Faculty Advisor

Andrew Gardner

Area of Study

Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Publication Date

Summer 2021


This research creates an oral history of graffiti by assembling recollections from former graffiti artists that lived in East Los Angeles in the 1990’s to mid-2000’s, when they were affiliated with various Latino graffiti gangs. At this time, the urban environment of East LA was defined by the racial and ethnic segregation as well as hostilities along those same lines (Davis 1990). This hostility and subsequent territorialization was a remnant of the Los Angeles riots of 1992. Latino gang members were labeled as cholos in Los Angeles, although graffiti gangs rejected that moniker (they did at times have alliances with cholos, however). In that context, these marginalized communities began establishing territories and reconfiguring urban space in East Los Angeles. Gangs rose in prominence, and graffiti was a means of marking turf, territory, and community. The simple dichotomy between art and vandalism, therefore, inadequately captures the social realities of the graffiti writers in urban environments. The limits of these conceptual categories are especially evident in seemingly contradictory descriptions of graffiti as “nuisance street art,” “crimes of style” and “beautiful crimes.”. Both terms — art and vandalism — describe the same product of distinct but simultaneous social process (Ferrell 1993).Graffiti gangs were a new creation during this time, and while they were still sometimes connected to other gang activity, their identities were largely constructed by their autonomous tagging (the nickname for graffiting). When we classify graffiti only as vandalism, we dismiss the complexity of the multifaceted relationship between the walls, the urban landscape, ethics, and artistic expression in East Los Angeles. Graffiti is also an art form. It is connected to the social movements of America’s lower classes and their attempts to have a voice, reclaim public space, and denounce property and ownership. In this sense it has the unique duality of being both an art and a crime. At the same time, it has also been used to convey threats of violence, mark urban territory, and signal to others/communicate messages. For East LA graffiti gangsters of the 90s and 2000s graffiti was a pledge of allegiance to their territory and the legacy of their community they remember. This is the focus of my research.




University of Puget Sound