An Overview of Gangs and Graffiti Culture

January 4, 2015

By Jorge David Mancillas


                        My father once said "graffiti is the plague of the world". He told me this when I was about 10 years old as we drove on the Los Angeles freeways heading home. To this day I remember those words and I think about how he must have felt the first time his only son was arrested for writing on walls. The way people think about graffiti can be surmised from the word that is attached to it; graffiti-"art", "gang"-graffiti or graffiti-"culture", most commonly however, it is simply thought of as another form of vandalism. The root of the word graffiti comes from the Greek word graphein meaning to "scratch, draw, or write". Evidence of graffiti can be found dating back to political and social scribing on the walls of ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. For example, on the walls of the ancient city of Pompeii, preserved for two thousand years under volcanic ash, are found scribing with phrases such as "Someone at whose table I do not dine, Lucius Istacidius, is a barbarian to me" and "Burglar, watch out".

     In the United States, what is recognized today as graffiti began in the late 1960's as a form of political expression. Since then it has become a worldwide phenomenon that has grown in strides and leaps despite the number of legislative actions designed to intimidate and put a hault to graffiti writers. For most people in the U.S. the characters behind the graffiti are scary people; gang-bangers and hip-hop kids. Both are seen as delinquent adolescents, scum of the earth, lost causes and a burden to tax payers. In reality though, graffiti writers come from many walks of lives, though most have in common the fact that they are alienated members of society searching for a medium and a social group within which to express and define their identities.

                        To the average eye graffiti may look the same and seem to express the same message; that of a group or individual marking territory. The true message behind the writing on the wall, however, ranges from artistic expression to a symbolic system of boundaries for neighborhood gangs. The inherently illegal nature of graffiti makes it difficult for society to accept. Nonetheless, the "graffiti revolution" has made its mark all the way from city walls, legal (commissioned) walls, subway systems around the world, private property and, more recently, into art galleries.

Origins of Contemporary Graffiti in Los Angeles

                        In the United States, what is now known as graffiti-art first appeared in the 1970's in New York City's underground subways and abandoned buildings. Graffiti writing was part of the hip-hop culture which also included the elements of break-dancing, rhyming/rapping and DJ'ing. Today, graffiti is still considered one of the "four elements" of contemporary hip-hop culture. Graffiti writing reached the West Coast, Los Angeles in particular, in the late eighties as hip-hop culture grew in popularity. By the late twentieth century Los Angeles based writers/artists were experimenting with an assortment of styles; "tags", "throw-ups", "pieces" and "productions". What separated L.A. graffiti from that of East Coast graffiti was the influence of Chicano gang writing, which itself stemmed from the "Pachucos" (the original Mexican-American subculture originating in the 1920's and 1930's) and their distinct calligraphy-like writing.

                        "Growing up in L.A., seeing the gang writing on the wall, like seeing how they wrote that 'E'… you know? I liked how they (gang members) had their own styles". Like most serious graffiti writers in L.A., "Fails", from CSM crew, attributes his attraction to graffiti to what he grew up seeing around him in his neighborhood. As the writing flourished on the walls of Los Angeles, between the eighties and into the nineties, many, otherwise anti-social and alienated adolescents, found an elective affinity within the emergent graffiti culture.


Sociology of Gang Culture

                        The study of deviant subcultures, in particular American street gangs, was first written about in Frederic M. Thrasher's book " The Gang: a study of 1,313 gangs in Chicago" written in 1927. Thrasher refers to gangs as being "tribal" in nature, and "…medieval and feudal in their organization rather than modern and urban". This implication is further asserted by articles during the same era claiming that the Los Angeles Zoot-Suit riots of the early 1930's were driven by the Mexican-American Pachuco's innate savagery and lust for blood, rooted in their Aztec heritage. These early analyses of street gangs, however, were founded on stereotypes and ethnocentrism and do not reflect the complex and intricate nature of gang culture.

                        To study the sociology of gang culture it helps to think of gangs as their own mini-society. They share a common language (verbal and non-verbal), ideology, values and beliefs. Given these characteristics, gangs, like societies, have a tendency to organize in the same way as social institutions. For example, individual gang members have different roles and statuses giving way to internal organization within the gang. The ideal type of gang culture is conveyed from one generation to the next through the process of socialization.

                        In addition to the shared culture, gangs also share an exclusive territory, or "turf". Gang members, as well as non-affiliates, recognize who the members of the gang are, this in turn, is critical for identifying an aggregate of people as a group. Ultimately, the demographics of gang neighborhoods are defined by specific parks, gas stations, street corners, etc., which become territorial boundaries. These exclusive territories become sacred to the gang member just as a country may be sacred to its citizens. Therefore, gang members take on similar roles as soldiers and are willing to risk their lives defending their territory. According to Gardner's "Street Gangs in America", the very existence of a gang member revolves around his or her identity. Therefore any insult to the members' territorial turf, their defining brand of sneakers or color of clothing is "ground for battle".

                        For alienated youth subjected to failing public services, along with dysfunctional families and school systems, gangs provide an alternative belief system and system of values. As articulated by an older gang-member friend, "There was acceptance within the gang that pretty much wasn't there from the rest of the community. You live in a city where you are not accepted by your own community but you are accepted by the gang" (Shyboy). This sentiment was also expressed to me by a younger member of the same gang "As I think about my community, I think about how they (the community) keeps us in the shadows…about keeping us away from the public. I feel that us being gang members and being citizens, that the cops and the city itself keeps us in the shadows, keeps us low income; we grow up not having things and we see others having things and we find our own way of having those things" (Shady). Still, for others the reason for joining gangs is much simpler, "The rush to like doing bad shit without getting caught. A thrill. Like an adventure" (Froggy).


Gangs and Graffiti

                        As gang members create their own alternative communities the common language between gangs is expressed in part through symbols, hand gestures, handshakes and also graffiti. This shared language solidifies unity amongst members of the gang who themselves each adopt a moniker/nickname that becomes a fundamental part of their identity. Spray painting ones' moniker and gang name on a wall is as powerful as the symbolic gesture of raising your nations' flag. Therefore, if this mark is crossed out by a rival gang it is taken as an act of war and may be responded to by superimposing the symbol 187, (the California State Penal Code for murder), which is used to communicate the intention of murder. In fact, the theme of a 1997 film directed by Kevin Reynolds was titled and based on this graffiti symbol along with its role in school gang violence. The film portrayed the new interactions between graffiti artists and gang bangers in Los Angeles high schools. These interactions resulted in the emergence of a new kind of delinquent in the L.A. area during the late 1990's; the "tag-banger". Unlike full-blown gangsters from established neighborhood gangs, tag-bangers stemmed from groups of graffiti artists living in, or near, gang-controlled neighborhoods. Some of these graffiti artists were recruited into the local gangs while others resisted by adapting their graffiti crew into their own "gang".  Regardless, both tag-bangers and gang-bangers, originate from youth that felt alienated from the law abiding community.

                        The graffiti produced by gangs, tag-bangers and (non-gang affiliated) graffiti artists, varies significantly in terms of content, quality and style. For example, tag-bangers and gangsters write on walls to mark territory whereas graffiti artists write on walls to display their artistic skill. Froggy from 17th Street (a West L.A. gang) stated his reasons for utilizing gang graffiti as "… to be known by my enemies, to pretty much tell them that 'I'm here!', 'I'm standing!', 'This is where I stand'". In contrast, veteran graffiti artist, Fails, says "It's a labor of love, when you're out there painting for four hours, three hours, five hours… you're going to go out there and you're going to produce art, your shadows, your highlights…you're going to bend your letters, you're going to put in a lot of effort, like crazy; you're out in the hot-ass sun from 8am until there isn't enough light, it becomes a way of life. No, it is a way of life".


Justified Graffiti Art versus Unjustified Vandalism

                        People that oppose graffiti argue that graffiti is offensive and destructive to the aesthetics of the community. They suggest that eradicating graffiti is in the interest of the general public. In contrast, serious proponents of de-criminalizing graffiti argue that the so-called "public" property that opponents of graffiti pretend to defend does not actually serve the interests of all of the public. Rather, it serves only the interests of the dominant (wealthy) segments of society. Although there exist laws protecting museums in Pompeii and Greece containing ancient scribed walls created by marginalized peoples from ancient times, the writings on todays' walls are not considered historical representations of the lives of contemporary powerless and alienated people. In today's society the practice of graffiti is highly criminalized and charged as a felony.

                        The law in California now criminalizes graffiti on public property with laws originally designed to punish infringement of private property. In California anti-graffiti laws have been taken to an extreme to where a person receiving three felonies, which could have stemmed from graffiti, may face life in prison. Additionally, laws have been enacted prohibiting the sale of spray paint and broad ink markers to persons below the age of 18. It is usually the graffiti artists' intent to write on government, rather than private, property based on the idea that a private property owner will have a higher incentive to defend their property compared to that of the government. What this amounts to in the end is that the graffiti artists work will last longer on public property versus private property.

                        According to Daniel J. D'Amico and Walter Block from the Economics Department at George Mason University, graffiti on public property should not be illegal because it is not a violation of private property rights. Rather, it is a liberation of stolen property from a thieving and unjust government. This argument is supported by the six criteria pertaining to "just war" theory: just cause, right intention, proper authority and public declaration, last resort, probability of success and proportionality. Along these lines, the authors cite a passage from the Declaration of Independence which states that "… whenever any form of government becomes destructive… it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it". This is used as support for the "just war" cause criteria and the view that the graffiti artist is not vandalizing "…but rather re-claiming her/his rightful property". Ultimately, the underlying issue regarding what constitutes vandalism or trespassing is that of who truly "owns" the surface on which the graffiti is being placed. Regardless, due to the illegal nature of graffiti, the practice of graffiti is more often than not perceived as an act of defiance against society.       


Graffiti as a Commodity     

            Even though laws and punishments associated with contemporary graffiti have become increasingly extreme, capitalistic society exploits graffiti culture when it is profitable to do so. For example, Hollywood employs film makers who often use images of imitations of graffiti to give the illusion of ethnic or class boundaries, for example in the films "Training Day" and "187". Additionally, clothing companies such as "Fubu", "Tribal" and "ConArt" purposely incorporate graffiti-like designs on their products in order to target a specific consumer market. The National Graffiti Information Network protests any glorification of graffiti-related crime. These same kinds of organizations make a distinction, however, between "bad" graffiti and "good" graffiti. The difference between good and bad graffiti, according to many, depends on permission. In particular, good graffiti uses city walls designated for legal graffiti or commissioned walls where the owner pays the artist to decorate their business.

            Nonetheless, the use of graffiti as a commodity provides ex-vandals and graffiti artists who may have difficulties finding work, the possibility to enter into fields where their artistic skills can be used, such as painting conventional art on canvases, clothing and graphic design and sign making. Not all graffiti artists, however, can transition into this competitive market though the dream to do so illustrates, as Fails from CSM crew put it, that graffiti is, for the artist, a "labor of love". In other words, the graffiti writer loves what he/she does.

            Importantly, many people believe that graffiti should only be done illegally as a political protest and regard those who have "made it" into art galleries or have commercialized their work, as sell-outs. In this view, the commercialization of graffiti culture waters down the significance and authenticity of the roots and meanings behind contemporary graffiti; a tag placed on a shirt, hat or in an art gallery does not convey the same message as does an illegal tag on the street.         

                        At the end of the day, graffiti as a social movement is not showing signs of slowing down. On the contrary, according to a New York Times article by Adam Nagourney, cities all around the country are reporting an increase in the number of new graffiti appearing on their public walls. In Los Angeles, for example, the city removed 35.4 million square feet of graffiti in 2011, an increase of 8.2 percent from 2010. This statistic reflects the fact that graffiti and graffiti culture remain appealing to youth throughout the country. Thus, any program designed to end illegal vandalism must address the societal forces that generate alienated youth who, ultimately, may become vandals in the eyes of the law.

            Following in the tradition of authors with considerable more experience than myself, I will give the last words of this paper to the subjects I interviewed:  "When I first started I was a misguided youth, I'm not thinking of the future, I'm in the moment, everything is in the moment… the longer you're in a crew the more love you grow from it, it's like a relationship.. you have an identity…I'm a somebody, 'I'm fuckin' Fails CSM', this is my trademark and I value it…"




Abel, Ernest L., and Barbara E. Buckley. The Handwriting on the Wall: Toward a Sociology and Psychology of Graffiti. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977. Print.

Anderson, Elijah. Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City. London: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

D’Amico, Daniel J., and Walter Block. "A Legal and Economic Analysis of Graffiti." Humanomics 23.1 (2007): 29-38. Web.

Gardner, Sandra, and Cary Herz. Street Gangs in America. New York: F. Watts, 1992. Print.

Interview with "Fails", CSM Crew. Telephone interview. 12 Dec. 2014.

Interview with "Froggy", Santa Monica 17th Street Gang. Telephone interview. 12 Dec. 2014.

Interview with "Shady", Santa Monica Gang. Telephone interview. 13 Dec. 2014.

Interview with "Shyboy", Santa Monica 17th Street Gang. Personal interview. 6 Dec. 2014.

Phillips, Susan A. Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1999. Print.

Thrasher, Frederic Milton. The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Chicago, IL: U of Chicago, 1927. Print.

Young, Alison. "Negotiated Consent or Zero Tolerance? Responding to Graffiti and Street Art in Melbourne." City 14.1 (2010): 99-114. Web.