This is the final post of a three-part series. Read about the gangs behind the graffiti in Newton Division in part one and the different types of graffiti – artistic, vandalistic and gang-related in part two of the Know Your Graffiti series.
Sometimes the ubiquitous graffiti in South Los Angeles is pure artistic expression. Sometimes it's just kids' tagging and costing business owners or the city a couple hundred bucks in repainting expenses.
And sometimes it's a statement from the local gang: This is our turf, and you're only on it because we say it's OK.
And while that message is menacing enough, it becomes even more dangerous when two or more gangs begin to go back and forth with each other. What starts out as a show of disrespect – a diss – can and usually does quickly escalate into threats of violence that South L.A. gangs won't hesitate to carry out.
It's all within the intricate and ever-changing graffiti code that's hiding in plain sight from most southside Angelenos.
Elements of (graffiti) style
Arrows are a common symbol in gang graffiti, said Brandon Barron, an officer in the gang unit of the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division. Arrows signify "this area," he said – as in "this area is ours."
In the photo above, explained Barron, the Loco Park gang is claiming the area east of the arrow. Below, the 66th Street set of the East Coast Crips is defining the line where its territory begins.
In keeping with the use of symbols instead of text, Jonathan Rocha – another officer in Newton's gang enforcement unit – said that sometimes gangs will tag their hand symbols – their gang signs – like the East Coast Crips did below. He pointed out how the entire hand forms an "E," while the middle finger and thumb form a "C."
And while gang taggers' primary job is to represent the gang, Barron said many will also tag their monikers. In what is a claim of authorship, "Lil' Trouble" and "Jokes" in the first photo below sprayed their names next to Primera Flats gang graffiti. In the second photo, one "Lady Ceebo" laid claim to at least part of a wall covered in tagging. Her name was in the same color as other tagging by the 66th Street set of the East Coast Crips, so she's probably part of that set, according to Barron and Rocha.
One wall of graffiti laid out the elements particularly clearly. "That's the 36th Street Gang," said Rocha of the tagging in the photo below. "Maple Locos is a clique and Silent is the person who wrote it." The "SC" stands for South Central.
There's also plenty of evidence that those fellow gang members who are gone – whether it's temporarily or permanently – are not forgotten on the street. Barron pointed to a few tags – one that said "FREE EROCC1" and another that said "FREE TCV" – and said those gang members were or are in jail. "That whole thing started with Lil' Wayne," he said, referring to the "Free Weezy" campaign, which fans of rapper Lil' Wayne started when he went to Rikers Prison for eight months in 2010.
And as for the dead: Jose Luis is a fallen member of the 50th Street Gang.
But the city has a much less poetic term for what the gangs might call honoring a fallen brother: vandalism.
And then there are the disses.
"If a rival gang comes through an area, one thing they'll definitely do is they'll spray paint over [another gang's tag], cross it out and then put theirs up right next to it," said Barron. "It's a slap in the face."
The photo below was taken in the 41st Street Gang's territory.
"This is your 41st Street Gang," said Barron in reference to the above photo. "You see right here next to it the 'SC HOB', which is the South Central Hang Out Boyz gang. And then next to that, you have 'Shy 1', which is probably the tagger's moniker. And then it's all crossed out by 41st Street. So the Hang Out Boyz tagged that first to disrespect 41st Street; 41st Street came back and crossed out Hang Out Boyz and tagged right next it."
Rocha said that Hispanic gangs like 41st Street and the Hang Out Boyz don't generally use colors in their tags. "But because Hang Out Boyz did theirs in blue, they're obviously not going to come back with another blue because then it wouldn't stand out," he said. "For whatever reason, though, 41st Street does use a lot of red."
But there comes a point where crossing out stops being a diss and becomes a threat.
The graffiti in the photo below was tagged by Primera Flats. Note the "G" that's crossed out on the left side and the "T" that's crossed out on the right. Next to both of those characters is a "K" – which stands for "killer."
"What gangs will do is cross out their rivals and put a 'K' next to that, which means they're killers of that rival gang," explained Barron, who said that's absolutely not an empty threat. Whatever gangs the "G" and "T" stand for – if they come through Primera Flats territory, the Flats will kill them.
Rocha and Barron pointed out similar tactics in the Pueblo Del Rio projects, located between Long Beach Avenue and Alameda Street. The 52 Pueblo Bishop Bloods have that area locked down so tightly, said Barron, that there's hardly any tagging there. "They know they own that whole area," he said. "There's no fight for territory there."
But there was one string of Pueblo Bishop-authored graffiti that was particularly threatening:
The threat begins after the East Side ("ES) Pueblos name. "'C' is crossed out for Crips, because [the Pueblos] are a blood gang," said Rocha. "'38' is 38th Street, another Hispanic gang in the area. They've been crossed out. 'BSV', that's Blood Stone Villains, another Blood gang. The Pueblo Bishops are also a Blood gang, but they have a feud with the Blood Stone Villains. So essentially, this graffiti means they're killers of the Crips, the 38th Street Gang and Blood Stone Villains.
Taggers might also show a bit of artistic inspiration even while making lethal threats, like the 76th Street set of the East Coast Crips did in these threats to the Florencia 13 gang (the flower, a derogatory symbol for Florencia 13, at left) and the Grape Street Gang (middle):
Barron and Rocha were unsure what the rightmost symbol in the photo above represented. "But those are probably [the Crips'] most hated gangs," said Barron.
They also said that the swan hanging from a hook through its head in the photo below is from the same Crips set to the Swans Blood Gang:
The ultimate insult, though, is when a crossing-out is accompanied by a derogatory nickname, as seen in the photo below:
That's from the East Coast Crips to the 52 Broadway Gangster Crips, except they've taken the "B" and "G" from "Broadway Gangster" and taken that to mean "Bubble Gum" – hence the crossed-out tag of the bubblegum machine in the photo above.
'Death wishes' and the Mexican Mafia
Some of the most chilling elements of the graffiti in South Los Angeles are tucked away in a code that only the gang-literate know.
Barron pointed to a tag on a liquor store that said "Hang Out Boyz," noting that whoever painted it was probably asked to do so by the liquor store, since it was so well-done and more intricate than standard gang tagging.
Then he looked closer. "The thing that stands out to me," he said, "is the three dots with the two lines."
"That stands for the Mexican Mafia," he said. "So Hang Out Boyz has some sort of affiliation with the Mexican Mafia." That was also an indicator to him and Rocha that the person who painted the "Hang Out Boyz" onto the liquor store, along with the Mexican Mafia symbol, was actually a member of the gang and not just a graffiti artist paying tribute.
"No one's going to put the Mexican Mafia symbol up there without their permission," said Rocha. "That's a death wish."
The number 13, explained Barron, indicates affiliation with the Mexican Mafia, whether it's a "13," "XIII" or the two lines and three dots.
"They might sell drugs for the Mexican Mafia, or pay taxes to them," said Barron. "For example, if the area gangs want to go out and kill somebody, they have to get permission from the Mexican Mafia to do so. There's going to be repercussions for what they do if it's not approved by the Mexican Mafia."
The officers pointed to a "13" in graffiti that was tagged by the 50th Street Gang as well, in the top righthand corner of the tagging on the fence in the photos below.
"A lot of the Hispanic gangs here pay taxes to or are involved with the Mexican Mafia in some way," said Rocha.
Graffiti: part of a lifestyle
"I don't think any place is safe from graffiti," said Rocha. "We've had incidences here in Newton where gang members were tagging on churches, just places that are considered sacred to people. And they were still defaced by different gangs and taggers." He guessed cemeteries probably wouldn't be safe either, and said that police stations have definitely been tagged before.
"It's part of the gang and tagger lifestyle," he said – and it's one that's constantly changing, whether it's tagging symbols, sets, or turf boundaries. "There are certain things we're not going to know unless we talk to people," he said. "So it comes down to whether we can find someone who's willing to talk and who can tell us what these things mean."
Graffiti is so ingrained in the gang lifestyle, in particular, that it's largely become redundant: Rocha and Barron said that anybody who lives in the area could tell you which gang runs which area. In that sense, graffiti has become a cultural ritual, a vestige of the practical, functional territory-marking activity it once was.
"If you live on the streets, you know who an area belongs to," said Rocha. "So gangs don't even need to put the tagging up. But it's a constant reminder that hey, this is still their area – that they haven't left."
All photos by José Martinez / KPCC