Writing on the wall: In North Bend, growth of tagging, gang symbols is a troubling sign

On the stairwell by the North Bend Park and Ride, a tagger has struck, and pretty recently, too.

The nickname, sprayed in black, spiky letters, has resisted one clean-up attempt, leaving the graffiti still legible.

“I’m reading M-A-V-I-K: Mavik,” says North Bend Police Chief Mark Toner, driving around the city on a graffiti survey.

Most commuters who drive by this place, on West North Bend Way, won’t notice the foot-tall letters, which are hidden under the lip of the roadway, out of sight.

“You could drive by this thing all day long, and you’d never see it,” the police chief said.

Toner says graffiti is on a steady incline in North Bend. He’s not sure what’s pushing the increase, but he knows that locals need to start pushing back.

“If we allow some to go, it’s going to start to grow,” he says. “That’s what we’re seeing now.”

A hidden language

A few steps away, there’s another Mavik sign. But this time, someone else has come along and sprayed over his tag with “X3” in blue letters.

The new tag has connections with the Sureños, an Hispanic street gang.

“Mavik is saying ‘I’m cool,’ and X3 is saying, ‘No, you’re not,’” Toner says. “This is where it starts to become a battle of sorts.”

Turf war?

Black over blue, blue over black, splashes of green: There’s a turf fight for space and dominance on the alley wall.

“These guys mark their territory where nobody in the city even knows it’s going on,” Toner said.

Under the Bendigo bridge, he finds tags in many colors, including the usual taunts, more logos and lots of swears.

“One goes on top of the next.”

A nearby river monitoring station shows the progression.

“It starts with something simple, with chalk, a Sharpie,” Toner said. But along comes somebody else with a can of spray paint, marking their territory, and the battle begins.

All around downtown North Bend, the marks have been sprayed or scrawled on the back sides of utility boxes, street signs, fire hydrants, and the back walls of business. The graffiti won’t stand out from the background for most passersby. But police know it’s there, and so do other taggers.

“You can walk into any neighborhood and spot something,” Toner said. “I don’t know if these guys are just playing. It, honestly, could be kids having fun. But when they start building on each other…”

At the least, he says, it’s an eyesore. At worst, it’s a sign of real trouble to come.

Tagger crews

Detective Joe Gagliardi, with the County Sheriff’s Gang Unit, lives in the Valley and often takes photos of graffiti in North Bend and Snoqualmie, particularly if it’s gang related.

According to Gagliardi, North Bend has four different types of graffiti. Most is made by taggers—people who identify with a culture of street art, and believe that the world is their canvas. They adopt an individual ‘tag name’ and style of graffiti, and put their tag up in as many places as they can in order to gain recognition. They usually try to put it somewhere visible, and somewhere that is difficult to immediately remove. The only real concern about taggers, Gagliardi says, is the damage to property that they cause, which can top $10,000 in extreme cases.

Sometimes taggers start to have rivalries with each other. They’ll occasionally group together in a ‘tagger crew,’ and give themselves a common crew name. Most commonly, the name is three words long, and is most often tagged as a set of initials. For example, Gagliardi said, there is a tagger crew  named “ACK” in Burien. ACK is known to stand for “All City Kingz”, “Always Chillin’ & Killin’”and other combinations. Graffiti by a tagger crew will often be the tagger’s name and the crew’s initials; for example –“KERSE ACK”.

Gagliardi has noticed a few examples of tagger crew graffiti in North Bend, but he hasn’t been able to identify the meanings of the crew’s initials or its members.

Under state law, tagger crews are considered criminal street gangs. A number of tagger groups have evolved into criminal street gangs, and a number of established criminal street gangs have used members of tagger crews as a base from which to recruit new members.

“The primary criminal activity of a tagger crew is still graffiti; however, it doesn’t take much of a shove to get a group that is already engaged in one type of criminal activity to take on another type of activity,” Gagliardi told the Record.

Gang graffiti

Over the past year, several examples of gang graffiti have appeared in North Bend. While a number of these examples appear around the gas stations and restaurants at Exit 31, and can easily be dismissed as markings by gang members in transit, gang graffiti related to the Southside Locos (SSL) is different, Gagliardi said.

“At least two people have put up SSL tags in North Bend, and as SSL graffiti has been appearing over a long period of time, it’s safe to assume that those two members live in North Bend and aren’t just passing through,” Gagliardi said.

SSL affiliates with other gang identifiers which include the number 13 (written as “13”, “XIII”, “X3”, “Trece”), the words “SUR” or “Sureño”, and the color blue. The Southside Locos is the oldest Hispanic criminal street gang in King County, having formed in approximately 1982 .

While the gang is predominantly Hispanic, there are plenty of white and Asian members as well, Gagliardi said.

Rarer in the Valley is hate- or white-supremacist graffiti. Gagliardi has seen a few examples in past years: a couple of swastikas on a park bench at EJ Roberts Park in North Bend and “SS” bolts with “88” (representing the eighth letter of the alphabet, “H”—thus the phrase “Heil Hitler”) in a downtown alleyway.

Graffiti is a means of communication amongst gangs and gang members; they’ll use it to claim territory, issue challenges, and intimidate rival gang members and members of the community, according to Gagliardi.

A graffiti cross-out, as seen in McClellan Alley, is a sign of disrespect and a challenge to the crossed-out gang member.

“There are hundreds of examples of graffiti cross-outs directly leading to assaults, stabbings, shootings, and even homicides,” Gagliardi told the Record. “Tagger graffiti is also a cause for concern, as it doesn’t take much for a Tagger crew to evolve into a street gang.”

“Any gang-related graffiti is a definite cause for concern,” he said. “If people dismiss or ignore the problem, it will only get worse. Graffiti is always the first indicator that a neighborhood has gangs or gang activity. There have been many communities that once said, ‘gangs won’t happen here,’ only to find that they now have gangs.”

Gagliardi discourages the term ‘wanna-be.’

“Every gang member who ever existed throughout the history of criminal street gangs was once a ‘wanna-be,’” he said. “If you fail to address the root issues surrounding why someone is dressing and acting like a gang member, then that ‘wanna-be’ is more accurately described as a ‘gonna-be.’

Gagliardi said it’s important to report any graffiti to police, and paint over it as soon as possible.

“Pay attention to what’s going on in your community, and report any suspicious behavior,” Gagliardi said.

• Next week, read about ways that local police and communities are fighting back against graffiti and vandalism.

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