In South Los Angeles, graffiti is as commonplace as storefront churches, sidewalk peddlers and foreclosed homes. Because it's so ubiquitous, it rarely warrants more than a knowing glance from locals.
But graffiti tells a story in a code that's constantly changing. And although it's not always gang-related, in the Los Angeles Police Department's Newton Division in South Central L.A., there's a good chance it is.
Officers Brandon Barron and Jonathan Rocha are part of Newton's Gang Enforcement Detail, and they took me along for one of their patrol shifts. They're old hands at distinguishing between the different types of graffiti.
"We have about a nine-square mile area within Newton, and there's approximately 50-60 gangs within Newton itself, which is usually a lot more than the average division here in Los Angeles," said Barron.
First, there are the artists, who Barron says are just trying to show off. Their graffiti usually jumps out because it's so colorful. It might be in bubbly letter style and look well thought-out. Artistic graffiti looks like it takes time, and that's because it does.
"They look at it as art," said Barron. "They look at it as art and they don't think they're doing anything wrong. They're throwing it up there because they want people to see their artistic side."
Tagging, on the other hand, is a lot less – well, pretty.
"There's no rule or artistic flow to it, really," said Rocha. "Just writing their name. Usually what'll happen is they'll write their crew and then their name, or a moniker."
And then there are the gangs. With so many gangs in such a compact area, you can imagine the problems that arise – tension, turf wars and outright violence. Neither officer wanted to answer which of the colorfully-named gangs – like the Playboys, or the Pueblo Bishop Bloods, or the Five-Deuce Broadway Gangster Crips – was considered the most dangerous. They both said all of them are capable of the same thing: vandalism, selling drugs, beating people up and murder.
With so many gangs comes lots of graffiti, and gangster tagging is generally practical above all else, said Barron.
"A lot of times, gang members want you to be able to read it and see what they wrote," he said. That's because it's a claiming of territory, and one that can quickly turn deadly if a rival gang member finds himself tagging on the wrong block.
Take the Loco Park gang, for example. One of the simpler ways Loco Park gang members will claim their territory is spraying an "LP," or writing out "Loco Park." That leaves them open to disrespect – or "disses" – from rival gangs, said Rocha.
"Loco Park will put an 'LP', throw it up there," said Rocha. "If a rival gang comes through, one thing they'll definitely do is they'll spray paint over it, cross it out and then put theirs up right next to it."
This "war on the walls" can escalate quickly. One gang member, speaking under the condition of anonymity, said that rival gangs' tagging in his territory was like him "going to your house and stepping all over the couch."
And so gangsters have graffiti codes that warn rivals to get out – codes, Rocha said, that are often accompanied by a threat of death. On one wall the Primera Flats gang had tagged up, they wrote a "G" – representing a rival gang, the Ghetto Boyz – then crossed it out and tagged a "K" right next to it.
"The K at the end of it signifies killer," said Rocha. "So the 'G' in the middle, is for Ghetto Boyz – Ghetto Boy Killer. So that's why it's crossed out."
And in more concrete terms? Barron spelled it out.
"They're going to go out and they'll kill anybody from that rival gang on the spot," he said. "Just like they know if they happen to drive into Ghetto Boyz' neighborhood, same thing – they can be shot at any minute if seen by a Ghetto Boyz gang member."
The Pueblo Bishop Bloods had made a similar threat on their turf at the Pueblo Del Rio projects between Long Beach Avenue and Alameda Street. Barron said the Pueblo Bishops have that area locked down so tightly that there's hardly any graffiti – there's no need, since almost all locals know the Pueblo Bishops run that place.
On one wall, the Pueblo Bishops had threatened three rival gangs: the Crips, the 38th Street Gang and the Blood Stone Villains, Rocha said.
"'C' is crossed out for Crips, because they're a Blood gang," said Rocha. "38th Street is another gang in the area, a Hispanic gang. That's been crossed out. Blood Stone Villains, they're also a Blood gang, but the Pueblo Bishops have a feud with the Blood Stone Villains. So even though they're Bloods, they don't get along. So essentially they're killers of the Crips, 38th Street and Blood Stone Villains."
The graffiti code is incredibly intricate. On one liquor store wall, the Hang Out Boyz gang had tagged their name. Barron explained what a seemingly innocuous cluster of dots and dashes meant.
"You have the Hang Out Boyz, the gang," he said, pointing to the wall. "The thing that stands out too, I noticed, is the three dots with the two lines. That stands for the Mexican Mafia. So HOB has some sort of affiliation with the Mexican Mafia."
And you don't put that symbol up if you're not truly affiliated with the Mexican Mafia, Rocha said – unless you have a death wish.
No matter how artful the tag or skillful the spray, vandalizing someone's property, both officers said, is still a crime. There's a world of meaning behind the writing on the wall, though, and whether it's gang-related or the handiwork of some troublemaking kids, it's on Newton Gang Enforcement Detail's radar. Like the artists, vandals and gangsters, they know their graffiti.