Innocent children can find these and a tragedy occurs.

This only scratches the surface regarding gangs or graffiti, and there are many good books out which go into detail about gangs. But this article is just to give you an insight into how gangs become established and what you can do to prevent it. With support from neighbors, the police, and persistence, you can live in a quiet gang free neighborhood.


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