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The Drab Utility of Gangland Graffiti

jimkster / Flickr / Creative Commons

Gangs have been writing graffiti since at least the early 20th century, and the reasons have remained remarkably stable: identifying turf boundaries, roll calls to identify gang members, and enacting conflict with rival gangs.

This type of graffiti differs dramatically from the general kind of graffiti we’ve talked about so far, most notably in the distinct lack of style, which is much to the chagrin of many dedicated graffiti writers.

This is not to say that gang graffiti has absolutely no style, just that it’s rather uniformly visually uninteresting, largely because the purpose of gang writing is so functional. The lexicon of gang writing would have trouble filling a business card: there’s the ubiquitous “187,” which is the always-popular California penal code designation for homicide, usually written over another gang’s graffiti. Any other numbers are usually the street boundaries of the gang’s turf. Beyond that, it’s either the full name of the gang, or some kind of abbreviation or communicative symbol.

This is also not to say that any kind of graffiti style we’ve preferenced by naming it “Graffiti Culture” hasn’t been influenced by gang graffiti. The hypermodern Gothic calligraphy of Chaz Bojorquez and RETNA come immediately to mind-- especially Chaz, who was a writer for L.A. gangs before going somewhat-legit with modern graffiti.

This is to say that gangs write what is essentially an accountant’s vision of graffiti: just enough flair to get the numbers in the ledger. If we were to give a name to the style employed by gang writers, we might call it “Seventh Grade Chic” (and let’s not even get into the amateur kerning).

The overriding message is not art, or even artistic one-upsmanship, but simply intimidation and aggression. There’s ultimately no real need to pretty up your letters if all you’re trying to do is scare your neighbors.