Like storefront churches, sidewalk peddlers and foreclosed homes, graffiti is part of the South Los Angeles scenery, rarely (if ever) garnering more than a knowing glance from locals.
But the officers in the gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division are paid to give this "street art" much more than a glance. Graffiti tells a story in a code that's constantly in flux – and although it's not always gang-related, with an estimated 50-60 gangs based in Newton Division's nine square miles, there's a good chance it is.
View Newton Police Division in a larger map
OnCentral went on patrol with two members of Newton's Gang Enforcement Detail: Brandon Barron and Jonathan Rocha, who have been in the LAPD for seven and four-and-a-half years, respectively.
"Pretty much our job in a nutshell is to drive around and suppress crimes committed by gang members," said Barron. "Stop any gang members that we see, question them, see where they're from – gather intel on gang activity."
"In Newton there are a lot of gangs," said Rocha. "Most of them are active, most of them are big, and a lot of the gangs started here and continue to grow and thrive, for whatever reason."
Rocha said he grew up in Echo Park, a place he called "gang-ridden" at the time, which is part of the reason he works Newton's gang unit. Barron didn't grow up around gangs, but said he specifically chose to work in a gang-heavy area.
"I don't like to see the kids walking down the street, being harassed by gang members, or having to worry getting shot because of gang members," he said. "So I picked one of the most gang-infested areas that I could in L.A., to try and suppress the gangs as much as possible."
Gangs in Newton Division
"There are blocks that are not going to have any [graffiti] because there are no walls," said Rocha, "but for the most part, every area in Newton Division is claimed by some gang."
Newton has more gangs than most divisions in the LAPD, said Barron. The Latino gangs tend to be based in the north, while black gangs are found in the south. There are usually sub-groups within gangs – "cliques" for Latinos and "sets" for blacks.
Some of Newton's largest gangs, said Barron, are the Playboys, the 38th Street Gang, the Pueblo Bishop Bloods, the 52 Broadway Gangster Crips and the East Coast Crips. But neither he nor Rocha would say if one gang was the most dangerous.
"I don't know if I'd single one out specifically," said Barron, "because they're all capable of the same thing." Rocha echoed his partner.
"There's no one gang that's going to be feared more than anybody else," Rocha explained. "They're all feared in the community.
"The people in the area know who the gang members are," he continued. "They know where the gang tagging's going to be, and they know more or less not to go into this area or this alley by yourself or venture off into this area. The community members know."
Rocha said that gangs in Newton buy and sell both weapons and drugs – "they're pretty much able to do anything that an organized syndicate would be able to do," he said. Which is part of the reason there's so much graffiti in the area.
"The thing community members fear most is retaliation," said Barron. "A lot of the times [gang members] come up here and start tagging on the wall on a public street and nobody's going to call the police on them, because they're scared that the gang's going to somehow find out who called the police and retaliate on them for ratting on them." Part of the reason gangs tag is so that people know exactly who will be seeking revenge if someone rats them out to law enforcement.
But sometimes graffiti can be a little more innocuous – but just a little.
Read about the different types of graffiti in part two: artistic, vandalistic and gang-related. Read about gang disses, threats and ties to organized crime in the final installment of the Know Your Graffiti series.