Deciphering Graffiti Gives Police a Way to Monitor Gangs

The Fruit Town Bloods and Nutty Block Crips were warring again. Reg and Pete, Corner Pocket Compton Crips, were recently killed, and Randy, a rival gang member, was in danger. He was targeted for a drive-by.

Like an archeologist sifting through the rubble of an ancient civilization, Sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Holmes studied the recent past of another culture--Los Angeles’ gangs--by translating a graffiti-covered wall in South Los Angeles.

Before the riots and the much talked about truce among black street gangs, the wall had been spray-painted with so many names, numbers and letters that it looked like a multicolored blur. But to someone such as Holmes, who can translate the various symbols, it was a valuable way to keep track of gang activity.

Many Los Angeles residents consider graffiti simply random acts of vandalism, just a meaningless jumble of swirling, spray-painted gibberish.


But those who spray-paint the city, and those who make a living trying to translate it, know that there is a specific language, code and hierarchy among the various gangs and taggers.

In the city’s Latino neighborhoods, untouched by the gang truce, law enforcement officers are constantly scanning graffiti in an attempt to solve crimes or prepare for new rounds of violence.

Latino gangs mark their turf by “throwing placas"-- spray-painting gang names along with the names of a few of their members--throughout the neighborhood, said Sheriff’s Sgt. Joseph Guzman. He learns which gangs are at war by what gang members call the “dis marks"--Xs over the placas of rival gangs. And he can determine which gang members are targeted for drive-by shootings by the “187"--the penal code number for homicide--spray-painted beside their name by a rival gang.

There are graffiti symbols for respect and disrespect. Gang members who have recently been killed often are memorialized by their homeboys, who spray-paint a cloud around their names, or just RIP.


But to show disrespect, a gang member often will spray-paint rata (rat) or “Y que” (what are you going to do about it?) next to a rival gang’s placa, after he crosses them out.

Even the gang names--usually printed in initials or symbols--are often difficult to discern. The “ES DKS SGV,” for example, is the East Side Dukes, San Gabriel Valley, and the “SS 43 GC,” is the South Side 43rd Street Gangster Crips, a black gang from South Los Angeles.

A number of crimes have been solved by studying graffiti, said Guzman, as he drove through the back streets of East Los Angeles reading what he calls “the newspaper of the street.”

Gang members have been shot while spray-painting a placa in a rival gang’s neighborhood. And some homicides have been solved, Guzman said, by studying the roster of gang members, determining who is targeted for death and which gangs are warring.


Gang graffiti began with Latino gangs, some of which are almost 70 years old, Guzman said. The early graffiti were mainly carvings on bus benches and scrawling on school desks glorifying the local gangs.

But the confluence of two events made Los Angeles the gang graffiti capital of the world--the invention of spray paint and the proliferation of street gangs in the 1970s and ‘80s. Soon business owners and residents throughout the city, forced to repaint their property frequently, began fighting a costly, unending battle with gang members.

Latino gangs created the model for spray-painted graffiti: the gang name in large stylized script, and beside it, in smaller letters, the names of gang members. Black gangs soon copied the style and many of the symbols, said Los Angeles Police Department Detective Bob Jackson, who has written a book on Los Angeles gangs.

But gang experts can still tell the difference between the two types of graffiti. Latino gang graffiti has larger, carefully drawn block letters; the black gang graffiti is less formal, with more of a flowing script. And black gangs often will add initials next to their graffiti such as “BK” or “CK"--Blood Killer or Crip Killer.


The names of gang members often found emblazoned next to the graffiti also differ, Jackson said. Latino gang members have innocuous-sounding names, given by others, that usually are based on physical appearance, such as Smiley, Pooch or Blinky. Black gang members usually name themselves and have more macho, intimidating names such as Capone or Bullet.

To complicate the graffiti scene, “taggers"--non-gang members who emblazon their initials or names on anything from freeway overpasses to buses--have formed their own groups, called crews.

Near the Aliso-Pico Housing Project, a member of the East L.A. 13 Dukes complained about the recent proliferation of taggers, who, unlike gang members, often date their graffiti. There are so many tagging crews around now, he said, it is difficult to determine whether they are “dissing” your gang, “by throwing up pieces on your wall,” or are such amateurs that they just do not know any better.