A rudimentary game of chess

by Gautam Raja

We walk the dog in the morning in small natural area near our home called the Santa Anita Wash. To get to it, we go through a narrow underpass. This little concrete channel is a scene for a rudimentary game of chess that plays out nearly every day across the city of Los Angeles.

Every so often, spray-painted symbols and words appear on its walls, often with an half-full aerosol can left on the ground nearby. They are mostly indecipherable, though sometimes we can make out names and letters. A few days later, it’s all painted over in squares of grey or beige paint—the LA County graffiti removal squad has come through on their thankless rounds.

Many of these markings are a simple form of graffiti known as tagging. Taggers aim to spray their names or symbols in as many places as possible, and get respect in the community for especially hard-to-reach areas. You often see tags high above the freeways, where someone needs to have climbed out of a walkway, and hung 50 feet above the traffic to make their mark.

Some of this writing on the wall is more sinister. Gang graffiti marks territory, issues threats, and if the city doesn’t paint over it, the neighbourhood can change, quickly. Here, the broken windows theory plays out in squiggles on walls, signs, and even the tarmac on roads and bike tracks. The limits of policing, and the watchfullness of the neighbourhood are tested with the rattle and hiss of aerosol cans. (This is why, when you go to Home Depot or Walmart, the spray paint cans are locked behind a cage. You need assistance to buy one.)

There are sections of the bike track where I’ve watched this game played out over years. In South and East Los Angeles, where gangs are common, moves happen over hours. In a video on the Los Angeles Times website, a member of a removal crew describes how they painted over a large area only to have it tagged 10 minutes later. The crew waited an hour, and painted over the tags again. The Los Angeles County takes the graffiti problem so seriously that they operate a 24-hour hotline with live operators. Graffiti costs the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

While gang graffiti is meant to be read, it’s hard to decipher without the code. The number ’13’ for example, whether in Arabic or Roman numerals, suggest links to the Mexican mafia. The letter ‘C’ might represent the Crips, which, along with its rivals, the Bloods, is one of LA’s older gangs. A crossed-out gang letter with a K next to it, is a kill warning. And if you see the letters ‘MS’, you might be in the territory of MS-13, one of the most feared and ruthless gangs to originate in Los Angeles.

With hip-hop culture prevalent around the world, it’s common for people to “throw up” gang signs for laughs. Perhaps the best known one is to splay the index and pinky, with the middle and ring fingers crossed, to make the ‘W’ for Westside. Los Angeles residents often have to warn international visitors to never goof around with hand signs. On the streets of LA, these aren’t mere symbolic gestures. They can cause serious offence at best, and depending on where you are, may get you killed.

Right now, the taggers rule our underpass, and the timer is running for the city’s turn with paint or pressure washer to call ‘check’, and establish shaky authority once more.

First published in Gulf News, December 6, 2016