Arts And Culture

Know Your Graffiti: Art, vandalism or gang device?

March 6, 2012, 12:11 p.m.

Walls without graffiti are rare in LAPD's Newton Division in South Los Angeles. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)


Read about the gangs behind the graffiti in part one of the Know Your Graffiti series.

There are graffiti artists who view themselves as just that – artists.

"They look at it as art," said Brandon Barron, an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division. He works on the division's Gang Enforcement Detail. "They look at it as art and they don't think they're doing anything wrong. They're throwing it up there because they want people to see their artistic side."

Artistic graffiti tends to be much more elaborate, much less readable and, as such, much less functional.

Barron said the graffiti in the photo above is "clearly artistic." "I can't really read it," he said. "It's not really legible, because of the way that it's bubbly. If it was gang, you'd be able to read it. This is somebody trying to show art here."

Jonathan Rocha, another officer in Newton's gang unit, said owners of stores or buildings will sometimes pay people to do graffiti art on their walls so that nobody else comes and covers them with less-inspired vandalism.

"No one else will come over there and tag that," said Rocha, referring to the building in the above photo, "because there are so many colors. It's just not that easy to tag over that."

And as admirable as the talents of some of these artists may be, the illegality of most graffiti on the streets will always be the primary factor for Rocha.

"The ones that get it done legally and get the permits, you can tell that they have artistic talents," said Rocha. "But even the ones that do have artistic talents and do it illegally, it's still a crime. That's the bottom line. You can admire it, but at the end of the day, it's somebody's property that's being defaced and our ultimate goal is to stop that."

Tagging is artistic graffiti's less-inspired cousin.

"There's no rule or artistic flow to it, really," said Rocha. "Just writing their name. Usually what'll happen is they'll write their crew and then their name, or a moniker."

Taggers will often indicate how many people are tagging; if a person is going solo, he or she will add a number one to his or her artwork, showing that that he or she is a "oner." In the photo above, the two tallies in the bottom-right area of the tag show that this is the work of two people.

Tagging crews like the Mobbers, the handiwork of whom is shown in the photo above, don't adhere to territory like gangs do.

"They have free reign of the city," said Rocha. "They go wherever they want and tag as much as they can."

And they do – even in other gangs' territories. Barron said tagging crews like U2M (whose graffiti can be seen in the photo below) will often be given a choice by actual gangs: stop tagging on their territory or join them.

That means tagging crews are a sort of gateway into bona fide gangs, which Barron said can cause the gang unit problems.

"One of the things we're actually starting to hear is that there are tagging crews that 'clique up' with a gang," he said. "Which is why we have to come out here and talk to people, interview the gangsters, see what's going on, what's new, who's cliquing up with who, stuff like that."

Gangs and graffiti

One South L.A. gang member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told OnCentral what graffiti means to gangs in fairly simple terms.

"Most guys do it just to let other people know that it's our neighborhood," he said. His gang is based in Newton Division. "That's pretty much it. It's just to let people know that it's our neighborhood."

Graffiti is the visual manifestation of gang turf wars, and tagging in another gang's territory is one of the ultimate displays of disrespect.

"It's like me going to your house and stepping all over the couch," said the gang member, referring to other gangs tagging in his territory. And his response? "I'll probably get pissed off and write over there in their territory."

In other words, graffiti by gangs is primarily functional, which is why it's always legible.

"The gang member stuff – you can actually read it," said Rocha. "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."

Primera Flats is another gang in Newton Division. In the photo below, the "SC" stands for South Central.

There are two different types of Primera Flats, said Rocha: East Side and West Side. "This is the East Side Primera Flats; the original [gang] started on the West Side." For Latino gangs, the east/west dividing line isn't generally universal; for black gangs, it's usually the 110 freeway. The photos below indicate that this particular clique of Primera Flats is East Side ("ES") and also of the 23rd Street clique ("23" and "XXIII").

Some of Primera Flats' tagging is noticeably more intricate, and Rocha pointed to the fear factor. ""A lot of tagging takes a lot of time," he said, referring to the photo below. "There's no question people saw them. It's pretty blatant. But no one's going to call because of the fear factor."

Just down the street, the Ghetto Boyz Gang claimed its territory similarly, differentiating themselves as the 27th Street clique.

Others, like the 36th Street Gang, have to get creative in terms of where they tag their territorial claims.

Florencia 13 is a gang that lays claim to an area of Newton that underwent a transformation from residential to industrialized, essentially forcing the gang out. But Rocha said Florencia 13 still claims the area, even though most of them are now based in the county sheriff's jurisdiction. In the photo below, Florencia 13 ("FXIII") is represented by "FXIII," and Rocha said "HSLS" and "MDS" are cliques of the gang, while "Slim" and "Vamps" are most likely gang member monikers.

And in keeping with Rocha's explanation that gang graffiti is meant to be easy to read and immediately understood, some gangs will tag symbols. It's easy enough to discern the logic behind this tag by the Playboys:

But that doesn't mean the Playboys won't put up the more traditional – and entire-wall-consuming – graffiti that is so common in Newton Division. In the photo below, "PBS" is short for Playboys, and "ES" means they're East Side:

Communication via graffiti isn't one-way, though – and it's at its most dangerous when it's not.

Read about gang disses, threats and proclamations of ties to the Mexican Mafia in the final installment of the Know Your Graffiti series.

All photos are by José Martinez.

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