Gang signs are symbols and methods traditionally used by organized crime groups for the purpose of communication, both internally and externally. Each gang has its own unique lexicon of signs and symbols that come in forms, both visual or audible, verbal and non-verbal.
The unfortunate reality of studying gang signs is the scarce available resources explaining them. This drought of information likely stems from the highly inclusive nature of organized crime. Most available information comes from gang units within local and federal law enforcement agencies, who are experts on the various gangs that inhabit their areas of operation. Even then, there are roughly 33,000 gangs in the U.S. alone, and groups within the same organizations may have their own alternative signs. (source)
Despite the limited resources, it is still possible to provide a basic overview of gang signs and their variations, including graffiti, attire, tattoos, and the different forms of audible and visual signals. The bulk of examples will focus on domestic gangs in the US, but the basics of gang signs are practically universal.
Criminal organizations often use graffiti as a gang sign in urban environments. That isn’t to say that all graffiti is produced by gangs or related to their activities. It is estimated that less than 10% of graffiti in the US has ties to criminal organizations. (source)
As a gang sign, graffiti can communicate a suite of different messages. For law enforcement agencies, understanding the culture of local gangs can help decipher their tagged code, which to a layman can seem quite ambiguous. Deciphered graffiti can be a highly valuable intelligence source, shedding light on the ongoing activities of the related criminal organizations. (source)
Gang graffiti falls under a few general categories:
- Memorials for fallen members
- Territorial claims
- Cross-outs (marking over a rival gang’s graffiti as a sign of disrespect)
- Challenge or response to rival gang
Law enforcement agencies can derive intelligence from gangs that sheds light into the messaging behind their graffiti.
Attire and Tattoos
Gang signs are a component of a broader gang psychology where a heightened sense of pride in the group is paramount. As noticeable in various forms of gang-centric hip hop and its relatable aesthetic, one of the ways gangs flaunt their membership and status is through attire. (source)
Contemporary gang styles are far removed from the iconic suit and hat mobster look from the mid-19th century. Its safe to say that there is significant crossover between hip hop culture and gang culture, predominantly in black and Hispanic gangs, such as the Bloods, Crips, and MS13. The lyrical content of hip hop often references life in impoverished urban areas, the very places that gangs tend to flourish. Because artists and lyrics are relatable to gangs, a cultural transfer exists between worlds.
There isn’t a definitive outfit or standard in what gang members wear, but enough of a signature style to get a rough idea of group fashion trends:
- Colors: the most significant “attire” across the board. While clothing choices may be non-universal, most gangs have specific colors that are associated with their organization. The most famous are likely red and blue, the colors of the Bloods and Crips.
- Bandanas (usually worn in the color of the gang)
- Baseball caps
- Sports/athletic gear (often with a specific professional team whose symbol matches the gang)
- Oversized pants/jeans
- Chinos/Khaki pants (Dickies are the most worn brand in gang culture)
Tattoos are a more “permanent” form of gang attire and are the most shared practice among all organizations. So much so, law enforcement agencies will often be able to determine a suspect or incarcerated individuals gang affiliation simply by viewing their tattoos.
Gang tattoos are like graffiti in the sense that they carry different meanings. For example, a commonly referenced gang tattoo in mainstream hip-hop culture is a teardrop (or multiple) under someone’s eye, which commonly represents taking a life. Others can symbolize standing within a group, and other unique cultural symbols that are unique to each gang.
Prisons are common places gang members receive tattoos, which carry an extra layer of meaning behind bars, as a way for prison gangs to communicate with each other (also like gang graffiti).
Visual and Audible Gang Signs
Visual and audible gang signs are a bit more obscure than the other general types. As is common with gang signs in general, there are wide degrees of variation between different gang cultures and regions. These types are more primitive in nature and are very hard to document due to abstraction.
The two most basic forms of this type are:
- Hand signs/body language
- Spoken language/slang
Hand signs and body language are both forms of non-verbal communication that are dominant in inner-city Black and Hispanic gangs. Like gang graffiti and tattoos, various hand and body signals carry various meanings. Some have a positive value or are used to communicate internally within the group. Others have a more negative value and are used in an offensive way towards a rival group.
A report on the Bloods by the Virginia State Police provides insights into the way gang members communicate specifically with body signals and gang signs. The same principles apply in alternate groups, albeit with different assigned meanings. (Source)
- Wiping face – “Identifying police”
- Rubbing head – “Hit a target right there”
- Scratch forehead – “A fight is about to take place”
- Blink – “Do you have a weapon?”
- Rub nose – “I don’t have a weapon”
- Lean on wall/object with single leg perched up – “I do have a weapon”
- Rub ear – “Go get your guns and come right back”
- Right hand massages left shoulder – “I’m about to rob something”
- Rub stomach – “Surround enemy, get ready for attack”
- Look at fist – “Be careful”
Spoken language and slang follow the same concept as hand signs and body language. Each gang has their own lexicon of terminology and sayings that are deeply embedded within gang culture. Hip hop, particularly the subgenres that contain heavy gang related content, can be forms of communication. Rappers with a gang affiliation may use coded language or slang to send a message to rivals, or simply brag about their status or feats.