This is going to be a long one. But It Might just help you understand what we are looking at. Most of this information has to do with Gangs in California. I thought it was worth taking a look at it and seeing just how it plays into the Tags we see in and around Asheville. So with that said lets take a look at………
Deciphering Gang Graffiti.
Where graffiti is concerned, the writing truly is “on the wall”. It’s an annoyance, to be sure, but it’s also somewhat interesting – at least the gang-related graffiti, anyway. In many ways, gang graffiti is a code – and like most codes, it’s susceptible to analysis.
Here in the U.S., at least, the first thing one should do when finding graffiti is to look at the letters, if any, and the overall design. If it has “bubble letters”, more than one color of paint or ink, or shows even a hint of artistry, it’s almost certainly not gang related. If it has sharp, angular stick letters, or contains religious (including “satanic”) imagery, or is done in one color of paint, it’s probably gang related.
A lot of times, the graffiti will be very simple, and flat-out say, for example, “West Side Bloods”. That, obviously, is easy to figure out. But what if you see just a series of letters or numbers that don’t seem to make any immediate sense? That’s the fun part, which requires some rudimentary code-breaking skills.
First of all, look for numbers. If you see two digits – especially “13″, “14″, or “18″, you’re probably looking at graffiti for a Hispanic gang. If you see three digits – especially if they’re your, or a nearby, area code – it’s almost certainly not a Hispanic gang, but your typical prison/street sort. There’s an easy exception to remember: If the numbers are followed by “K”, you’re looking at a threat from a rival gang. “WS18″ is a tag for the (Hispanic) West Side 18th Street gang out of California; “WS18K” is a threat towards 18th Street by a local gang. (”K” is short for “Kill”.) If there are two digits, see if they’re prefixed by “N”, “S”, “E”, or “W” – (or “NS”, “SS”, “ES”, or “WS”) – which relate to the cardinal directions, and form part of the gang’s identity. You’ll see 13 and 14 a lot in graffiti for Hispanic gangs – the 13th letter of the alphabet is “M”, which generally stands for “Mexico” (but sometimes “La Eme”, the Mexican Mafia); the 14th letter is of course “N”, which generally means “North”, or “Norteno”. “Norteno” has nothing much to do with the US-Mexico border; it instead means which end of California the gang originated from. Much like the divide between east-coast and west-coast rappers, gangstas from the north and south parts of California frequently “got beef” with each other.
But what if there aren’t any numbers? What if you come across something like this, and want to know what it means:
This is where the true fun is. At first, it looks like a meaningless series of letters, but after you’ve seen a few hundred, you start to notice some patterns. As any good cryptographer knows, patterns in codes are usually a bad thing – except for anyone who wants to break it. Here are the secrets, such as they are:
As before, a trailing “K” is a threat to “(K)ill”, as are any crossed-out letters. (More on this in a minute.) An “A” at the very beginning pretty much always stands for “Almighty”; it can be safely ignored. Likewise, if the tag ends with an “N”, that virtually always stands for “Nation”; it can be safely ignored. Those two usually occur together, and show up surprisingly often, as pretty much every two-bit bunch of street thugs takes to calling themselves the Almighty Whatever Nation. Looking at our tag above – ACVLN – we’ve gone from five indecipherable letters (a note to a repairman: Air Conditioner, Very Loud Noise?) down to just three, which is a more manageable number.
There are a pretty finite number of “real” gangs in this country, and it’s fairly easy to recognize the abbreviations for most of the most common ones. “GD” are the Gangster Disciples, for example; “VL” are the Vice Lords. “LK” are the Latin Kings, and “LQ” the Latin Queens; sometimes when they’re getting along, they’re the LKQ – Latin Kings and Queens. (And, like every other gang, they’re an “almighty” “nation”, and tag up buildings and fences appropriately – ALKQN.) In our case above, it’s pretty easy to figure out that we’re looking at a tag from the Almighty (something) Vice Lord Nation. The extra letter right before the gang initials probably refers to the “set” name – the specific local bunch of playas, pushers, and pimps who are staking their turf. In some instances – as here – it can provide a little extra information, as well.
Above, I made mention of crossed-out letters in gang graffiti. These aren’t a sign of the author not being able to spell; rather, they’re messages – usually threats. If you see the letters “B”, “C”, “F”, “P”, or “S” crossed-out in a piece of gang graffiti, it’s a threat towards a gang whose name, “nation”, or nickname begins with that letter. B and C are Bloods and Crips, respectively, while “S” is short for “Slobs” – a derogatory nickname for the Bloods. (The Crips are referred to as “Crabs”, incidentally.) “F” and “P” stand for the “Folks” and “Peoples” “nations”, which are sort of loose regional or nationwide alliances of street gangs. In any event, in the Vice Lord tag shown above, you will of course note the letter “C” is not crossed out – which tells you the local Vice Lords don’t have beef with the Crips. This isn’t necessarily huge intelligence, but all too often, little slights in graffiti – crossing out letters, or painting over rival gangs’ tags – are a very real warning sign of impending gang war, so it’s something to keep an eye out for.
So, as you can see, with a few tricks you can whittle a seemingly incomprehensible series of letters down to a more manageable size, and get the gist, at least, of what is being said – you’ve got Vice Lords in your neighborhood! (In this case, the “C” is short for “Conservative”, of all things; the “Conservative Vice Lords” are one of several dozen larger Vice Lord “sets” around the country.) Obviously, this isn’t as challenging as a vignere cipher, but it’s still interesting – and if nothing else, figuring out who’s saying what to whom can help you kill time while waiting for the bus. Besides, knowledge is power, even if it is mostly useless knowledge. Right?