Gang subculture is rooted in American mainstream culture, sharing some of its beliefs and behaviors. However, gang subculture also possesses unique and often antisocial features, setting it apart in many ways. Along with identity and a sense of belonging, gang subculture provides adherents with a system of rituals, language, signs, colors, clothing, tattoos, graffiti, and code of conduct. Its alternative morality offers rules for behavior and severe consequences for failure to abide by the rules. It is critical to note that this system of values and behaviors is not random; its uniformity promotes loyalty and group cohesion, differentiating its membership from those who are “not gangster.” While there are variations among racial and ethnic groups, for the most part gang expectations, core values, and behaviors are fairly consistent. Primary among these is the pursuit of respect. Additionally, for active gang members, whether male or female, commitment and loyalty to the gang is paramount.
The concept of the gang subculture can be traced to the early 1900s and the seminal work of the Chicago School, shorthand for researchers who worked at the University of Chicago Sociology Department from 1915 onwards. Foreshadowing modern global positioning systems (GPS) mapping, these researchers uncovered a connection between high rates of crime and communities exhibiting multiple social problems. This early “mapping” of social dysfunction gave rise to the innovative notion that crime could be linked to specific community factors including family dysfunction, poverty, inadequate housing, immigrant adjustment, high unemployment, and underperforming schools. These factors reinforced community and social instability brought on by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. The resulting “social disorganization” led to the rise of subcultures, including the gang subculture that usurped traditional cultural practices. Frederic Thrasher’s groundbreaking research described how gangs evolved from conditions of poverty, lack of resources, and community instability. Youth growing up in such disorganized communities proved to be at high risk of socialization into the gang subculture.
For several decades, empirical research has supported both the overall validity of social disorganization theory and its usefulness when applied to the problem of gangs. At the same time, researchers outside the Chicago School began examining how subcultures evolve. In particular, anthropologists focused on the dynamics of the subculture, describing it as any group whose members maintain values and exhibit behaviors that differentiate them from the larger culture in which they exist. Subcultures sometimes develop rapidly, as a collective response to social events; at other times they grow cross-generationally, over time. Building on this idea, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin theorized that gang subcultures arose as youth experienced multiple obstacles to opportunities and achievement. In turn, James Diego Vigil examined Mexican American cholo subculture and its relationship to gang subculture. Cholo subculture was viewed as an understandable response to feelings of inferiority and socioeconomic pressures experienced by marginalized Mexican American youth, who believed that mainstream success was inaccessible. The combination of chronic poverty and restricted social mobility was a precursor to development of and involvement in gang subculture.
Together these theoretical approaches advanced the idea that gang subculture exists and thrives through a complex interaction between individual traits, needs, personality, and the surrounding behavioral environment. As part of this interaction, gang subculture is particularly attractive to adolescents, providing youth with a sense of identity along with rules and rituals to organize the world. This enables youth to experience social engagement and devotion to a cause larger than one’s self.
The gang subculture is antiauthority and oppositional in myriad ways. Sexuality is flaunted, although safe sex practices are devalued. Education is disparaged in a silent conspiracy between schools enacting “school push-out” through “opportunity transfers” and youth no longer engaged in attending classes. The other signposts of rebellion all appear: dress, music, language, drugs and alcohol, crime, and violence.
Gang Subculture and Mainstream Culture
As gangs proliferated, so did the gang subculture. This growth can be tied to the marked increase in gang activity and violence throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which gang scholar and researcher James Howell has attributed to several factors. First, as federal legislation fostered an increase in Latin American immigration, these groups encountered problems with assimilation and social disorganization, rendering their youth susceptible to gang influences, ultimately enlarging gang membership. As their numbers increased, disparate neighborhood sets united, with both African American and Hispanic gangs expanding into street alliances or “nations.” At the same time, law enforcement attempted to reduce gang activity in urban centers such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago, enabling gang alliances to further expand as membership migrated to less urban settings from Fairfax, Virginia, to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Additionally, street-level drug use and sales increased, with crack cocaine fueling individual dysfunction and community disorganization. Middle-class families moved to city suburbs and exurbs, further reducing financial and community resources. As money for social programs diminished, funding for law enforcement increased— with a resulting emphasis on suppression and deemphasis of prevention and intervention.
Alongside these developments, the relationship between gang subculture and the media deepened significantly. With the 1980s emergence of “gangsta rap” and the elevation of rap music artists, several who claimed gang association, gang subculture strongly impacted mainstream culture. Past portrayal of gangs in films and on television had been largely antiseptic, with law enforcement prevailing over gangs. But by the late 1980s, popular imagery was profoundly altered. Language was no longer bound by mainstream conventions, with the profanity of rap music rendering it unacceptable for radio airplay.
In lyrics and street poetry, the most commonly used noun was “nigga”; the police were the object of death threats; women (aside from mothers) were denigrated as sex objects: “nigga hoes and freaky bitches”; and life was seen as a dangerous, short-term “game.” The gangsta rapper embodied the gang subculture—profane, cynical and antisocial—while rap music and gangster videos all glorified the extremes in violence, sadism and cruelty. Gangster rap—whether black or brown— maintained an antisocial tone, stirring class, race, and gender hatred. And it was wildly successful, particularly among white, middle-class youth. However, its most enduring audience was and continues to be composed of marginalized youth for whom rap represents a system of transmitting values and behaviors applicable to the environments in which they live.
Over the past two decades, clothing has transformed from an exhibition of gang rebellion to a style heralded in mainstream photo shoots, with everything from silver chains to pants worn low on the hips co-opted by fashion enthusiasts. Nevertheless, despite popular acceptance, within gang subculture an approved range of gang clothing and appearance still exists. A shaved head exhibits menace and is used to display gang tattoos. Clothing is carefully starched and ironed, shirts worn untucked over baggy pants, imitating prison issue attire while hiding weapons. The manufacturer and brand of shoes have particular significance for gangs as do the size and design of personal jewelry.
Colors compose a staple of gang subculture; different gangs wear specific colors to both identify members and enemies and to signal association to one another. They may be subtly displayed on shoelaces or overtly displayed on hats, shoes, shirts, and bandanas, all in one representative color. In certain cases, gang members will even wear colored ballpoint pens clipped to shirt pockets to “represent.”
Alongside “gangster” clothing, tattoos are considered mainstream, displayed by celebrities, college undergraduates, and even Olympic athletes. Nevertheless, tattoos have always indicated loyalty and commitment to the gang, serving as a source of identification, signaling set membership and belief in “la vida loca.” Easiest to interpret are tattoos featuring gang names, initials, logos, or numbers: for example, the number 13 indicates loyalty to the Mexican Mafia while the number 18 signifies membership in the large Hispanic gang, 18th Street. However, tattoos also depict changed life events: teardrops indicate murders committed or deaths experienced.
Along with tattoos, graffiti plays an active role in gang subculture and is distinct from tagging. Increasingly visible in urban settings, tagging represents either self-expression or vandalism at an individual or small-group level. Most tagging “gangs” are rarely associated with street gangs, who regard them as a nuisance. Unlike tagging, gang graffiti is considered sacred, making use of specific styles and sophisticated design, often mimicked by popular “street” artists. Similar to tattoos, gang graffiti may prominently feature numbers—English, Spanish, and even Roman numerals, or numbers and words together in large block or gothic-style lettering.
Gang graffiti is commonly used to announce gang presence, to mark territory or turf, and to honor individuals, mainly deceased. Housing developments and gang-impacted areas often feature colorful murals accompanied by graffiti memorializing fallen homies. Graffiti is often quite specific, describing cliques or subsets of established gangs, distinguishing male and female gangs, and using Spanish to meld ethnic and gang subculture. It also expresses ongoing disrespect, as exemplified by the Bloods replacing any Cs with Bs in their graffiti as part of their lengthy rivalry with the Crips. However, graffiti has functions beyond identity and territory, providing a “real-time” record of gang conflict, a communication system which Professor Al Valdez accurately labeled “gangland’s newspaper.” It offers constant updates regarding gang boundaries, membership, alliances, and conflicts for other gangs to read and understand. As a warning sign, gang appearances in rival territory, crossing out graffiti of the home gang, often precede conflict. These “announcements” frequently attract the attention of law enforcement as an indicator of probable violence.
There are few formal rituals associated with gang subculture. Instead most ritual practices tend to be ad hoc and associated with specific gangs. Still, there are rites of passage recognized by gang subculture. Most common is the initiation ritual of being “jumped in” to gang membership, which involves being beaten by multiple gang members. However, most youth are slowly socialized into gang membership, with the initiation ritual marking the point at which they are considered full members. The ritual of individuals being jumped-out or leaving the gang is much less prevalent than thought. Probably, the most common ongoing ritual associated with gang subculture is the use of gang signs.
Gang subculture is confirmed through the ritual display of hand signs. These signs portray allegiance to the gang and a specific set or clique along with demonstrating disrespect for enemy, rival gangs. Gang hand signs represent incendiary nonverbal behavior, particularly when a hand sign is demonstrated or “thrown” at a rival gang member. This behavioral ritual, also referred to as “set tripping,” provokes conflict and violence.
Gang Morality, Ethics, and Control
Gang subculture offers both structure and socialization in the absence of family or community. Many parents are not totally withdrawn from family life, instead composing the working poor, holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet, leaving children unsupervised. Other parents’ absence is due to substance abuse, mental illness, and criminal activity. Gang-involved youth frequently, but not exclusively, come from families whose encounters with the criminal justice system have been highly negative. Within these families, there are often absent fathers, mothers who are victims of partner violence, and children who are abused; violence is the sole “problem-solving strategy.” In the worst circumstances, both parents are absent, leaving children to either fend for themselves—learning the lessons of survival or confronting the vicissitudes of the child welfare system. Gang subculture fills this void of family structure with a formal code of values and conduct, which includes rules and consequences derived from the gang ideology. Additionally, gang subculture offers a pathway toward the development of masculinity.
Gang core values serve as guides to appropriate behavior and govern the proper conduct of self in relation to others. They are transmitted by older guides, “big homies,” to developing gang members, “little homies,” through an oral tradition intrinsic to each gang. Gang members learn to employ violence strategically, not indiscriminately, through information handed down regarding how to respond to threats and how to engage or avoid aggressive action. Additionally these values encompass both sanctioned and proscribed behaviors, from ritual displays and respect for gang colors, fighting and loyalty, business practices, and strategic protection. Approved behavior crosses racial and ethnic lines: idealization of mothers, overall denigration of nonfamilial women, homophobia, protection of children, and unconditional commitment. The consequences for engaging in prohibited behaviors, particularly snitching, may be violent— including beatings, having one’s tongue cut out, and even murder.
The core values of gang subculture promote solidarity and ensure survival of the gang, while addressing specific needs of gang members. Exploring these core values, criminal justice scholar Robert Duran outlined four gang ideals: (1) displaying loyalty strengthens gang attachments, while reinforcing commitments and increasing internal cohesion in response to external pressures; (2) responding courageously to external threats requires individuals to demonstrate their toughness and courage, earning respect from others. Incarceration is also valued, signifying that an individual has behaved with courage and honor; (3) promoting and defending gang status involves daily reinforcement and glorification of the gang name through symbols such as tattoos, graffiti, and nicknames. Because visible signs of gang membership draw the attention of law enforcement, established gangs often employ subtler forms of representation; and (4) maintaining a stoic attitude toward gang life is epitomized by the gang truism, “Smile now, cry later.” Gang subculture requires members to maintain an appearance of impassiveness and emotional indifference.
However, paramount among all these values is respect. Respect cannot be conferred but must be earned and then maintained through the demonstration of courage and loyalty. Gang members earn respect by appearing brave and unflinching in the face of danger and violence; they are regarded with a combination of awe and esteem.
Within the gang subculture, respect is viewed as hard to earn but easy to lose. The gang member who commands respect must remain wary of efforts to disrespect or “diss” his reputation. These efforts differ from physical danger and involve psychological aggression ranging from as seemingly superficial an offense as staring or mad-dogging another for too long, approaching one’s woman, or throwing gang signs in the presence of rivals. Despite the shallow character of the effort to “diss,” the response may be violent. Children raised within families belonging to the gang subculture learn early on that humility is an undesirable trait; they are told to fight back when disrespected. Respect is also seen as a limited commodity and individuals within the gang subculture compete for it aggressively. Because youth do not possess alternative sources of esteem or validation, gang status often becomes the only source of respect available. In the most extreme cases, young gang members will die in order to preserve respect.
Respect is related to honor, a nebulous value that incorporates ancestral and cultural history. Youth believe they enter gang life with a sense of honor they must uphold. Most significant, it is not simply individual honor that is at stake but the honor of their family as well. This belief has recently expanded to instances of gang retaliation against domestic violence; when a sister or daughter is a victim of domestic violence, honor requires gang family members to retaliate. Honor is strongly related to disrespect; the violation of gang honor demands a response.
Within the gang, the bonds of male attachment and masculinity are highly valued but rigidly defined. Men are required to be strong, emotionally inexpressive, sexual, and in control of the environment. Strength is measured by the ability to “put in work” upholding gang reputation and territory, hurting and in some cases killing enemies, and earning revenue for the gang, while remaining calm under pressure.
Earning respect validates manhood. Within gang subculture, masculinity and respect are interdependent, embodied by appearing in control, in charge of one’s fate and quite possibly the fate of others. As part of masculinity, gang members share an ideology of brotherhood, relating to one another as brothers or “homies.” However, brotherhood has its limits: in gang subculture, there is rampant homophobia. Individuals who are “down for” or loyal to the gang must carefully avoid displaying any behaviors associated with gay men. Interestingly, this value does not extend to lesbians who, over the past two decades, have acquired increasing influence within gang subculture.
Hedonism constitutes another core gang value, often channeled through sexual promiscuity and drug use. But, while recreational drug use and partying strengthens social cohesiveness, addiction does not and is usually limited to sub cliques of gangs. Individuals who exhibit serious drug dependence, such as meth addiction, are considered unreliable and dangerous to the gang. Similarly, individuals who act strategically crazy are viewed as embodying core gang values; it is appropriate to demonstrate rage and violent behavior when disrespected. However, being consistently crazy, mentally ill, or excessively violent in response to minor conflict are all viewed negatively. These individuals are ultimately excluded from gang activity as part of the selective exclusion of weak individuals who might endanger the gang.
Sociologist Elijah Anderson posits that the code of conduct and its enforcement represent a subcultural “street justice” alternative. The practice of street justice demonstrates the generalized mistrust of police and the criminal justice system, which gang members believe is rigged against them. Gang members insist they would rather police themselves than rely on law enforcement. Understanding the gang subculture is ultimately critical to creating and sustaining any gang reduction and youth development activity. Both causes and control of gang activity and violence are ultimately tied to such knowledge.
- Duran, Robert J. Gang Life in Two Cities: An Insider’s View. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
- Howell, John. Gangs in America’s Communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage , 2011.
- Leap, Jorja. Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love and Redemption. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012.
- Moore, Joan and James Vigil. “Chicano Gangs: Group Norms and Individual Factors Related to Adult Criminality.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies, v.18/2 (1987).
- Venkatesh, Sudhir. Gang Leader for a Day. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
- Vigil, J. D. Barrio Gangs: Street Life and Identity in Southern California. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.