The purpose of this paper is to study the features that constitute the culture of street gangs. The reason for choosing such topic for this paper is the fact that gang violence is becoming a crucial problem for the United States and many other nations around the world. Only in the United States, around one million teenagers are in a street gang. However, this problem is not a recent one and the population of The United States has suffered gang violence since the early 1800s. Currently, even though street gangs do not keep any official records, there are around 33.000 street gangs present in North America (Grabianowski, 2007).
A central issue in this study is the cultural components of these street gangs. Because gang bangers tend to see these gangs as family units, the study of their cultural components will resemble other studies in sociolinguistics that regard family, language, customs…
The properties of these street gangs are not completely understood yet due to the secrecy present among members of these gangs. There is even an unwritten code (the G-Code) which prevents these members from disclosing information about their gang activity. Knox (2000), Klein (1995-2006) and Keever (n.d.) have already mentioned the patterns and nature present in these gangs. Moreover, Pacheco (2008) has elaborated a guide signalling all the features present in street gangs like the ones studied in this paper, the Crips and the Bloods.
Fur such purpose, two of the main Afro-American street gangs controlling American turf were selected. Features of these gangs such as loyalty to the gang, symbols, rituals, hierarchy in the gang, graffiti, tattoos and the non-verbal communication used by gangsters will be analysed. Finally, a brief introduction to the so-called peace treaties between the two selected gangs will be presented.
In order to study this topic, two of the most infamous street gangs in the USA were chosen, the Crips and the Bloods. The information about these gangs was found on the papers introduced in the previous section and on websites belonging to the Government of The USA.
Especially relevant to this paper are the studies conducted by Henry R. Pacheco who is a member of the Gang Investigators Association in Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey and is certified as a Law Enforcement Gang Specialist by both the New York and Virginia Gang Investigators Associations (Pacheco, 2010).
Theoretical background section
The concept of culture
The first term that needs to be explained is the notion of culture, what constitutes a culture and how it works. Several researchers have tried to define what culture is, however, since culture is such an abstract term, definitions vary between scholars. Schudson (1989) already gave an account about which elements constitute a culture. According to this scholar, culture is not something that works or fails to work. It is not something forced on or done to a man; it is constitutive of the individual. It is the precondition and the state of human-ness (Schudson, 1989)
Another possible definition of what culture is was provided by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, who in 1871 defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Finally, more recent studies have defined culture as “the rules for playing the game of life” (Samovar et al., 2014: 11).
According to the National Institute of Justice, “there is no universally agreed-upon definition of “gang” in the United States” (National Institute of Justice, 2011). This institution provides two different definitions, the federal definition, and the state definition:
Federal definition: A gang is an association of three or more individuals who identify themselves by adopting a group identity. These individuals tend to be more collectivist than individualistic. This group identity is used as a means for creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. This is done by adopting a common name, slogan, signs, symbols, tattoos, a specific colour of clothing and even graffiti. The main purpose of these groups is to engage in criminal activities.
Gangs tend to have joining rituals, offer protection, exercise control over a certain territory, and have an identifiable structure
State definition: A criminal street gang is any organization of three or more people who have as one of their primary activities the commission of crimes. They have a common name, sign or symbol, and engage themselves in a pattern of criminal gang activity (National Institute of Justice, 2011).
Map of South L.A. Blood, Crip, Hoover, and Piru gangs (Google maps).
Cultural elements of street gangs
The main elements studied in this paper are tattoos, graffiti and slang. Pacheco (2008) already made a distinction between two of these elements, paying attention to the significance of each in the culture of street gangs.
Tattoos: “Gang members may wear tattoos which are specific to their gang, set, clique, etc., or may convey their status or represent a region, like in the case of the “Surenos” and “Nortenos” (Pacheco, 2008:24). Pacheco also stated that some tattoos appear to be generic in nature, not allowing membership identification, however, gang members such as those belonging to “MS-13” and “La 18” tend to get the number of their “barrio” tattooed all over their bodies. Moreover, he recognized tattoos of teardrops as representations of the pain of losing fellow gang members, having committed a murder or having spent time in jail. For most gangs, tattoos represent their commitment to the group.
Graffiti: In the culture of gangs, spray painting can vary from “tagging” words or names to more intricate or masterful images or messages. Spray painting may demonstrate which gangs are battling, contending or “beefing” about. They may likewise introduce the gang roll call or check their turf. Pacheco distinguished between different types of graffiti done by street gangs:
Tagger – They are tags done by gang members (nicknames) and elaborate pieces. The aim of this type of graffiti is to intimidate members of rival gangs, mark the territory they control or send a specific message. “They are territorial rather than regional” (Pacheco, 2008: 25).
Hate graffiti: This type of graffiti is used by gangs which write racial, cultural or religious affronts. Some gangs may paint over a tag or symbol belonging to a rival gang. This is done by crossing such tags with a gang’s specific colour.
Slang: This type of spoken language has been used by gangs since their beginnings as a means of communication between fellow members and rivals. This specific terminology varies depending on which gang you belong to. This slang can be confusing at times. Moreover, gang members tend to use sign language in order to show what gang they belong to. Some slang terms are “cuz” (used as a friendly name between Crips), “M.O.B.” (Money Over Bitches), “G” (gangster), “slobs” (Derogatory term used to identify the Bloods), “ADDIDAS” (All day I diss all slobs)…
Crips and Bloods
There are several theories explaining the foundation of this primarily African American gang based in Los Angeles, California. One non-official version states that the gang was founded by Raymond Washington and Stanley Williams who united their previously created gangs to fight against other neighbouring gangs. Washington was found dead in 1979 after being shot in a drive-by shooting. Williams was executed by the State of California in the year 2005 in spite of being a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee while he was in jail.
Another version asserts that the Crips were not always the violent gang they are today. Apparently, the Crips were founded as a way to fight against the oppression and the police brutality suffered by the African Americans. According to this version, supported by The Black Panthers, a revolutionary socialist organization founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in October 1966, the name of the band stood for Community Resources for Independent People (Brown, n.d.).
As in any other cultural organization, there are several ways of joining the Crips. Depending on the neighbourhood, initiation procedures vary from being beaten up by fellow gang members, committing a crime, fighting members of a rival gang or even killing somebody. Once you are considered a member, you are treated as family, respected and protected by the rest of the members.
One feature commonly found in Crip graffiti is the six-pointed star. Another way of recognizing a Crip graffiti is by checking whether any letter “b” is crossed out on the graffiti. This is done in order to insult their rivals, the Bloods. Crips usually avoid writing the letter “b” since it represents their rival gang. It is also common to find messages such as “happy c-day” on social media, avoiding the use of the letter “b”. Regardless of the legal actions shoplifting may involve, according to Bertheaud (2011), most of the graffiti done by street gangs is written with stolen spray paint from unsupervised hardware stores. Finally, another common symbol for Crips is the number 187. This number is the code for first-degree murder in the California penal code (Bertheaud, 2011).
Figure 1 (a tag by the Crips).
Figure one is a clear example of the typical Crip tag found in the suburbs of L.A. Letters “b” are crossed out, there is a six-pointed star, a six-pointed crown and the letters “BK”, standing for Blood Killer, appear aside.
Representative symbols found in tattoos carried by Crip members include the previously mentioned six-pointed star, a three/six-pointed crown, “BK” standing for Blood Killer, Crip LOB, meaning “lords of brotherhood”…
Figure 2. A Crip tattoo.
Another symbol commonly found in Crip tattoos is the letter C designed in sign language.
Adidas: It stands for “All Day I Destroy a Slob.” Slob is a pejorative term used to diss the Bloods (Hamilton, 2013).
Blue up from the shoe up: When a Crip member is wearing blue from his shoes to the top.
‘CC’ or Double ‘C’: The double C is used by Crip members whenever they need to replace the letters “CK” (standing for Crip Killer) in any word.
Cuddy: Slang term for the word buddy, again replacing the letter “B” with a letter “C”.
Crip Walk or C-walk: The C-Walk is a dance invented by the Crips which involves moving the feet spelling the letters C-R-I-P.
Drinking milk: A term used only by Crip members for targeting or murdering a rival. This term was stolen from the Bloods in the 1990s when Blood members who were in jail created a way to disrespect other prison members.
C.I.P.: C.I.P. stands for Crip In Peace, used as a substitutive for R.I.P. (Rest in Peace). It is employed when a fellow Crip member has passed away (Urban Thesaurus, n.d.).
Rap singers who are Crips
Many well-known artists around the Hip Hop scene joined a gang when they were teenagers and run into trouble with the law. Some of them are active members and many others have a distinct affiliation with the gang.
Snoop Dogg Rollin’ 20’s Crips,
Goldie Loc Rollin’ 20’s Crips
Nate Dogg Rollin’ 20’s Crips
The Dove Shack Rollin’ 20’s Crips
Warren G Rollin’ 20’s Crips
Kurupt Rollin’ 60’s Crips
CJ Mac Rollin’ 60’s Crips
Daz Dillinger 21st Street Crips
Lil’ C Style 19th Street Crips
Figure 3. A list of Crip Rappers. (Smith,2016)
Some of them, like Snoop Dogg, have even dedicated songs to their gang. Even though Snoop Dogg asserts that he has never joined a gang, he is affiliated to the Rollin’ 20’s Crips.
The song Crip or Die by Snoop Dogg describes what being a Crip from Long Beach is like. He sings about being loyal to the gang, describes it as a family and even states that the gang is more important than one’s own life. This loyalty is a representative feature of gang culture, in which once you have entered, the only way out is death.
“Round here, we Crip or die…all day, we Crip or die…when you young, you Crip or die…that’s the first thing you learn on the Eastside” (Snoop Dogg, 2015).
The Bloods is a street gang based in Los Angeles, California. This gang bases its businesses in drugs, theft, murder and any other criminal activities. Their representative colour is red and they are lifelong rivals of the Crips.
The gang was founded in the early 1970s due to the spread the Crips were having throughout Los Angeles at the time.
The Bloods were formed as a group that aimed at fighting the Crips. Members from different gangs, such as those around Piru Street, got united and banded together for protection against the Crips. However, the fact that these gangs were together in the fight against the Crips did not prevent infights between the different gangs that made the Bloods.
Apart from the colour red, the Bloods have unique identifiers, such as specific hand signs, tattoos (a dog paw and the Triple Os, a physical mark often made from the heated barrel of a gun).
The Bloods began expanding in the early 1970s, throughout Los Angeles, however, they were still smaller than the Crips. For that reason, the Bloods became particularly aggressive and violent.
The Bloods took advantage of the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s and started focusing on the drug trade. This newly discovered way of making money allowed the gang to spread beyond California, even reaching the East Coast, eventually outnumbering their rivals in New York City (Encyclop?dia Britannica,n.d.).
Symbols and identification
Bloods are known for embracing the colour red as their own, however, some sets of the Bloods have chosen to use black, pink, orange and even green, depending on where they are from. In the recent years, gang bangers have decided to stop using their representative colours as a way to avoid the Police.
Colours are worn as an indication of pride in their gang alliance and a terrorizing element to non-gang members and adversaries. Gang members will represent their set by “flagging”, or wearing bandanas. These handkerchiefs or “flags” can be worn around the head, face, wrist, lower legs, or in their back pocket. Having a bandana is extremely significant to a gang member since they are given at the time of initiation into the group.
Gang members typically have at least one tattoo/mark representing their gang. As stated before, members of the Bloods carry a “dog paw” made using the heated barrel of a handgun. They are usually burnt on the member’s right arm. This mark may be referred by gang members as “triple Os” and can also be found on Bloods’ graffiti.
Moreover, Blood tattoos include the name of the gang, a five-pointed star/crown (Dowe, 2011), tears, blood drops, pit bulls, etc. These tattoos tend to be given when a member is being initiated and each tattoo represents the rank of the member. Finally, these tattoos are usually shown to their rivals as a way of intimidation.
Figure 4. Blood graffiti.
Typically found symbols on Blood Graffiti are the five-pointed star, the letters CK (Crip Killer), the five-pointed crown and the “Triple Os”, always painted on red colour.
Gang hand signs have different meanings. They are usually utilized whenever a gang member wants to salute a fellow member, intimidate non- gang members and silently warn their rivals. “These hand signals are ways of displaying their group loyalty and letting others know who they are dealing with” (Keever, 1999).
Bloods have distinctive hand signs which tend to be different from their rivals’.
Figure 5. Hand-signs usually done by Bloods.
The Bloods are known for using non-verbal communication as a way of conveying messages to fellow members. The way they walk, the way they stand and their gestures convey a wide range of hidden messages.
Figure 6. Compilation of body gestures done by Blood members. (Petersburg Police Department, 2008)
Originally, the coded language used by The Bloods was designed as a way of preventing correctional officers from understanding inmates’ communication, later translated to the streets as a way of communicating between members. A common way of greeting among Bloods members is by saying “SuWoop!” (similar sound to the one made by a police siren). This greeting is greeted back by saying “Blaat!” (the sound of an automatic gun).
Slang term Meaning
Bklyn I trust him
Mad dog All day
Manhatten Don’t trust him
Manhattan I trust him
Figure 7. Some slang terms used by the Bloods.
The 21 rules
The Bloods have a set of rules they must respect in order to be accepted by the gang. If not respected, gang members face being beaten up and even killed by fellow gang members.
Even though these rules are meant to be secret, old gang members who aim at leaving the gang have provided the Police departments with information regarding the gang’s hierarchy and rules. Given the nature of this topic, the author of the list below remains anonymous.
Figure 8. The 21 rules of the Bloods.
Peace treaties between the Bloods and the Crips
Many associations have attempted to end gang violence ever since street gangs appeared. Peace treaties between The Crips and The Bloods have surfaced several times throughout the history of both gangs. The most famous peace treaty between this two rival gangs is the one known as “Watts Gang Truce”. This truce was declared one day before the infamous L.A. riots in which the city of L.A. erupted in flames after the four LAPD officers who beat Rodney King were declared innocent. The Bloods and the Crips decided to put an end to the conflict that had escalated into a bloody war which had killed hundreds of people.
On April 28, 1992, hundreds of gang members got together in order to declare a ceasefire.
This peace treaty was a result of the hectic situation that was present in Los Angeles. Life as a gangster had already become too dangerous and gang members could not go to the supermarket without having to deal with or fight their rivals.
Watts Truce is not the only peace treaty between the Crips and the Bloods and attempts of declaring a ceasefire have taken place quite a few times in the last decades.
Surprisingly, rappers have a decisive voice on these peace treaties since they are normally seen as respectable figures by gang bangers. In fact, in the year 2016, rappers and Snoop Dogg signed a peace treaty between the Bloods and the Crips in which they compromised to put a stop to violence.
Figure 9. Ceasefire agreement between The Crips and The Bloods. 2016.
As seen throughout the whole paper, it can be signalled that the culture of street gangs is based on propagating violence and terror among the population. However, in spite of their negative behaviour and the little benefits these gangs provide society with, street gangs are a clear example of what culture is.
Following the description made by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in 1871, street gangs meet the conditions of what constitutes a gang. They have a differentiated knowledge (street knowledge), beliefs (be loyal to the gang), art (graffiti and tattoos), morals, law (21 rules of the bloods), customs (initiation procedures)… Moreover, they have hierarchies in which members are seen as soldiers who kill each other until there is a peace treaty (Watts Truce), similar to the culture of war. Additionally, each street gang possesses a distinctive language (slang) that allows communication between in-group members, and body gestures that are only understood by fellow members. Surprisingly, these body gestures and the sign-language present in street gangs are complexly coded and are hard to decipher by non-members of each gang. However, Police Departments offer several compilations containing the most common body-gestures done by street gangs.
Finally, this paper serves as a motivator for further studies since the culture present in these subcultural groups has not been studied in depth yet from a sociolinguistic point of view.