GRAFFITI: That Writing on the wall

paintIt has been called the "Newspaper of the Streets." What exactly do those cryptic, seemingly unintelligible scribbles mean? Graffiti can be divided into two types: graffiti done by taggers and graffiti done by street gangs.

Even though taggers and street gangs both use graffiti as an illegal form of communication, their intent is different. Taggers see graffiti as an art form, a game, or a friendly contest. Street gangs use graffiti to mark areas they frequent and to issue threats to their enemies.

The Taggers

Taggers are generally less violent than traditional street gangs. Tagger graffiti differs from street gang graffiti in that it is generally more intricate and more "artistic" than the graffiti a street gang would do. The lettering may be entwined and turned upside down or sideways to the point of looking more like a maze than letters.

The graffiti that they paint on walls usually is done in several colors and might include caricatures of animals or humans. Taggers would call this type of graffiti a "piece," presumably short for "masterpiece." This kind of piece is usually designed ahead of time, and may have been sketched out in a notebook beforehand.

Underground magazines and newsletters publish tagger pieces. A world-wide network exists to keep taggers in touch with each other. Many taggers believe what they are doing is street art and is not a crime.

Another activity taggers are involved in is "tagging," putting their moniker or "tag," in as many places as they can. Taggers engage in contests with other groups, trying to outdo each other in terms of the number of "tags" put up, the difficulty of the artwork, or the difficulty of the location of the tag.

Taggers gain visible recognition from their writing on walls. The more visible a wall is, the more desirable it is to taggers. Freeway overpass signs, water towers, and billboards can quickly build a tagger's reputation. They call it "tagging the heavens."

One method that taggers have used to tag multiple-story buildings is to tie ropes to the wheels of skateboards and have friends lower the tagger down the side of the building. To tag freeway overpasses, they have their friends hold them upside down by their feet.

qvoTaggers will sometimes use sticky-backed labels (like the name tags that are often handed out at training seminars). The tagger will write his moniker on 10 to 20 labels and then as he walks through an area he'll just peel off the backing and put the label on any surface he passes. Some typical tagger monikers are "Nope," "Dime," "Bug," "Smok," "Toke," and "Rek."

Parents who believe that their child is involved in tagging should look for spray paint cans, a collection of aerosol spray tips, wide-tip markers, glass etching tools, surgical gloves, name tag stickers, and photographs or self-made videos of graffiti. Sketches of graffiti, practice sheets containing a moniker, or school notebooks with doodles that resemble graffiti may indicate tagging activity. Paint or marker dye on the hands or extra-large, hooded coats with large cargo-type pockets often indicate an involvement in tagging.

Street Gang Graffiti

Street gang members put up graffiti to increase their visibility, threaten rivals, and to intimidate residents in the area. It is usually much more primitive and sometimes more easily read than graffiti done by taggers. Gang graffiti may show alliances between gangs, mark the scene of a crime, or commemorate the death of a beloved "homie" (with slogans such as "In memory of ......" or "RIP ......").

It usually includes the gang name and possibly a list of the monikers of several members in the gang or perhaps a threat aimed at a rival group (with slogans such as "187 ....." or "CK" or "BK"). One area had graffiti that included "187" as a header, and beneath it a list of all of the rival gang names. Monikers that are typical in street gangs are "Smiley," "Flaco," "Scrappy," "Payaso," "Goofy," "P dog," or "T-Locc." Telephone area code prefixes are sometimes included, and, although Utah's "801" code is used, codes from California seem to be very popular and "213," "310," and "714" are often seen.

razaStreet gang graffiti may be done in old English-style letters, balloon (or block) letters, or simple, single-stroke letters. Many of the Hispanic gangs will include Spanish phrases such as "Loco" (Crazy), or "Rifa" ("We control") or "Rifamos" ("We are best"). Cross-outs of individual letters or of rival gang names are common. Individual letters are crossed-out when that letter is in a rival gang's name. For example, a Blood set may cross out all the Cs in any graffiti they put up.

Street gang graffiti may contain derogatory references toward rival gangs. Blood sets may refer to Crip sets as "Crabs" and Crip sets may use "Slobs" in their graffiti as an insult to Blood sets. Gang graffiti that includes "187" indicates a threat to kill. "187" is the California penal code for homicide, and, used in street graffiti, tells rival gangs that those who painted the graffiti intend to kill them.

The number "13" is used often in street graffiti, mostly among Hispanic gangs. The "13" may be represented as "XIII," "X3," "13," or with the word "trece." There are various explanations for the use of the number "13." The thirteenth letter of the alphabet is "M" and one explanation says that "M" refers to the Mexican Mafia; another says it stands for Mexico, the homeland; and another says that it refers to a street in Mexico that starts with the letter "M"--the street where the first gang was started.

Other gang names often seen in gang graffiti are "D St," for Diamond Street; "TCG," pitchfor Tongan Crip Gangsters; "sXe," for Straight Edge; "G-13," for Gardenia 13; "QVO;" "VLT," for Varrio Loco Town; "Sur 13" or "Sur 38," for Surenos 13 or Surenos 38; and "21," for 21st Street. "WS," for Westside or "NS," for Northside are also common. Street gang graffiti that includes crude pictures of crescent moons, stars, rabbit ears, pitchforks, crowns, or dice indicate Folk or People gangs.

What Can I Do?

ALWAYS paint over graffiti immediately or call an agency which will paint it free for you. Research done in California shows that areas that are immediately painted over are much less likely to be "hit" again. Graffiti that is left up becomes a status symbol. Many communities have "adopt-a-wall" programs or programs that encourage volunteers to assist in cleaning off or painting over graffiti. Graffiti hot lines, for reporting graffiti, are available in many areas.

NEVER confront or challenge someone who is tagging a wall. Street gang members are very often armed and may assault a challenger even if they are not. Remember, even taggers may be armed. If possible, obtain an accurate description of the individuals, graffiti, vehicle, and license plate number. video tapes of graffiti activities are also useful. All information should be passed on to your local law enforcement agency to investigate.

If you find graffiti in public places please notify one of the following agencies for immediate free removal. Call the city in which it was found:

Salt Lake City: 801-972-7885
or E-mail to

Salt Lake County Graffiti Hotline: 801-468-2182

West Jordan: 801-569-5270
West Valley: 801-963-3467
Sandy City: 801-561-6712

On Billboards
3M National: 1-800-362-8936
Reagan: 801-521-1775
Young Electric Sign: 801-487-8481

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