Gang signs are the physical, visual, and audible symbols street gangs use as a medium of communication, both internally and externally. Although street gangs exist on an international scale, this article will take a narrow focus on criminal organisations commonly found in the United States. Then, a selection of case studies will show the similarities and differences between Blood gang signs, Crip gang signs, and signs used by the Aryan Brotherhood.
Regardless of this focus, the fundamental concepts that follow are transferable to virtually all gang cultures, no matter the geographical space or type of gang.
1. Introduction to Gangs
Another key point to consider is the diversity of gang types. Because of this diversity, law enforcement and agencies use different subsets of criteria to classify gangs. Common subsets of gangs are:
- Violent street gangs
- Youth gangs
- Motorcycle gangs
- Prison gangs
- Hate groups
- Adult organised crime groups
There are certain similarities between each gang type, including the use of gang signs. However, enough differences exist to justify separating the types. For the sake of brevity, the use of the word gang throughout this article will be all-encompassing, although specific organisations will be mentioned when relevant.
1.1 Gangs defined
As far as definitions go, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) follow their own criteria (source):
- An association of three or more individuals.
- The existence of a collective group identity is used by members to create an atmosphere of fear or intimidation.
- Frequent employment of one or more: a common name, slogan, identifying sign, symbol, tattoo or other physical markings, style or colour of clothing, hairstyle, hand sign, or graffiti.
- The association’s purpose is to engage in criminal activity and use violence or intimidation to further its criminal objectives.
- Group engagement in criminal activity or acts of juvenile delinquency that, if committed by an adult, would be crimes intending to enhance or preserve the association’s power, reputation, or economic resources.
In addition, the DOJ/DHS has a series of additional characteristics that may be present in groups that meet the above requirements:
- Established rules for joining and operating within the association.
- Recurring meetings between members.
- Association provided physical protection to members.
- The desire for the association to exercise control over a specific geographic location or region.
- An identifiable structure.
2. Gang Signs as a Communications Concept
At the core, gang signs are a method of human communication. Furthermore, like any form of human communication, there is a theoretical conceptual undercurrent that can help understand the form beyond what is transparent on the surface.
Specifically, in this case, taking a conceptual look at the communication elements can help us understand the way gang signs are effective, and how they have persevered into the current time.
2.1 Gang Signs and the Semiotic Tradition
The semiotic tradition of communication theory is one lens to use when viewing gang signs as a theoretical concept. According to scholars Littlejohn, Foss, and Oetzel, the basic concept of semiotics is the sign (anything that resembles something other than what it is) and symbol (a complex sign with an array of different meanings). In addition, we can break the semiotics tradition down into three distinct parts (source):
- Semiotics: the study of signs and symbols as basic elements (such as studying the gang signs in isolation)
- Pragmatics: the study of the relationships among signs (studying how gang signs relate to the forms found in each gang, or even with the signs used by other sets or larger criminal organisations)
- Syntactics: the ways signs combine into complex systems of signs (studying how gang signs fit into the larger mythos of the gang structure, including how they are an array of primitive languages)
As a communication theory tradition, the conceptual neighbourhood of semiotics is home to theories that focus on signs and symbols. That includes studying how their use represents “objects, ideas, states, situations, feelings, and conditions outside of themselves.” (source)
2.1.1 Barthes’ Semiotics
French literary critic Roland Barthes is a pioneer of semiotic theory within communications. According to his view, the concern of semiotics is to study the meaning within sign systems, or “anything that can stand for something else.” [source]
Furthermore, Barthe considered his theory to be a way to explain the connotations carried by the ideology underneath signs, also known as myth. In this context, a myth is a connotation underneath signs wherever they go, and what gives a natural flavor to culture.
Viewing gang signs through such a theory can be illustrative of their role within the larger gang culture.
2.1.2 Signs, Signifiers, and the Signified
Within this framework, you have the sign, signifier, and signified. [source]
- Sign – The inseparable combination of signifier and signified.
- Signifier – The physical form of the sign as perceived by an individual through the use of one’s senses (or, an image).
- Signified – The meaning individual associates with a sign
For example, take the attire worn by gang members (which will be covered later in this article). At a surface level, there is nothing remarkable about humans wearing clothes. Outside of unique environments, or in the privacy of one’s home, the vast majority do at all times.
Here, the body of the gang member and the worn attire are both signifiers. The meaning behind the attire, such as gang affiliation, is signified. Together, both designators make a sign, which communicates the distinct myth behind the gang.
Outside of custom-designed clothing, gang attire is not manufactured or labelled as such. Brands commonly used by gangs market their products toward other demographics, such as athletes or blue-collar workers (Nike, Dickies, etc).
However, because of the meaning that is assigned to gang attire, the physical image lays over the connotation of the myth.
3. The Intelligence Value of Gang Signs
To move from theory to practicality, gang signs carry immense intelligence value to law enforcement and other practitioners. Also, in a more abstract sense, gang signs can provide intelligence to rival gangs and enemies.
Universally, the most effective way intelligence can be analysed is through the rudimentary foreknowledge of a gang’s lexicon. However, a lack of that foreknowledge does not negate all efforts. The principles beneath the signs meaning are transferable between sets, groups, and regions. Furthermore, a savvy analyst with that conceptual knowledge can make strides towards understanding a gang sign enigma.
The multitude of unique sets, groups, and regions can complicate intelligence collection efforts. As is common nature in the world of organised crime, the culture and signs are always changing. Because of this fluidity, law enforcement personnel need to refresh the awareness of gangs in their locale.
The foundational information about gangs comes from various sources. Detectives, informants, confiscated materials and literature from incarcerated members are all examples of viable collection methods. Because of differences in signs and sets, some of the best intelligence comes directly from the law enforcement officers and gang task forces that spend time on the ground in their assigned areas of operation.
In the end, for those on the right side of the law, the world of gang signs is a giant puzzle with ever-changing parts. As pieces fall in the right places, interpreting signs becomes a valuable asset analyst can use to assist in the intelligence cycle.
4. Types of Gang Signs
As mentioned, gang signs are a puzzle. Not only that but there are many forms of pieces that fit within the lexicon of gangs and their sub-sets. The following survey of gang sign types is far from all-encompassing and seeks to provide a ground-floor understanding of the ways street gangs can creatively express themselves. With that in mind, there will be a focus on the four most commonly encountered gang signs: attire, tattoos, graffiti and hand signals.
Gang attire is arguably one of the most widely known forms of gang signs outside of the criminal underworld. This is due in part to the mainstream popularity of hip-hop music in the West, which often glamorizes gang membership through lyrics and attire.
But what exactly is gang attire? It isn’t as if they wear military-style uniforms that are easily discernable.
In essence, gang attire is the wide array of visible clothing items and accessories street gang members wear as a representation of their gang and its culture. This attire is usually contains the gangs’ colour, and other symbols, such as sports teams or brand logos that carry their own symbolic meaning to the larger community.
The reason for wearing gang attire is multi-faceted. It is primarily a bold expression of gang membership or support. This expression shows the tendency for gangs to not shy away from public awareness of their presence. Not only that, but wearing it is also a morale booster to fellow set members, and also to the individual who finds meaning and life being part of the group.
In a more confrontational sense, gang attire is a way gangs can spot rivals defensively within their territory, or offensively when travelling through or acting in another group’s territory. Small flourishes in how members dress can be a key identifier to other gang members and enemies. Something as minor as the direction someone wears their hat can be enough to judge affiliation.
4.1.1 Types of Gang Attire
There are many types of gang attire, and we will cover some within the Blood gang signs and Crip gang signs sections. In a general sense, common types include:
- Sneakers and shoelaces
- Baseball caps
- Khaki pants or shorts (Dickies are a popular brand)
- Belts and belt-buckles
- Sweatshirts and sweatpants
- Knee socks
- T-shirts with gang colour or representative symbols
There are some specific ways gang members incorporate emblems and symbols in their attire to further express gang membership, status, and other aspects of their culture:
- Numbers or numerical patterns
- Embroidery or beads containing gang-related symbols
- Visible brand logos with meaning to the set
- Sports jerseys or attire with meaning to the set (a specific player number, team name, team logo)
Tattoos are like attire in that they are both visual gang signs that are “worn” on the body. However, unlike clothing, tattoos are permanent. Because of this, gang members can be easily identifiable to law enforcement, specifically during the intake process in the penitentiary system. Likewise, while incarcerated, gang tattoos are also identifiable symbols for rival gangs to pay attention to.
At a basic level, gang tattoos act as displays of membership, status, and geographical location. Beyond that, members add to their tattoo collection similar to how military personnel add ribbons and medals to their service uniforms.
Actions on the streets or while incarcerated are often symbolised and tattooed. Kill counts, years behind bars, and years within the gang are further examples of commendation tattoos.
4.3.1 Gang Tattoos as Intelligence
Just like attire, tattoos have a few different purposes. They boost morale, yet in a more physical and intense way, such as the permanent marking of skin. It is common for members to receive tattoos while behind bars, using makeshift tattoo needles. Also, they are a warning sign to rivals, showcasing feats and experiences that speak through body art. In the same way some animals and insects develop unique physical traits to warn predators, so the gang members and their tattoos function in like fashion.
From an intelligence standpoint, tattoos are one of the best signs for practitioners. It is common for personnel in the jail and prison system, as well as U.S. border security and similar organisations, to have training on gang tattoos. Also, the U.S. Armed Forces screens recruits for any tattoos that show a prior street gang affiliation.
Graffiti is a hallmark of urban street gang culture. It is not only its own genre of art but is a powerful form of intelligence for both law enforcement and rival gangs. [source]
It is important to clarify that most graffiti in urban environments is not gang-related. Furthermore, because of the disproportionate ratio of gang graffiti to non-gang graffiti, law enforcement and rival gangs alike need to be quite skilled in identifying and translating the real from the irrelevant.
Not only that, but graffiti can be misleading. It is not uncommon for youth to tag property with gang graffiti while not being a card-carrying members. Here, they do it as an act of support or tribute. However, it is not directly sanctioned by gang leadership, as is common with other tags.
4.3.1 Purpose of Gang Graffiti
Gang graffiti has a few viable purposes:
- Identification of gang territory
- Marking the location of a fight or murder
- Disrespect to rival gangs (such as a “cross-out”, which is graffiti that is sprayed over a rival tag)
- Morale and the fostering of group unity
- Memorial for fallen members
It is most commonly done using spray paint, although variations exist. Incarcerated members tag their cells and prison facilities using markers or etching.
Furthermore, graffiti often contains symbols and emblems from the gangs’ culture, as mentioned in the sections above.
4.4 Hand Signals
Hang signals are a sign unique to urban street gangs. Unlike the previous signs, they are less of an artistic expression, and more of a way to communicate between gang members and their rivals, both on the street and in the prison system.
The roots of hand signals in gangs are loosely traced to the Chinese Triads, whose history goes back to 18th century China and the existence of secret fraternal societies. [source]
Contemporary hand signals are highly subjective and carry different meanings to different gangs and sets. They can include one or both hands and can be quite complex.
Similar to sign language, gang members with a vast repertoire of hand signals can carry out complete non-verbal conversations, using the signals to form sentences, statements, and even stories (the process of which is called “stacking”, short for stacking signs). [source]
Also, hand signals can be a form of antagonistic language directed at a rival gang, or if they are bold, at law enforcement personnel.
5. Variations in Gang Signs
A practical application of the primary forms of gang signs can be through a few real-world case studies. Specifically, a closer look at the nuts and bolts of the most reputable street gangs in America and the way they use signs within their culture. This exploration will focus on the Blood gang signs, Crip gang signs, and signs from the Aryan Brotherhood.
5.1 Blood Gang Signs
The Bloods are one of the two largest street gangs in the United States. They originated in Los Angeles during the 1970s as competition to their central rivals, known as the Crips. Both the Bloods and Crips are traditionally black gangs, however, a few Asians and Latinos have joined their ranks. [source]
Blood gang signs are like Crip gang signs in many regards, albeit with small shades of contrast.
Another similarity is the large volume of different regional sets. Bloods (and Crips) each contain hundreds of sets based nationwide in different neighbourhoods and territories. Not only that, but these sets each have their own variations of signs.
5.1.1 Blood Gang Signs: Attire
Blood attire is primarily red pieces of clothing and accessories.
A common fixture among Blood attire is wearing graphic t-shirts that contain hidden messages. For example, Blood may wear a shirt with the letters “C” and “K” which means “Crip killer”, a reference to the disdain for their primary rivals.
The level of adherence to Blood attire shown in the above photos is not indicative of all members. There are times, such as funerals, where Bloods are documented dressing in a more “formal” outfit, meaning an abundance of red-coloured items. Nevertheless, it is common for Bloods to show an adherence to the gang-style while out on the streets taking part in day-to-day life.
5.1.2 Blood Gang Signs: Hand Signals
Blood gang signs as hand signals are diverse and differ from set to set. However, open source intelligence from law enforcement sources can help paint a picture of the way Bloods communicate through hand signals. [source]
5.2 Crip Gang Signs
Crips follow Bloods as one of the most prolific and widespread street gangs in the United States. They formed in South Central Los Angeles during the 1960s and quickly spread throughout urban environments across the states.
As aforementioned, Crip gang signs are like their Blood counterparts. The central difference is the meaning, along with an array of alternative symbols and signs throughout each set.
5.2.1 Crip Gang Signs: Attire
Crip attire is based on the gang’s traditional colour, which is blue.
5.2.2 Crip Gang Signs: Hang Signals
Crip gang signs as hand signals do not differ from the use by Bloods, except for the different assigned meanings. [source]
5.3 Aryan Brotherhood Gang Signs
The Aryan Brotherhood is a white supremacist/neo-Nazi gang that began in the United States prison system (although it functions both behind bars and outside prison walls).
Unlike the Bloods and Crips, the Aryan Brotherhood does not adhere to a standard for gang-related clothing. Most of their gang signs are as tattoos and symbols, with their shirtless bodies essentially fulfilling the role of a Crip in all blue or Blood in all red.