This web site is maintained by Christopher Young, who used to investigate graffiti for the Seattle Police Department. All words here are his own and do not represent the Seattle Police Department. Graffipedia is intended as a training aid for other graffiti investigators. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

Graffipedia will help you understand the:

Confronting Graffiti Myths

Myth #1 is that all graffiti it is all gang related. It is true that in some high crime areas a significant amount does involve criminal street gangs. However, in Seattle, only 1% of graffiti is gang-related.

Myth #2 is that graffiti is just art. Graffiti offenders are primarily motivated by the adrenaline rush of doing something illegal. You need only to read their websites, watch their videos on YouTube and talk to them to see that artistic expression is an afterthought at best. They consider it an extreme sport like bungee jumping. They climb tall buildings and bridges. It is not uncommon for them to fall to their death. They are also driven by attention seeking behavior. The vast amount of graffiti displayed online is there to gain the offender fame within the subculture.

Myth #3 is that just a bunch of kids who need an outlet for self expression. Most graffiti is done by adults. In 2012 there were 181 identified graffiti suspects in Seattle. 129 of them —71%--were adults. The average age of the graffiti offender in 2012 was 23.

Myth #4 is that graffiti doesn't hurt anyone. The economic loss caused by graffiti in the United States is enormous. I have seen estimates as high as $9 billion spent per year on the removal of graffiti. In 2009 Seattle spent $1.8 million removing graffiti from City property. This does not count private property, school property, state highways, or transit property. Graffiti also creates the perception that an area is not safe. People are not going to want to visit your city and spend money there if it is covered in graffiti. I have not seen one incident of violence directly associated with graffiti during my tenure. However, Seattle has a low violent crime rate for a big city. My colleagues in high crime cities have many examples of "tag banging" and general murder and mayhem by graffiti vandals.

Myth #5: If you give them a legal place to paint they will stop doing it illegally. Vandals admit they “tag their way and tag their way out” of legal spots. Legal spots do not satisfy the need for thrill-seeking behavior. Legal spots do not provide street cred.

Types of Graffiti

Tagger graffiti is the most common type throughout the world. It is usually a stylized abstract term that was placed solely for the edification of the vandal. Here is a tag that says VENUE. A "tagger" is not someone who just randomly decided to be a vandal. He or she is a member of a subculture that takes graffiti vandalism very seriously. The motive is to use vandalism as a means to gain respect in the tagger community and obtain an adrenaline rush by doing something illegal and perhaps dangerous.

Gang graffiti tends to be less stylized than tagger graffiti to the point that it is easily legible. If you have gang graffiti in your community you do not have a graffiti problem, you have a gang problem. The graffiti is a symptom of a greater problem and you must work closely with your gang investigators. The motive of gang graffiti is to support the core mission of a criminal street gang: to gain money, power, and acceptance within the gang by using violence and intimidation.

Common gang graffiti indicators

  • The number 13 is indicative of Hispanic gang graffiti. M is the 13th letter of the alphabet and references Mexican Mafia.

  • The number 206 (or any area code) is sometimes used by gangsters.

  • Any mention of the prominent Hispanic Gangs: MS13(Mara Salvatrucha El Salvadoran), Nortenos (Northern Mexican) or Surenos (Southern Mexican)

  • Any mention of the four most prevalent African-American gangs--Crips, Bloods, Hoovers or BGD (Black Gangster Disciples).

Hate graffiti is fortunately rare, but very disturbing when it occurs. In my experience, hate graffiti has often turned out to be done by young teenage boys. In those cases they were no indication that they held extremist views. They were dysfunctional children engaging in highly offensive behavior as a way to get attention. The motive of true hate graffiti is to create fear within a certain community the vandal does not like.

Communicative graffiti is vandalism with a message, usually political. The following tag is popular with anarchists. The motive could be as varied as the message.

Artistic graffiti is vandalism that does not fit into any of the above categories. Generally it would be a nonverbal drawing. I consider legal murals to be "street art" not graffiti. Similar to street art, the motive for artistic graffiti is to create art for the edification of the artist and the viewer, but the artist has not obtained permission.

The issue of artistic graffiti is complicated because there is tagger graffiti that resembles artistic graffiti. Some graffiti taggers use a drawing in conjunction with, or instead of, a conventional tag with characters. If the person is drawing the same thing repeatedly this not artistic graffiti because the person's primary motive is to gain fame in the tagger subculture, not to create art.

I know the following taggers who like to draw instead of, or in addition to, their tag:

BELUGA draws a picture of a whale

ERGE draws a monster