Back in 2005 I interviewed REKE, a graffiti writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for an article I wrote about the history of Pittsburgh graffiti. Unfortunately, our interview got cut from the final article. This diagram of gang symbols included above, originally sourced from the Administrative Office of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit court in Wheaton, Illinois, reminded me of something REKE had said though. As a kid, he saw gang graffiti in and around his neighborhood. As he got older, and became more interested in art and graffiti in particular, his mother provided him with a diagram from the police department that decoded the specific meanings of the writings he had seen his whole life.
Seeing this diagram that breaks down the symbols and signs of gangs like the Undertaker Vice Lords, Spanish Cobras, and City Royals reminds of that conversation and how obsessed I used to be with graffiti. Knowing how to read what’s written on a wall, and realizing that there’s an entire network of people from the neighborhood connected to that writing in some way — for better or worse — takes away some of the initial awe I once felt.
There’s still an element of fascination concerning the territorial nature of gang graffiti (versus graffiti done as art/vandalism). It serves a different purpose. Instead of fame as an end goal, the notion of “watching my name go by” as Super Kool told David Shirey of the New York Times back in1973, gang graffiti is more utilitarian. It marks territory, warns outsiders of infringement, and memorializes the dead.
(Photograph: Administrative Office of the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit. Caption: Insert.)