Signs of Gang Membership
By: the California Crime and Violence Prevention Center
While street gangs share some common behaviors, customs and practices, a gang in a particular community may also have some unique characteristics specific to that gang. There is no universal way to determine gang membership or affiliation. Some gang members have many classical gang membership signs, others may only have one or two gang characteristics and others may not display any.
Ultimately, gang membership is determined by the behavior and attitude of the individual. The signs of gang membership can be an extension of that state of mind. Today, because of prosecutorial efforts and law enforcement pressure many gang members attempt to conceal their membership by shying away from displaying popular forms of gang indicia. The determination of gang membership or affiliation should be made on a case-by-case basis. Following are some commonly found signs of gang membership and affiliation:
Gang members commonly, but not always, have a nickname or moniker. The name may highlight a real or imagined special physical, personal or psychological trait. A gang member called “Silent,” for example, may be known for being quiet all the time. A gang member with the name, “Psycho,” may be known for acting crazy or violent. However, it is not necessary to have a moniker to be a member of a gang. Similarly, just because a young person has a nickname doesn’t mean that child is a gang member.
Many gang members wear distinct clothing styles. Clothing is like a street uniform. It helps identify peer and rival gang members. Stylized gang clothing is a non-verbal way of indicating gang membership.
Some common gang attire, such as the three-quarter-length cutoff pants and knee-high socks, has become a popular dress style for many young people throughout the country. Many of these young people are not gang members. When a non-gang member wears gang-type clothing, real gang members can believe that the wearer is involved in a gang and may put the wearer of gang clothing in harm’s way.
Other gangs prefer baggy or “sagging” pants or baseball caps turned at an angle. Some wear particular brands of shoes, pants, shirts or professional sports gear. The gang may pick a college or professional sports team whose logo, uniform color combination or initials have specific meaning to them. Wearing this type of clothing can help conceal their membership and association from parents, teachers and police.
Another example of stylized gang clothing is plaid Pendleton shirts which can be worn loose or un-tucked. The Pendleton shirts become a form of gang uniform. A gang may even choose a certain color. Gang graffiti, symbols, messages or names can also be written or embroidered on tee-shirts, sweat shirts, jackets, pants and baseball caps. Other identifying items include belt buckles with the gang’s initials, key chains, starter jackets (team jackets) and red or blue bandanas called “rags.” The color of the clothing depends on the type of gang. Kaki-colored pants with a white tee-shirt are considered a neutral uniform. Some gangs are no longer wearing their colors in order to deceive law enforcement.
Not all gang members are obvious in their dress or manner, so some are not immediately recognizable by their attire. Anyone can wear gang-style clothing. For that reason, wearing gang-style clothing itself should not be used as the only evidence to support gang membership.
Hand signs were used by the ancient Chinese Triads to show their membership. Today, hand signs can be used as a greeting to a peer gang member, a way of challenging a rival gang or a form of intimidation to non-gang members. Hand signs vary, depending on what type of gang is using them. Commonly, letters of the alphabet or numbers are formed by using the fingers and hands. Gang members display hand signs at citizens, police and other gang members. Sometimes, this action is referred to as “throwing a sign.” Occasionally, a story is told using hand signs; some gangs refer to this as “stacking.”
Gangs use graffiti to identify themselves and their territory. With graffiti, they mark their territory or turf, declare their allegiance to the gang, advertise the gang’s status or power, announce their presence, challenge rivals and announce working relationships between gangs. Graffiti is also used to intimidate the residents who live in a gang- controlled area. Graffiti can also be used to communicate messages and to show alliances or conflict between gangs. The graffiti may indicate the gang’s name; the member’s nickname; a declaration of loyalty; a memorial to a slain gang member; threats, challenges or warnings to rival gangs; or a description of criminal acts in which the gang has been involved. Gang graffiti can be found on neighborhood walls, fences and mailboxes. It may also be found on clothing, athletic shoes, notebooks, plastic glasses, photographs and bedroom walls.
The graffiti may be disguised or hidden from parents. Graffiti is sort of the newspaper of the gang culture. The color of the graffiti might also be an indicator of what type of gang is present. A red color may show that a Blood or Norteno gang is present in the area. Most gang graffiti is written with black-colored paint, but commonly, gang members who write graffiti use whatever color of paint is available. In the gang culture no insult ever goes unanswered. One way of insulting or disrespecting a gang is to cross out its graffiti. Graffiti can also be used for other reasons. If certain kinds ofsymbols or words are used by Skinhead gangs, graffiti can be evidence of a hate crime. The presence of hate graffiti is intended to cause fear and intimidation among an entire minority group, even though a single victim may be the target of the graffiti attack.
In addition, taggers can use graffiti to gain fame and notoriety. Taggers choose names, slogans and pictorial graphics in an attempt to create an identity and make themselves known. Their principal crime is vandalism and their targets are often highly visible like public transportation vehicles, billboards, benches, walls and freeway signs. Hispanic gang graffiti is often written in blocked or Old English letters and tends to be very stylized. Some Asian gangs, particularly Laotian and Cambodian gangs, use the block style of graffiti. African-American and White gang graffiti tend to be similar to one another using a simple style of writing, although Skinhead graffiti may include racist symbols or other graphically violent language. The color of the graffiti may be an indicator of gang affiliation. Crips use blue and Bloods use red. Graffiti may also take on specific characteristics of a particular gang like a unique symbol or use of numbers or letters.
Gangs purposely vandalize and destroy public and private property in order to enhance their reputation. Of equal concern with property damage is the violence associated with gang graffiti. Some adults believe they do not have to worry as much about graffiti in the neighborhood. They believe the graffiti is from a tagging crew rather than an indication of gang presence. However, the presence of any type of graffiti can be an indicator that a gang is present and can be an important source of information for both law enforcement and community members. Graffiti is gang-related whether it is written by street gang members, taggers or tag bangers.
When a neighborhood is marked with a gang’s graffiti, that graffiti indicates territorial dominance, and the entire area and its inhabitants become potential targets for violence, because rival gangs sometimes identify everyone in the neighborhood as part of the gang and, therefore, a potential threat and target. Anyone on the street or in his or her home can become a target for drive-by attacks by rival gang members.
Jewelry used by gangs may be expensive or cheap. Certain gangs use gaudy jewelry, such as heavy gold rope chains, earrings and large gold or diamond rings. Some jewelry may have unique designs on rings, necklaces or bracelets. The designs can be numbers or symbols that are associated with a particular gang. For example, the five-point star is used by northern California Hispanic and the Chicago-based Latin Kings street gangs. The happy- and sad-face theatrical masks refer to the gang life style — smile now, cry later. Some gang members may also wear religious symbols, like crosses. The religious symbols have nothing to do with the gang life, but may simply show a belief in a particular religion.
Weapons used by gangs can include shaved-down baseball bats, sections of pipe taped at the ends, spiked wristbands, Chemical Mace, knives, handguns, sawed-off shotguns and automatic firearms such as Uzi machine guns, AK-47 assault rifles, pistols or 9-millimeter semi-automatic handguns. Gang members have also used homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails. In a few instances gang members have been arrested with hand grenades. Some weapons can also be made of nonmetallic substances, like plastic knives. These can easily pass through metal detectors. Weapons can also be concealed, like a knife in a pen or in a lipstick holder or in the air-conditioning duct of a car. Guns have been concealed in video cameras, air tire gauges, pagers and even cellular telephones. Concealing weapons has become a common practice among many gangs.
Tattoos can indicate gang affiliation or geographic origin. Tattoos can be crude or elaborate, and placed on any part of the body. They can be numbers like 666 (mark of the beast), 14, 13 , or 88 (the eighth letter of the alphabet, H). For white supremacists, 88 refers to HH or “Heil Hitler.” The tattoos may also indicate the gang name by using letters of the alphabet to abbreviate it. Or, letters of the alphabet may be used to indicate a particular gang philosophy. For example, SWP could mean Supreme White Power or Salvadorians With Pride. The tattoo can be of a cartoon-type character like a bulldog or a well-known criminal. Gang tattoos have included pictures of wild animals like panthers or tigers, or mythical animals like dragons.
Other gang tattoos can be a five-point crown or a five-point star. These symbols normally mean nothing to a non-gang member. However, to gang members they are a code that identifies their gang, their gang rivals and their gang affiliation, and is a way to affirm their membership. Some gang members’ bodies have become just another canvass for gang graffiti.
Some gang members purposely scar their bodies instead of applying tattoos. Some even burn themselves with cigarettes on their hands, arms and legs to show that they are a member of a gang. The burn marks may be in specific patterns like three dots or five dots. The action of burning shows that the person is committed to his or her gang. Sometimes a gang member may brand the gang’s symbol somewhere on his back or arms. Others may use a knife or a razor blade to etch designs or marks on their bodies. These later form large scars. Generic forms of gang tattoos and body modifications by themselves are not evidence of gang membership. Combined with gang-specific tattoos, brands or burns, generic signs may be used to help determine gang membership.
Many gang members have adopted a verbal code that applies to their gang.
Using a specific gang term does not by itself determine gang membership. Crips might greet each using the word, “cuzz.” Bloods might use the word, “blood.” A gang member saying that he is “Sureno” indicates that he is from southern California, as opposed to one who says he is “Norteno,” which means that he is from northern California. Literally hundreds of words are associated with the gang culture. While the use of gang slang can be an indicator of gang membership, some gang slang has become a popular and is used by the general population.
Many gang members keep photo albums with pictures of themselves and their fellow members. These pictures may show individual members of the gang, the style of clothes that are acceptable and the gang’s hand sign or graffiti, and may also show gang members posing with weapons or committing crimes. To be in a gang photograph, a member has to be trusted by the gang. Photographs memorialize a moment in time for the gangs and are kept as mementos. Many gangs also use video cameras to record their activities. In one instance, a gang member videotaped his burglary of a southern California resort hotel. He then added music and turned the videotape in as a school assignment for which he received an “A.”
The gang culture is often spread through the music and entertainment industry, which can facilitate the influence of the gang culture on the general population. Some young people identify themselves with the fictional life style of a character in a movie or of a rap artist. The lyrics of any type of gang-related music can be motivating to the listener. Most adults think of “Black gangster rap” when referring to gang music, but every type of gang has a style of music that reflects that particular gang’s life style. CD’s have now become the standard media for the music industry and much of the movie industry. It might be helpful if parents listened to the music listened to by their children. The characteristics and the lyrics of this type of music refer to gang
philosophies and activities and can influence behavior. In Texas, a man killed a state trooper and used as his defense that the gangster rap music he was listening to motivated him to commit the murder.
Other signs of gang membership include fingernails painted a certain color, colored shoelaces in athletic shoes and specific hairstyles, such as a group of females all dyeing their hair the same color. Some gang members subscribe to or buy certain types of magazines that cater to their gang life style, just as a sports fan might subscribe to a sports-related magazine. Today, anyone can access Web sites to sample and purchase all types of gang-related music. Hispanic gangs from northern California and southern California have their own style of Hispanic gangster rap. White supremacists sell all styles of hate music using the Internet. Taggers, Bloods and Crips can all use the Internet to buy their style of music.
Even the advancement of technology has an impact on the gang culture. The use of e-mail has become a common way to communicate. Many gang members use cellular phones, pagers and scanners to socialize, plan criminal activities, sell drugs and warn each other of pending rival gang or police contact. Gang members often ommunicate, recruit, socialize and sell drugs using the computer. The World Wide Web brings people together who are thousands of miles apart. Now, gangs have the opportunity to have a world-wide impact by using the Internet. Some gangs take advantage of this capability and publish their own web page to show off their gang. These web sites feature photographs of gang members holding weapons, displaying
hand signs and demonstrating gang graffiti. Often, there are links to other gang web sites.