Gang graffiti relays messages to friends and foes


Graffiti, or tagging, can be a simple nuisance or deliver a serious message -- one that can result in violence.

Street gangs use graffiti to delineate territory and to communicate. And depending on how the symbols are used, the language carries messages on several different levels.

Last month, a day before 7-year-old Angel Silvas was killed in the crossfire of a gang-related gunfight in East Chicago, graffiti appeared on the garage of his father's house which spelled out the initials of the gang to which his father was alleged to be affiliated -- plus the letter K, for "killer."

Adding the "killer" signifier to a rival gang's initials is used as both a brag and a threat, akin to painting a rival's symbol.

Through experience, police learn how to interpret the symbols, and can quickly tell if graffiti was intended simply as vandalism, misguided art -- or something more serious, Lansing police Lt. Pete Grutzius said.

Spend 10 minutes with the Chicago Crime Commission's book on gangs, and it becomes fairly easy to not only make a distinction between graffiti intended as vandalism and that of a street gang, but also to decipher any messages.

Six- and five-pointed stars, backwards letters, pitchforks, crosses or cartoon bunny heads are common symbols used by street gangs. Generally, these symbols are a brag. But painted upside down, the symbols are a threat.

"It's easy to see what the message is and whether it's some kid playing around, or if someone is trying to communicate a message," Grutzius said, adding the symbols and their use give police an idea as to the extent of gang influences.

"You better assume that if you have gangs, you have these other criminal elements," he said, citing violence and drugs as two things that go hand-in-hand with street gangs.

In East Chicago, the night of the Silvas shooting, the same four initials were painted in 5-foot-high letters on the garage of an Emlyn Place house where one of the men believed to have been involved in the shootout once stayed.

Less than 24 hours later, more than a dozen shots were fired into the house, sending a 70-year-old grandmother and her grandchildren fleeing for their lives.

Taggers not affiliated with gangs who try to mimic or mock gang graffiti may run a risk of inciting violence. But such instances are rare, said Calumet City police Investigator Marco Glumac, who has spent 21 years as a narcotics and gang officer.

"Most of the time, if you're a kid putting up gang symbols, chances are you are in a gang," he said. "If they weren't, they wouldn't know what to put up."

Illinois editor Chris Keller contributed to this report.