A Look Into the Ins and Outs of Gang Graffiti

Ryan Goniwiecha
Professor Leontis
19 December 2016

A Look Into the Ins and Outs of Gang Graffiti

Street gang related graffiti is a phenomenon often overlooked and understudied, amongst the various types and occurrences of graffiti. People tend to group all gang related activity into one category, but there are actually several intricate aspects of gang graffiti. It has its own visual style, is often very purposeful, and uses a recurring language of symbols and abbreviations to communicate aggressions or territorial conflicts with other gangs. Gang graffiti offers a very different perspective on graffiti, compared  to what one might normally find on the streets.

One of the primary differences between gang graffiti and regular street graffiti is the purpose it holds amongst its creators, as well as with the surrounding communities. When it comes to regular graffiti, there are a few typical objectives which artists are attempting to accomplish. These include things such as spreading a message or point of view, often political or social, promoting their “crew” and trying to gain street credit, or simply being artistic and creating an aesthetic piece. Regular graffiti often takes much longer to create than gang graffiti, and requires a great deal more planning and effort. An example of political graffiti can be found below, located in Exarcheia, Athens. It includes an almost completely black and white image of a woman holding a crowbar, followed by a political message. Its meaning is unclear to someone who doesn’t understand Greek, but it appears to be about anti-facism or the working class. This work was likely planned out ahead of time before being created, and it seems that the artist may have used a stencil.

“Antisocial” in Exarcheia, Athens

In contrast to the detail of this piece, gang related graffiti is rarely artistic and usually exists only to serve a single purpose, communication. A very important element of street gangs is the control of territory – defining and controlling one’s turf. This is often declared and disputed by the means of graffiti, which changes the way it is presented. It is usually far more legible than non-gang graffiti, and is intended to warn other gangs and people of the territory they’re entering and who it belongs to. An anonymous South Los Angeles gang member stated that “Most guys do it just to let other people know that it’s our neighborhood… That’s pretty much it. It’s just to let people know that it’s our neighborhood” (Martinez). Below is an example of gang graffiti, belonging to the Primera Flats Gang in the Newton Division of Los Angeles, a heavily gang ridden area. As shown, the work contains fairly legible text and indicates that the gang has a presence in the area. In this particular example, the “SC” stands for south central. Another example of this style of graffiti is of the Loco Park Gang’s work, shown below. As stated by Jonathan Rocha, a local police officer who deals with gangs in the area, “The gang member stuff – you can actually read it… They want you to be able to read it. Not necessarily their monikers or what they call themselves, but say for example the Loco Park gang – they’ll actually put an obvious ‘L’ and ‘P’ for Loco Park, or actually write out Loco Park people in the area know it’s Loco Park gang’s area” (Martinez).


Primera Flats Gang Graffiti, Los Angeles, CA            Loco Park Gang Graffiti, Los Angeles, CA


As one of the more purposeful elements in the graffiti scene, tags are a significant part of both gang and non-gang related graffiti. In regular street graffiti, people write tags to make themselves known – it’s all about creating a name for oneself, and spreading it. Tags consist of only the writer’s name, and are written repeatedly around a city in order to gain recognition. On the other hand, in gang related graffiti, tags are still present but they serve a different role. Names are written, but instead of doing so to simply make themselves known, taggers use graffiti to identify themselves with a particular gang, or to display the gang’s roster. Usually, gang tagging will “consist of signatures, a nickname, often followed by the gang name” (Cybriwsky and Ley 496). A great example of this exists on an abandoned Philadelphia store (below), where the gang name (12th and Poplar Gang) is written, followed by several tags. Sometimes people can be in multiple gangs and have their name written in several locations. These group tagging occurrences alert other gangs of the particular members of the gang (for future reference if the same names are seen elsewhere), and mark the gang’s territory, or the entrance to their territory. Groups of tags such as this can be a useful warning to enemy gangsters who are moving through the area, so they know which streets to avoid.

Abandoned Storefront with Gang Graffiti Tags, Philadelphia, PA

Along with simply writing the names of the gang and its members, gang related tagging often includes various symbols or abbreviations, which sometimes function as warnings. These  are typically used around the borders of gang territory, and are to be taken seriously. The left image below is a fine example of this, found in Phoenix, Arizona. It includes a gang name (SSG), three tags, and then a few symbols. The “BK” and “CK” with the B and C crossed out represent “Blood Killer” and “Crip Killer,” referring to the two infamous gangs, the Bloodz and the Crips. These threats are very realisitic, indicating that if a Blood or Crip enters the territory, they will literally be killed without hesitation. The “COPK” following these means “Cop Killer” (Adams and Winter 343). Below this is the number 187, which is the section for murder in the California penal code. This number can be found in all sorts of gang related graffiti. Another example of these types of symbols is of the following wall on the bottom right, located in Crip territory. “PK” stands for “Piru Killer,” the Pirus being a clique of the Bloodz, and “AK” represents “Avalon Killer,” a rival clique of the Crips. the Crips themselves even respect the CK symbol, writing “fuck as fucc to avoid the use of ck” on the side of the wall (Adams and Winter 344).


Gang Graffiti including “Killer” Threats, both from Phoenix, AZ

Aside from these abbreviations, gangs interact with each others’ graffiti while contesting territory or having a war amongst themselves, using it as a way to establish dominance. “When gang graffiti is ‘crossed out’ in a certain area, it will often mean that the neighborhood is heavily contested. When gang graffiti is allowed to stand unopposed and unchallenged, it may mean that it is securely under the influence of the gang depicted” (Tornabene). Symbols and threats such as the ones shown above are used, and sometimes messages are written. A common threat that can occur is if a gang crosses out another gang’s name and then writes the letter “K” next to the crossed out name, meaning that they are killers of that gang. Similar to BK and CK, these threats are to be taken seriously and gang members will be killed if they don’t adhere to the warnings. These overwriting or crossing out contests often happen several times before one gang backs away or violence ensues.

Different types of gangs often have differences in the graffiti they produce or the symbols they use. For example, Hispanic gangs often have connections or agreements with the Mexican mafia, and this can be displayed through graffiti. The number “13” indicates affiliation with the Mexican Mafia, as well as a symbol with three dots and two lines (Martinez). An example of this symbol is shown on the wall below. Hispanic gangs may also have spanish words or phrases appear in their graffiti. On the following wall in Phoenix, Arizona, the words “Controla,” “Y Que Putos,” and “No Mas” are written. These translate to “Control,” “And what the fuck?”, and “No More.” The wall is heavily crossed out, indicating a fight over territory, and these spanish phrases are an exclamation of dominance.


Three Dots and 2 Lines  – Symbol for the                 Contested wall, with several examples of
Mexican Mafia (Location Unknown)                    crossing out and Spanish graffiti, Phoenix, AZ 


African American gangs also have different spellings of words show up in their graffiti, mimicking their spoken language. For example, “r loss is indicated through the use of -a substituting for -er, e.g. Gangsta for ‘gangster’” (Cybriwsky and Ley 344).

Gang related graffiti has several intricate elements to it, which the average pedestrian may not be able to tell apart from regular street graffiti. Gangs have a particular style of writing and tagging, use symbols and abbreviations to communicate aggressions and territorial conflicts, and use graffiti for a purpose, marking off their territory. While it may be dangerous to study and sometimes difficult to comprehend, gang activity through graffiti offers an interesting perspective on the function and place of graffiti as a whole.


Works Cited

Adams, Karen L., and Anne Winter. “Gang Graffiti as a Discourse Genre.” Journal of Sociolinguistics (1997): 337-60. Wiley Online Library. Web. 17 Dec. 2016.

Ley, David, and Roman Cybriwsky. “Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers.” ANNALS of the Association of American Geographers 64.4 (1974): 491-505. Wiley Online Library. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Martinez, José. “Know Your Graffiti: Disses, Threats and the Mexican Mafia.” Oncentral. Southern California Public Radio, 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

Ross, Jeffrey Ian. Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art. London: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Tornabene, Robert. “The Difference between Gang and Tagger Graffiti.” Blog post. Open the Gate. N.p., 7 June 2013. Web. 19 Dec. 2016.

*Note: Images used were all found in the above sources.


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