The writing on the wall

A graffiti expert breaks down the differences between gang tags and street art.
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Photograph: Codo
By Gretchen Kalwinski |
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Is that scrawled crown on your neighbor’s garage a gang-related tag (hint: It is) or just a street artist leaving his mark? “Codo,” a well-known street artist and graffiti photographer who’s spent the past 14 years living in and shooting inner-city Chicago neighborhoods, helped us crack the code.

Street art, near Metra tracks in Brighton Park

Instead of quickly scrawled letters and symbols, this has “colorful letters with more focus on words and typography; [this] points toward graffiti writers,” Codo says.

The words and phrases seem random because “most tags are writers’ [street] names or the names of their crews. Sometimes there are call-outs to their friends or girlfriends…. Graffiti writers will involve hand styles [how they write, connect and flow the letters together] that are not necessarily meant for the [general public] to understand or read.”

That the lettering is elaborate and involved climbing on train tracks suggests the work of graffiti writers, because “their work often involves locations with a certain amount of risk,” and “graffiti writing is also about the ability to write letters in new ways.”

Gang graffiti, garage in Pilsen

“Generally speaking,” Codo says, “if the graffiti is semilegible in terms of letters, mainly old English, most likely it’s gang graffiti.” Plus, known gang symbols such as the star and pitchfork are a “big giveaway” that this was done by a gang member claiming territory. “[Gang members] don’t care about colors used, just the message,” Codo says. “And pitchforks aren’t exactly happy-go-lucky symbols.

“The pitchfork is upright as a sign of strength and respect to the gang who put up the graffiti [Satan’s Disciples]. The star split in half and the upside-down flag with an R are disrespects aimed at the other gang [La Raza].”

This graffiti “is all about the group’s message. There is no mention of any individual,” Codo explains. “You will hardly ever see [individual] street names used for gang members.”

The lettering is slapdash, and there is no artistry or cleverness to the location where the graffiti is done, unlike street artists who tend to make a game of trying for unique spots to draw. “Gang graffiti is found in easy-to-get-to places, like the sides of buildings,” Codo says.

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