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Gang graffiti as a discourse genre
Karen L. Adams
Arizona State University
Anne Winter
Valle del Sol
This paper seeks to present a new understanding of the nature of gang graffiti.
Through the analysis of 1522 utterances found on 107 surfaces in the
Phoenix, Arizona, metropolitan area, we argue against the commonly held
notion that the major function of gang graffiti is to mark territory. A careful
consideration of the variety of utterance types, their interactive nature and
their location reveals a more complex discourse system reflecting the social
structure of the gang subculture. Gang graffiti serves to advertise individual
members and gangs, indicate social networks within and between gangs,
represent members' views of gang life and honor the dead. While gang graffiti
is an antilanguage, often antagonistic in its nature, it functions as cooperative
discourse following explicit norms and conventions.
KEYWORDS: Gang graffiti, antilanguage, discourse genre, argumenta-
tive discourse
Most people consider urban graffiti, found on buildings, street signs and
elsewhere, a multibillion dollar problem generating laws aimed at preventing
and combatting it. Surprisingly, not all forms of graffiti are equally well studied.
Although there is cross disciplinary literature on latrinalia (bathroom graffiti:
Stocker et al. 1972; Gonos, Mulkern and Poushinsky 1976; Read 1977; Fraser
1980; Moonwomon 1992), on political graffiti common in Europe and Latin
America (Grieb 1984; Blume 1985; Chaffee 1989; Stein 1989; Chaffee 1990;
Williams 1991) and more recently on tagging (Castleman 1982; Lachmann
1988; Brewer and Miller 1990; Brewer 1992; Ferrell 1993; Winter 1995;
Wooden 1995), little has been written about gang graffiti though it generates
extensive coverage in the media.
The few research studies on gang graffiti which do exist contribute much but
leave certain issues undiscussed. Brown (1978), Cintron (1991), Raymond
(1991), and Cresswell (1992), for example, confound or leave undistinguished
Journal of Sociolinguistics 1/3, 1997: 337360
different kinds of graffiti written by urban youth. Many of these same
researchers as well as others Kostka (1974), Brown (1978), Vigil (1988),
Cresswell (1992), Raymond (1991), Sanchez-Tranquilino (1995), and Wooden
(1995) for example also assume that in all cities the major function of gang
graffiti is to mark territory. Many of them base this claim partly on the study of
Philadelphia gangs done by Ley (1974) and Ley and Cybriwsky (1974), while
others focus on Chicano gang culture in Los Angeles. However, writing by gang
members themselves argues that graffiti is `. . . mainly used for advertising . . .'
(Scott 1993: 239). Lastly, many of gang graffiti's interactive properties are
overlooked, with few studies offering indepth discussion of the form and
frequency of the various acts that constitute it or examining its relationship
to other discourse genres in the community.
This study seeks to rectify those omissions through the analysis of 1522
utterances found on 107 walls and surfaces in the Phoenix metropolitan area
between November 1993 and July 1995. Based on these data, we will argue
that gang graffiti represents an interactional discourse genre. In addition to
marking territorial boundaries as is consistently claimed, it serves to advertise
individual members and gangs, indicate social networks within and between
gangs, represent members' views of gang life and honor the dead. While gang
graffiti is an antilanguage, often antagonistic in its nature, it functions as
cooperative discourse following explicit norms and conventions.
The data, collected in a 20-month period ending July of 1995, consist of
photographs of 107 walls with 410 turns and 1522 utterances (excluding the
acts of crossing out earlier writing). It should be noted that the term `walls'
includes any surface containing graffiti sidewalks, fences, sides of buildings,
utility boxes, roofs and vehicles. The medium of most writing was spraypaint
and ideally in the color associated with the gang. But, if that was not available,
other instruments or colors would do except the color of a rival gang. The walls
fall into two general types: crossed out and uncrossed out. An uncrossed out
wall has the writing of one or more gangs with no hostile marking on the
writing. An uncrossed out wall becomes crossed out when a rival gang writes
hostile messages on another gang's writing, e.g. threats and various shows of
disrespect such as lining through the earlier utterance (see Figures 1 and 2).
Care was taken to get a data base representative of the gang population in
Phoenix and the areas of gang activity.
Phoenix has between 150 and 160
street gangs of which approximately 3033 percent are African American,
approximately 6770 percent are Hispanic, and a few are of mixed membership
including Anglos.
Our data consist of writing from 65 gangs, 22 of which are
African American (34%), 39 Hispanic (60%), and 4 (6%) mixed.
Reading the graffiti we collected involved learning a fixed vocabulary of gang
name abbreviations, nicknames, Spanish slang expressions and cultural identi-
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Figure 1: Uncrossed out wall, Wetback Power 12th Street. Mexicanos, 12
Calle, WBP in block letters.
Figure 2: Crossed out wall. Happy Homes crossed out by SSP (South Side
Posse). Sur 13 over Happy Homes.
fiers, numerical symbols standing for criminal codes and threats, and reformu-
lations of taboo items. Separate turns were determined by changes in the color,
quality of spraypaint or pens, size of spray can nozzles, writing style, size and
proximity of utterances. Some turn orders are difficult to determine as there are
numerous writers and the same writers may have returned at different times. In
addition, the same quality of paint is often used by different writers. Moreover,
we often had only one photo of a wall that may have represented up to three
years of writing on that wall. (Because of legal action against writers and
community efforts to paint out the writing, photos representing developing
dialogue have become more difficult to take.) We wrote transcripts of the
monologues and dialogues on the walls as we puzzled them out in order to have
a permanent record of the `decoding' of turns and their content. Each turn was
divided into types of utterances based on shared illocutionary intents and
meaning. In addition to taking photographs, we interviewed a variety of
consultants to learn how to read the graffiti and to verify our analysis.
Distinguishing gang graffiti from tagging
Gang graffiti and tagging are the two major categories of the ubiquitous graffiti
found in cities in both the United States and Europe. They are often perceived to
be the same thing, but they differ from each other (see Winter 1995 and Wooden
1995 for additional discussion). Much of the confusion comes from the similar
form the two take. Tagging and gang graffiti are both commonly written with
spraypaint; they are read with difficulty by people outside the subculture; they
can be found, in Phoenix and elsewhere, in lower income neighborhoods where
gangs are found; and they can both be interactional. But the similarities end here.
Tagging consists of the `tag' or nickname of the writer often accompanied by
the name of the group or `crew' the writer belongs to. Tagging crew members
form a loosely knit group of individuals from various neighborhoods and
socioeconomic groups whose main purpose for coming together is to tag. The
more artistically talented members also paint large murals. A crew is not a
gang. There are no initiation rituals such as being beaten up or raped; one can
leave any time; many taggers belong to more than one crew. The tagger's goal
is to write his tag in the most difficult places, the most times and in the most
artistic way to get recognition from his crew, other crews and the community at
large. As one consultant said, `My goal is to get up the most with the most skilz
[sic].' This consideration as well as the varied demographics of crew members
explains the occurrence of tagging in other than lower class neighborhoods.
In contrast, the content of gang graffiti goes beyond the goal of writing the
gang name and name of the writer for fame and recognition. The content also
represents the individuals' and gangs' social networks, both friendly and hostile.
Most written interaction in tagging is about an individual writer's artistic skills;
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in gang graffiti it is about membership in a group. Rivalries between tagging
crews are usually resolved through tagging contests, whereas gang rivalries
often erupt in fights and drive-by shootings. Unlike a tagging crew, the gang
typically has a neighborhood orientation. The names of crews and gangs
demonstrate this difference in neighborhood orientation. Tagging crew names
reflect their focus on addressing society at large, e.g. MTC (Mexicans Taking
Control) and STR (Start the Revolution). Gang names with a few exceptions
include identification with a particular space or section of the city, e.g. West
Side City and Hayden Park. And finally, taggers are a heterogeneous group
coming from all ethnic groups and social classes; whereas, gang members in
Phoenix still are mostly found in the lower classes and are predominantly
Hispanic and African American.
Although a gang member may also occasionally be part of a tagging crew,
the two remain distinct youth subcultures with hostile interactions. Because
gangs are neighborhood oriented, they dislike taggers writing in their neighbor-
hoods and often view tagging graffiti, like most people do, as property
defacement. Gang members who are taggers may leave gangs to join a tagging
crew as they are less violent.
Gang graffiti as antilanguage and cooperative discourse
Gang graffiti can be classified as an antilanguage as described in Halliday
(1976: 576):
An anti-language is the means of realization of a subjective reality: not merely
expressing it, but actively creating and maintaining it. In this respect, it is just another
language. But the reality is a counter-reality, and this has certain special implications.
It implies the foregrounding of the social structure and social hierarchy. It implies a
preoccupation with the definition and defense of identity through the ritual functioning
of the social hierarchy. It implies a special conception of information and of knowledge.
An antilanguage is the language of an antisociety, a `society that is set up
within another society as a conscious alternative to it' (Halliday 1976: 571). A
street gang is an antisociety and gang graffiti is one of the symbolic systems
gangs employ for communication and reinforcement of their reality. Unlike
many antilanguages, gang graffiti is not necessarily secret, but because gang
graffiti makes free use of abbreviations, spelling deviations, and written and
numerical symbols in their special lexicon, it is nearly impossible for outsiders to
read and informants are surprised when they can.
Halliday also states that `the most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is
conversation' (1976: 574), and gang graffiti, though an antilanguage, is a
conversation. As conversation, the writing contains examples of direct address
to other groups and garners responses from these and others. However, the oral
nature is subverted into a written form by the dangers of the subculture in which
face-to-face representation of gang affiliation would typically result in violence.
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Though all types of graffiti have been claimed by Blume (1985) to be defective
communication in which Grice's conversational postulates are not relevant
since writer and reader are unacquainted, such a claim does not accurately
characterize gang graffiti. It is always potentially interactional, many times
addressing specific people or signed by specific people and always identifying
writers by group membership. Though our data have numerous examples of
surfaces where only one gang or one member of the gang has written, such
messages could be and are likely to be responded to at any time. Moreover, gang
graffiti writers follow Grice's cooperative principle even though the function of
gang graffiti is often to express hostile acts and even though it is an
antilanguage available to be seen but not meant to be understood by the
public at large. Conventions of politeness and morality as characterized by Bach
and Harnish (1979: 64) may be violated in graffiti, but for dialogue to occur the
act must be truthful, relevant and comprehensible to potential responders. Our
consultants confirmed their ability to read opposing gangs' graffiti and their
regular use of it for knowledge about current hostilities.
Norms in writing conventions and lexicon
Gang graffiti in Phoenix shares many traits with its counterparts in other urban
areas, particularly in the West. The influence of gangs from California and
Mexico in the Phoenix area is undeniable as is their influence on the symbols
used in graffiti. However, not all conventions found in one urban area are
consistent with those from another area. They may even vary over time, but we
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Figure 3: Solidarity Wall between SSG'S (South Side Gangsters) and HP
LOKOS (Hayden Park Locos) with a Register of Friends on left (Joker, Nino,
Chuco, Mando, Scrapy, VHPL'S), 3CE (trece `13') on right.
have no data for Phoenix to support this. For an example of geographic
differences, some of the phrases and utterance types cited in Romotsky and
Romotsky (1976) and Vigil (1988) as common in Los Angeles Hispanic gang
writing are not common in Phoenix. Expressions of ownership or territory
which are also boasts such as rifa/rifamos `rules/we rule it', Que rifa `How we
rule', controllo `control' and totalmente `totally' occur, but are rare as is con
safos `the same to you' which is a retaliatory threat for those who would mark
up/cross out the writing. They represent only 1.1 percent of the total utterances
in Phoenix, although 60 percent of our utterances are from Hispanic gangs;
whereas for Los Angeles (L.A.) Romotsky and Romotsky (1976: 49) say `. . . the
gang plaqueaso almost always includes the power word rifa or its equivalent'.
Moreover, the same lexical item may occur in graffiti in Phoenix and
elsewhere but with a shift in meaning as with the case of the number 13,
which stands for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet, M (Figures 2 and 3).
According to Romotsky and Romotsky (1976: 49) in L.A. it symbolizes
Marijuana, drugs, danger and death. In Phoenix, consultants tell us it stands
for Mexican, though people may know the L.A. usage. Other utterance types
found in L.A. are rare or non-existent in Phoenix: the dates are not inscribed on
messages; expressions of boyfriend and girlfriend status are rare.
The illocutionary force of symbols from L.A., Mexico or Dallas may fail in
Phoenix because they are not part of the verbal repertoire of Phoenix writers.
For example, con safos written on a wall here was quickly marked over by rival
gangs; whereas, in L.A. it is understood to guard the writing from crossout.
None of the Phoenix consultants knew its meaning. The inventory of utterance
types differs city to city and also among gangs within cities.
The content of graffiti appears to have remained stable in Phoenix but some
innovations have occurred. For example, one gang began using 451 as a threat
in addition to 187, the California penal code number for murder (Figure 4). 187
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Figure 4: Uncrossed out wall. SSG (South Side Gangsters) with a Register of
Friends (Joker, Nino, Gee Gee) and Threats: BK (blood killer), CK (crip killer),
COPK (cop killer), 187.
is a common threat originating in L.A. and now disseminated throughout the
country by gangster rap. Even though 451 is used for the Arizona state penal
code number for murder, the innovation appears restricted in use to the gang
who innovated it and others in its alliance.
Gang graffiti also typically includes general dialect characteristics of the
communities in question. For the lexicon associated with the African American
community, r loss is indicated through the use of -a substituting for -er, e.g.
Gangsta for `gangster'. In the writing by Hispanic groups, Spanish is present to
different degrees and code switching is common (Figures 1 and 6). Varying
fidelity to Spanish spelling and punctuation conventions by the writers can be
seen in the term thirteen written both as trece and trese.
Throughout this paper we refer to graffiti writing as utterances. While the
term is generally associated with spoken language, the interactional nature of
the writing, the norms governing its use, plus the lack of complete phrases and
clauses in the writing make the choice of this term appropriate. This character-
ization also coincides with Schiffrin's (1994: 41) definition of utterance in
spoken and written discourse. The writing conventions of graffiti in many other
ways also indicate spoken conventions as in the example of r loss mentioned
above. Other examples of the phonetic character of the writing is the use of whuz
up for `what's up' and bloodz for `Bloods'.
But as a written dialogue, no opportunity is missed to play with the visual and
graphic characteristics of the genre. For example, word play with number
substitution for words is common in phrases and street names. For example Crip
for life is often written Crip 4 life. Extensive play with street names is common
indicating overlexicalization of important terms in the lexicon (discussed further
in Winter 1995). Street names can be written several different ways using the
fully written word and both Arabic and Roman numerals. Barrio 19th Avenue
Gang writes 19 with the following variations: 19, diez y nueve, X9, XIX, and
Traditional spelling conventions are also altered to avoid taboo expressions.
For example, Crips write fuck as fucc to avoid the use of ck which stands for `Crip
killer', a threat used by Bloods (Figure 5). Moreover, any letter which could
stand for a rival gang's name can be crossed out to show disrespect as well as to
prevent the other gang from utilizing the letters in their own writing.
On occasion, pictures are used to represent the gang symbolically. For
example, West Side City Crips use the image of a cityscape with a setting sun
behind it to represent their gang. This is triply appropriate: the Phoenix
metropolitan area is known as the Valley of the Sun; the sun sets in the west;
and the images of skyscrapers represent a city.
Types of utterances found on walls and other surfaces
Table 1 includes a tabulation of all the utterance types found in our data except
for Crossouts, which can only be counted for turns and not for individual
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They will, however, be discussed below with the categories of Disses
(disrespectful speech) and Challenges. Examples from crossed out and uncrossed
out walls are tabulated separately.
Names. The most common utterance type is a Gang Name. Most of these names
are taken from parks (Lindo Park), streets (Wet Back Power XXIst), neighbor-
hoods (Las Cuatro Milpas), schools (Barrio Ann Ott), public housing projects
(Los Marcos Homes, Duppa Villa) and general areas of town (South Side Posse,
Wet Back Power North Tempe, Rio Bajo, West Side City Crips). These names
clearly coincide with the location where most of the gang members live, but, as
described below, members of gangs may be dispersed and more than one gang
may claim the same street name. A few gang names do not have location
identifiers Brown Pride, Dope Man Association, 5 Line Bounty Hunter Bloods
and Barrio Pobre.
Writing the gang name is the basic representative act on both crossed out and
uncrossed out surfaces. In this genre, an individual's name as a lone utterance is
without meaning because the social network backing up the individual is
unspecified: only two examples of this occur in our data. A gang member's
name matters as it establishes him (or her) as a member of a gang. Between 35
percent and 47 percent of the total utterances are gang names, with every one of
the recorded surfaces being specified for gang. Gang names do occur alone
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Figure 5: Advertising wall with several layers of writing
without any other utterance type and as such represent the basic or core
utterance of gang graffiti. In walls with crossouts, there is a higher percentage
of gang names because the focus of exchanges on these walls become matching
gang names and threats rather than individual names. The addition of an
individual member's name to threats and disses makes that person also a target
inthe following response. All other types of utterances have a gang name included
somewhere giving force to the utterance.
Typically, the writer paints the gang name (GN) only once or twice per
painting. Where it is written more frequently, several factors seem to come into
play: the wall size, presence of individuals who are skilled writers, the desire to
express solidarity and the amount of paint a writer can afford. On occasion,
when a gang is taking a second or third turn at a crossed out wall, a GN will not
be written since the group's identity is clear from the prior turns.
Members' Names are the next most frequent utterance, 31.6 percent in
uncrossed out walls, 21.2 percent on crossed out surfaces. They can appear as
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Table 1: Frequency of occurrences of utterance types and their percentage of
all types
Surfaces with Surfaces w/o
Utterance crossouts crossouts Totals
types excluding
crossouts N % N % N %
Gang Names 415 46.9% 225 35.3% 640 42.0%
Members' Names 188 21.2% 201 31.6% 389 25.6%
Threats 71 8.0% 38 6.0% 109 7.2%
Register of Friends 42 4.7% 42 6.6% 84 5.5%
Representatives 37 4.2% 31 4.9% 68 4.5%
Disses 41 4.6% 12 1.9% 53 3.5%
Mexican ID 13 1.5% 29 4.5% 42 2.8%
Solidarity 12 1.4% 15 2.3% 27 1.8%
RIP 6 0.7% 16 2.5% 22 1.4%
Generic ID 14 1.6% 5 0.8% 19 1.2%
Boasts 12 1.4% 6 0.9% 18 1.1%
Greetings 11 1.2% 7 1.1% 18 1.1%
Affirmations 13 1.5% 4 0.6% 17 1.1%
Challenge 4 0.5% 3 0.5% 7 0.5%
Love 3 0.3% 1 0.2% 4 0.3%
Territory 1 0.1% 2 0.3% 3 0.2%
Drug Reference 1 0.1% 0 0.0% 1 0.1%
Apology 1 0.1% 0 0.0% 1 0.1%
Total 885 100.0% 637 100.0% 1522 100.0%
Disses: disrespectful utterances
RIP: Rest in Peace
ID: Identity
the only other utterance with a gang name or with other types of utterances
such as threats. Only one fifth of the walls (19%) occur without any member's
name, although there are many turns in walls that are not signed. Members'
names (MN) paired with a gang name serve to demonstrate the members'
association with the gang and to tell others who backs them up. Paired with a
threat or other utterance types, the threat becomes determinate. According to
consultants the more determinate the threat the more serious it is. This may be
one reason why members will be reluctant to sign a turn. Members also may not
sign RIPs because the focus is on the deceased.
As with the gang names, a member's name typically occurs only once or twice
inaturn. Whenthe same name is repeated several times inaturn, this exuberance
can come from the same sources as the multiple writings of GNs in a turn and
informs the community of the writer's strong identification with the gang.
The category of Register of Friends represents those cases where more than
one member's name is written in a turn (Figures 3 and 4). These registers
indicate who are friends within a gang and demonstrate that writing functions
to mark social networks. The number of names on a register varies from two to
nine in our data. Sixty-seven percent of the members' names on walls appear in
registers. One's friends are an important part of social activities in gangs and
represent subgroups within the larger social network structure of the gang. For
example, our photos of one street show two completely different groups of
names associated with the same gang less than a block away from each other.
Antagonistic utterances. Threats and Disses are the third and sixth most
common types of utterances and are concrete demonstrations of the antag-
onistic nature of the genre, but they are low in number in comparison to the
first two categories categories, however, which also have crucial functions in
antagonistic dialogues.
Determining whether threats (Table 2) were actual threats or a representa-
tion of the writer's status as an actual killer is impossible as is determining
whether a threat is only a dis. To state that one kills the members of other gangs
is also to set up a situation that implies the possibility of a killing happening, but
the same utterance can also just be a put-down of the other gang. These threats
show up only slightly more in crossed out walls, demonstrating that crossed out
and uncrossed out walls basically express the same kind of antagonism. Most
threats include the expression killa, murder, and rest in peace.
Moreover, categories of threats are associated with certain gangs, some being
more likely to write threats than others. There is a long term rivalry between
Crips and Bloodz, gangs that arose in California in the 1960s and 70s, and they
have a developed lexicon of threats and disses. For example, the writing of West
Side City and Mountain Top Crips is very hostile including BKs and 187s; other
gang writing is typically not as hostile but may use the same conventions (see
Figure 4 for a Gangster gang's use of this terminology).
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The Disses in Table 3 consist mostly of sexual terms, some fromSpanish Calo (a
Chicano speech form associated with younger speakers) others from special Crip
and Blood lexicon. Examples of the latter are slobs for `Bloods' and crabs for `Crips',
which play on the gangs' names in disrespect.
Also individuals may prefer
certaindisses over others whenthey write and repeat these disses onseveral walls.
Challenges in our data consist of the expression Y Que meaning `And so
what!?', which questions the ability of the other group to do anything about the
rivalry and challenges them to do so. It sometimes occurs with the dis putos
`homosexual' as an address term. Again, this expression was preferred by one of
the writers who used it more than any other (Figure 6 below).
The most common form of Dis or Challenge is Crossouts. Crossing out can be
done by lining through the previous utterance either with a straight line or an X
or by writing over with one's own gang name or the gang's initial. Typically a
dis, crossouts take on more meaning depending on the context. For example,
the location of the crossout on a major thoroughfare versus on a member's
house can determine the difference between a mere dis and a dis that
challenges the gang `to get something going', i.e. start a conflict between
gangs. Although the crossout can be relatively benign when done without face
to face contact, the act of crossing out becomes grounds for murder when the
writer is caught in the act. Crossouts can also be considered threats when a
gang writes a rival gang's name and crosses it out. The seriousness of the threat
depends on whether it is signed and by whom. If a gang is known to follow
through on its threats, the threat is more immediate.
Next to gang names and member names, crossouts in crossed out walls are
the most frequent utterance type. In a crossed out wall typically all prior turns
by hostile gangs are crossed out. Of the 281 total turns in the crossed out walls,
55.8 percent are crossed out, some more than once.
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Table 2: Threat types
Threat Number Percentage
BK `Blood Killers' 135 132%
CK `Crip Killer' 120 118%
GK `Gangsta Killer' 114 114%
Killa + names of gangs or police 117 115%
187 California criminal code for murder 112 111%
451 former Arizona criminal code for murder 114 114%
Crossout 119 118%
C-murder 112 112%
RIP 115 115%
Con Safos `same to you' 111 111%
Total 109 100%
Norms for antagonistic dialogues
Gang graffiti represents one example of a sustained antagonistic dialogue that
typically seeks no resolution, especially not a mitigated one. Other examples of
such dialogues have been reported, for example in children's speech in an African
American community by Goodwin (1990); by Sheldon (1992) for a predomi-
nantly white group of male, 35 year olds; and they are also found in political
debates and other situations. The graffiti dialogues are simple in format, typically
consisting of the repetition or recycling of utterances with some examples of
escalation and inversion as characterized in Brenneis and Lein (1977).
The material of the disputes is typically gang names, members' names,
crossouts, threats, disses, challenges, and sometimes boasts, but any utterance
by a rival gang member can be treated as antagonistic. Most hostile dialogues
start with an assertion of a gang's and its members' existence and presence. This
assertion is responded to with a denial in the form of a crossout and a negating
assertion in the form of a rival gang's and members' names which counter-
assert their presence and existence. Threats and disses can escalate the hostility
as can challenges which in Brenneis and Lein's terms (1977: 53) are examples
of `demands for evidence'. Boasts, or `supportive assertions' in Brenneis and
Lein's terms, provide proof for the claims made in the simple assertions: todos
controla `we control all' argues that a gang's claim to a superior presence is
justified by their control.
Escalation in graffiti dialogues or turning up the volume can take several
forms. First, the size of the writing and the number of repetitions of the names
can make an initial or following assertion iconically loud, as can the addition of
threats, disses, and so on. In our data of walls with cross outs, only 21.5 percent
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Table 3: Dis types
Disses Number Percentage
Fucc/k + name of gangs, police, individuals or the world 30 156%
Putos/Putas `homosexual' 17 113%
Slobs `for bloods' 14 117%
Crabs `for crips' 12 114%
Pela `you suck' 12 114%
Punks 12 114%
Assholes 11 112%
Bitch 11 112%
Fuckers 11 112%
No Mas `no more' 11 112%
No Son `they are not' 11 112%
Sucks Dick 11 112%
Total 53 100%
of the walls started with the volume turned up. Walls typically start and
continue with one assertion in the form of a GN and continue with single
negative assertions throughout. Close to half of the walls (44.6%) were of this
nature. Twenty-nine percent of them started with a single assertion but were
followed at some point with escalation through the use of more than one gang
name. Such escalation was typically responded to as were the antagonistic
dialogues that started with the volume turned up. However, the louder turns
were not necessarily maintained throughout once they started.
Threats and disses also constitute a way to raise one's voice in the
antagonistic dialogues. Of 51 turns with these forms in them, only 11
(21.6%) were the initial turn; whereas, 78.4 percent (40 turns) were responses
to other gangs' writing. In several cases gangs increased the number of threats
and disses on their second or third turn. Some gangs appeared to intensify
hostilities more than others.
In Figure 6, the right half of the wall demonstrates an antagonistic inter-
action between Hollywood Gangsters and Wedgewood Chicanos. Here an initial
boast is responded to with a dis.
HW: (a) Hollywood Ls
`Hollywood Locos (Crazies)'
(b) 31X G
`39th Avenue Gangsters'
(c) Solo #1 Phoenix
`Alone #1 in Phoenix'
WWC: (a) crossout HW a,b,c
(b) sms Wilo Osito
`Somos (we are) Wilo and Osito'
(c) WWC
`Wedgewood Chicanos'
(d) Sapo Indio
`Sapo and Indio'
(e) no mas
No more (paired with crossed out HW: (c) )
Successful antagonism does not just rely on increased repetitions of gang
names or additions of threats and disses but also on the ability to invert a rival
gang member's speech. For example, the C in CK/crip killa could be changed into
a B to make BK/blood killa thus turning a gang's own words against them. Our
consultants reported `hating' such an inversion thus demonstrating the success
of such a move. These semantic inversions created by a small change in the
linguistic material of the prior turn have also been reported by Labov (1974)
and others as a strategy in ritual insults in the African American community
that gain social status for their creator.
Antagonistic writing occurs for different reasons. For example, it may be a
response to an act of violence, to a directed threat or a rumored one, or it may
be a challenge to get something going or a response to the challenge. It is also a
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Figure 6: Crossed out wall. Hollywood and Wedgewood Chicanos with Boasts, Challenges and Disses. Left side of wall:
WSBHWL'S (West Side Barrio Hollywood Locos); Solo #1 UNO; 39th Ave; SMS Wilo Osito (`We are Wilo and Osito' );
Controla, Y que putos. Crossed out by WWC (Wedgewood Chicanos), Sapo Indio; WWC LV3 (Wedgewood Chicanos 48th
Ave). Right side of wall glossed in text.
way to get noticed and to demonstrate bravery and commitment to the gang, as
well as simply to dis another gang.
Goodwin (1990) and Maynard (1985) among others note that verbal conflict
mediates local social relationships. Antagonistic dialogues both separate and
unify gangs and their members by creating alliances and demonstrating
rivalries and attempts to claim superiority. They are part of social practice,
although their exact relationship to other antagonistic behavior is in need of
additional research. Ley and Cybriwsky (1974: 500) argue that `The zone of
most probable conflict should coincide with the zone of aggressive graffiti, but
we do not have enough data to make this claim'.
Representing group identity and social networks
Many other utterance types found in gang graffiti also reflect and create social
connections among the members of a gang. Representatives, the next most
common type, consists of the expressions la vida loca `the crazy life' (or its
representation as three dots in a triangle), pocos pero locos `few but crazy', a
drawing of a `smile now, cry later' face, and the expression Locos after gang
names, e.g. Barrio 19th Ave Locos. These utterances represent statements about
the nature of gang life and the gang members' attitudes about themselves and
each other.
These representatives, along with the utterance type we call Mexican ID, are
associated with Hispanic gangs. Mexican IDs include the number 13 which
stands for the letter M, sur `south' or surenos `southerner', or the name of the gang
member's native Mexican state, for example, Sonora (Figure 2). On the other
hand General ID, does not refer to cultural heritage but to the generic gang type,
i.e. crip, blood, and gangster. These same kinds of general IDs show up in the
examples of Greetings where gang members directly address those of their own
kind, such as Whaz up Blood, Cuzz for Crips and Ese for Hispanic gangs (Figure 5).
Solidarity walls demonstrate bonds among different gangs and are another
example of the function of graffiti in marking social networks. Most solidarity
walls consist of two or three gang names written next to each other plus names
of some members (Figure 3). This expression of alliance will often appear on
more than one wall. Given the antagonistic nature of gang graffiti, the lack of
crossing out is the clue to identifying solidarity walls. Our examples indicate
that alliances may be drawn between specific cliques within two gangs and not
include the whole gang. The number of times the different gang names appear
on the surfaces is not always equal. For example, one name will appear five
times, and the second or third only once, perhaps reflecting which gang is doing
the writing. Another characteristic of solidarity walls is the absence of threats to
rival gangs in the uncrossed out examples; the focus here is really on friendships
and not enemies.
As noted above, RIPs `Rest In Peace' are the public mourning of a gang for
their dead friends and take the form of the inscription RIP followed by the
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deceased's name written underneath. The name of the gang is always present
either written first or after the name. The RIP can be written out or an
alternative form may be used such as in loving memory or west in peace, a
convention used by some writers in West Side City (Figure 7). Sometimes a
roster of the friends of the deceased appear. West Side City, known for its hostile
writing, also writes directed threats and disses to other gangs, the police, and
the world in their RIPs. RIPs can be crossed out, but this is seen as an especially
hostile affront to the gang.
The categories of Boasts and Affirmations consist of actual phrases praising
gang life and the power of the gang. Boasts include controlla `controls', rifamos
`we rule' or rifa `rules', BK all day, La grande clicka `the big gang'. Affirmations
demonstrate a member's devotion to his gang with expressions focusing on a
life-long commitment such as por vida `for life' and crip 4 life (Figure 6). Another
expression of social networks and friendship is the few instances in our data of
what Romotsky and Romotsky (1976) call amatory utterances. These consist of
the names or initials of a female and male written next to each other.
While most discussions of gang life and gang graffiti emphasize the disputes
over territory and drug trade, expressions in Phoenix graffiti dealing with these
issues are rare, almost non-existent. There is one example of a picture of a
marijuana leaf and only three examples of the specific boundary/territory
marker found in other cities: Welco to Broay, Welcome ESWBP XXIst and
Welcome to Ninth Street Town. All were found in identified territories, one on
the boundary. The combination boast/territory marker rifa and its equivalents
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Figure 7: RIP, Westside City Crips. In memory of Lil Vamp.
were found only eleven times. That is not to say that territory and drugs are not
important issues for gang members in Phoenix, but that these issues are not the
focus of gang graffiti utterances.
As noted in the introduction, the commonly accepted explanation of why gang
members write on walls is territorial marking. The only extensive study of this
claim appears in Ley (1974) and Ley and Cybriwsky (1974), both using data
from a North Philadelphia neighborhood with three active gangs. These
Philadelphia gangs live in well-defined, adjacent territories with one marchland
area, a neutral strip between two of the three gangs. The marchland has only
small incipient gangs who have no territorial control over the area.
Ley (1974) and Ley and Cybriwsky (1974) argue that the writing inside a
gang territory increases towards the core and contains supportive, inner-
directed messages at the core. On the other hand, at the peripheries, including
the marchland area, the content of the graffiti tends strongly to be hostile and
outer-directed as indicated by a larger presence of directed obscenities.
Romotsky and Romotsky (1976) concur with this claim about the function of
graffiti at the boundaries. Ley (1974) also argued that conflict among gangs is
directly related to proximity to the hostile gangs' territories it being rare to
have one gang fight another whose territory is more than a few blocks away.
Marking territory is also one of the functions of writing in Phoenix but not the
sole one. Our data and interviews reveal many different reasons for writing
graffiti, all centering around individual and social prominence inside and
outside the neighborhood, not around territorial control. An act of writing
can be self-advertisement, one-upmanship, an indication of social networks,
aesthetic expression, a message about relationships among gangs, or an act of
public mourning as well as an attempt to create conflict. Much of what is
considered territorial marking appears as such merely by virtue of the fact that
the gang members often write where they live, as attested by both the data and
Some omissions in Ley's (1974) and Ley and Cybriwsky's (1974) data partly
explain their emphasis on the territorial aspects of writing. One difficulty is their
restricted data sample. They used graffiti only from fronts of walls facing streets,
not walls of enclosed yards, warehouses, and alleys, thereby ignoring what at
least in Phoenix are some of the richest sources of data. Vigil (1988) also argues
that graffiti is typically written on walls accessible to general public view.
However, twenty-five percent of the walls in our data are in alleys and other
places with limited access. These out-of-view walls are even under-represented
in our data because it was too dangerous to take photos in many areas without
a member of the community present.
In addition, these studies chose to exclude from their discussion graffiti
written by gangs living in areas with mixed-gang membership or without
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strong territorial control. In Phoenix, neighborhoods having more than one
gang are quite common. Gangs also have members living outside of what is
generally considered the gang's core neighborhood. The relationship between
gangs and territory is much more complex in Phoenix than the situation in
Philadelphia as described in Ley (1974) and Ley and Cybriwski (1974) or in
East Los Angeles as described in Sanchez-Tranquilino (1995).
Their studies also omitted any outlier examples of graffiti, dismissing them as
examples of writing by weak groups. Our data, though, include outlier writing
from all types of gangs those with their own territory, those in mixed areas,
large gangs and small gangs. These outlier walls include some of the most
supportive and most antagonistic utterances we found. One wall with writing
from at least nineteen gangs had examples of nearly every type of utterance we
have identified (Figure 5).
Lastly, comparing our data to these studies is difficult because they do not cite
exact utterance types except to state that a common utterance is a name or
nickname followed by gang name. We do not know the form of outlying graffiti
or of what they considered to be boastful and obscene speech except in these
general terms.
Our argument that one should treat the function of gang graffiti as more
complex comes not only from the nature and placement of the Phoenix
utterances, but also from our consultants and from writings by gang members
themselves. One group of our consultants echoed Scott (1993), when they said,
`Advertisements before turf. We know the turf.'
The distribution of graffiti in our photos supports the claim that graffiti
becomes denser closer to gang members' homes in an identifiable territory or
neighborhood associated with a gang. However, the content is much more
variable than Ley and Cybriwsky (1974) claim. Supportive graffiti such as RIPs,
affirmations and boasts do occur inside neighborhoods as Ley and Cybriwsky
(1974) claim, but the affirmations and boasts occur with greater frequency
outside of territories. Obscenities and crossed out walls, on the other hand, are
found throughout neighborhoods, not just on the borders or marchlands. This is
for two reasons: neighborhoods commonly have more than one gang in
residence, and identifiable territories are victim to outsiders challenging the
respect of the resident gang by penetrating and marking the walls.
That the relationship of a territory and its core to the writing of graffiti is more
complex in Phoenix than in Philadelphia and Los Angeles is demonstrated by
the difficulty in identifying a core when more than one gang lives in the area.
Moreover, in Phoenix neighborhoods where gangs identify with a neighborhood
park or a street, these core areas may be free of graffiti. For example, 10th
Avenue in the West Side City territory is often unmarked. Some gang members
even expressed pride in keeping their parks and streets clean of graffiti and
tagging as a show of respect for their neighborhood.
Another reason why cores are difficult to identify is that graffiti is written
sporadically, mainly being a function of a prolific writer writing in his
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immediate environment. Writing is often done in alleys, on trash cans,
telephone booths, on abandoned houses and on the houses and sidewalks of
the gang members themselves. Also, both inside and outside the neighborhood,
walls and surfaces that are big and long seem to be prime targets regardless of
The above discussion does not undercut the importance of graffiti as an act of
hostility towards rival gangs and their members. Crossed out dialogues are
common and might be more frequent were it not for neighborhood paint-out
programs. However, the location of hostile writing is not as easily associated
with the boundaries of territories as is claimed by Ley and Cybriwsky (1974) for
Philadelphia. It is ubiquitous.
Gang rivalries in Phoenix do not center around control of turf but around the
individual's respect in the neighborhood. One consultant pointed to his
diplomas, civic awards and pictures of himself with politicians saying that
writing a gang name with a nickname on a wall was the same thing as the
framed writing and pictures on his wall it gives the individual status, and tells
others `what's backing him up' to get respect.
Writers tend to be younger gang members who are trying to get their name
out for more respect and status in a gang. In one neighborhood the recent
appearance of graffiti signed by Eddie and Goofy is a good example of self
advertising. Not only are they writing their names in the neighborhood but
crossing out another gang's in an area where many gangs advertise. The battle
is not for territory but to let other gangs know of their existence and willingness
to demonstrate their commitment through action. This also sends a message to
their own gang that they want to establish themselves as important members.
As Ley and Cybriwsky state (1974: 505), `Graffiti are a visible manifestation of a
group's social space', but in the Phoenix context this does not simply reflect
territorial boundary marking or territorial imperatives. Rather it implies what
Halliday refers to as `. . . the foregrounding of the social structure and social
hierarchy . . .' (1976: 576). The utterances identify and create group enmities
and alliances through naming and counternaming of gangs and their members.
The enmity is enhanced through the use of crossouts, threats, disses and
challenges; alliances are enhanced through registers of friends, solidarity
expressions, and RIPs. IDs, Representatives and Boasts reinforce the solidarity
one feels towards one's own gang and its way of life. The use of code switching,
vernacular spellings, and cultural identifications also reinforces the connection
to the ethnic cityscape in which respect from other gang members counters a
respect denied them in the wider social and institutional structures.
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1. This paper would not have been possible without help from numerous people
including Warren Brown, Rudy Buchanan, Sgt. Paul Ferrero, and Bill Hart. We
thank them for their informed discussion of graffiti as well as of the gang situation in
Phoenix. Special thanks go to the former gang members and taggers who took a risk
in talking with great openness to two white women from a different place. We would
also like to thank Bill Hart, Barbara Lafford, Kay Sands, Marjorie Zatz, and four
anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
The idea for this work started as a research paper for Adams' Pragmatics and
Discourse Analysis course, 1994. Winter collected data and interviews from
November 1993 through May of 1995 and presented the initial analysis. Upon
further discussion, collaboration seemed a fruitful approach. Additional data
including interviews with a questionnaire were jointly collected and all the data
were analyzed June through December of 1995.
2. Gang graffiti is much less common outside of areas with gangs because there is no
intended audience in those areas. However, outliers do occur. According to our
consultants, these are often written by members visiting family who live outside the
area or when they are just passing through an area. Phoenix is based on a car
culture and the population tends to be mobile within the city.
3. Our data do not include Asian American gangs, who do not write graffiti and who
have different roles in the community. We also have one example of writing from a
white supremacist group that we did not include in our tabulation. The vast
majority of gang members are male and so gang graffiti in Phoenix can be
considered a male genre. According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission
(1994: 1) female gang members are only 1.5 percent of the total number of gang
members in Arizona. However, we have two examples of writing by female gang
members, and a couple of walls where female members were probably present as
their names are included in the utterance. The graffiti in these messages are identical
to other writing, only the names are gender marked. Gender marking on names can
include a moe ending on African American writing, e.g. West Side City Moes, as well
as titles such as Mrs. The Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (1994: 1) also says
`Of the 11,508 gang members whose ages are known [78% of the total], 44.8% are
juveniles and 55.2% are adults.'
4. The interviewees included twenty anonymous former gang members, former
members of seven tagging crews, two Phoenix police officers (one with the gang
squad and one with public affairs), an at-risk youth and gang consultant and
another employee of a Phoenix city at-risk youth program and, lastly, a former gang
counselor and current housing project director. The nature of the interviews ranged
from informal chance meetings to more extensive interviews with eight of the former
gang members, one of the police officers, and the consultant who is also the director
of the at-risk program.
5. In 1977, the Arizona penal code was revised and 451 was changed. However, police
officers continue to use 451 on their scanners to identify a possible homicide
situation. Gang members from South Side Posse adopted this term to replace the
California 187.
6. Drawings were included in the tally of utterances under the category in which they
fit in Table 1. Phoenix graffiti appears to have fewer uses of drawings than that
described for Chicago, for example, by Conquergood (1994).
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7. Crossouts are hard to count as utterances. Since they often are just a line through, it
is very hard sometimes to know who to attribute a crossout to. They may also take
the form of several Xs through many utterances or just a single line through most of
them. Moreover they also take partial advantage of what was written before, add to
it and then write over the rest. For these reasons, we decided only to count the
number of turns with crossouts in them rather than individual acts of writing.
8. Sanchez-Tranquilino (1995) describes walls where several cliques within a gang
identify all members of the gang's cliques to demonstrate the power of the gang. In
Phoenix, these registers typically consist only of the members of the writer's clique
within his gang.
9. The folk etymology for using Crabs as a dis is that crabs will kill other crabs, i.e.
Crips, while Bloods would never do this.
10. Former members of one gang informed us that they stopped writing RIPs because
they were being crossed out, an act that truly offended them. However, the data we
collected had only one example of a crossed out RIP.
11. According to the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission (1994: 1), the number of
gangs involved in the drug trade in Arizona is about 17 percent of the total number
of gangs. They report that the percentage of gangs involved in drug dealing vary by
group. For example, 37 percent of the motorcycle gangs are involved as opposed to
20 percent of the Black and Hispanic gangs and only 5 percent of the multiracial
gangs. While drug use is prevalent among gang members, organized drug dealing is
not the focus of most gangs' activities.
12. Ley (1974) and Ley and Cybrinsky (1974) only had directed obscenities which might
be a part of the territorial aspect of the writing. We had directed and undirected
obscenities such as Fuck the world on RIPs where the motivation was clearly different.
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Address correspondence to:
Karen L. Adams
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe, AZ 852870302
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