Dr. Jarrod Sadulski


By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

Graffiti on public property is a problem that plagues many communities across the United States. It’s damaging because it makes that community appear to be run down, may include threatening images and may be intentionally offensive to certain groups of people.

Graffiti on public property is a form of civil defiance and in most places in the United States, its use is a crime. For law enforcement, the problem is especially frustrating. It increases fear for public safety, lowers property values and often represents gang activity in the community.

Recognizing Gang Graffiti

Police officers should develop the ability to recognize the differences in graffiti and who is responsible for it. From my experience as a police officer who frequently investigated gangs, I found that there are typically two different groups responsible for graffiti.

One group that often creates graffiti are gangs. Gangs use graffiti to send messages to the community and to threaten law enforcement, community residents, and rival gangs.

Gangs use graffiti to mark their turf, announce alliances with other local gangs and profess the gang’s status in the community. For law enforcement, recognizing graffiti associated with a particular gang occurs through understanding the common gang signs and numbers associated with specific gangs such as the Crips and the Bloods.

For example, the Bloods commonly use the number “5,” and their color is red. Other common colors associated with Bloods include green, black, brown, beige or orange.

The Crips use the color blue, and their number is “6.” If you see a “6” with an arrow through it, it reflects disrespect toward the Crips and may result in tension between rival gangs.

It is common for one gang to go into a rival gang’s territory and use graffiti to disrespect and challenge a rival gang. Upon seeing such graffiti, police officers should intervene when possible to mitigate the risk of community violence. Officers should consider gang graffiti as the “newspaper of the street” in terms of gang activity and as a warning of a gang’s future intentions.

Related link: Cracking Down on the MS-13 Gang, Threat to the Homeland

Tagger Graffiti

The second group typically responsible for graffiti is taggers, who are found in many American communities. Taggers use graffiti to be recognized for what they consider their art and often compete with one another without any threat of violence.

Taggers gain notoriety by tagging high-risk places such as bridges, billboards, and other places where they can get caught or get hurt by accessing the area. Taggers are essentially vandals, and their graffiti has the same adverse impact on communities as gang graffiti.

Consequently, law enforcement should be very proactive in eliminating this form of graffiti as well. From my experience in conducting investigations into taggers, I found that taggers typically use the same symbol in all of their tags.

The use of a recognizable symbol is especially helpful once a suspect is identified, because multiple incidents of graffiti in different parts of the community can then be linked to the same suspect. This information is useful in criminal investigations.

Taggers often practice a tag privately in a notebook or on various surfaces in their homes or yards before vandalizing public property. The typical tagger is a teenager or an adult in their early 20s.

Law Enforcement Officers and Community Leaders Should Be Proactive about Graffiti

Law enforcement and community leaders need to take a proactive approach to preventing and investigating graffiti. Its use sends the message that community order cannot be maintained, which has a major impact on community wellness.

Parents have a critical role in speaking with their children about the disrespect associated with tagging. Home and business owners can also take various steps to reduce the risk of graffiti, such as keeping their property well-lit at night, using security cameras, and reporting to police any suspicious behavior that someone may be about to tag their property.