my thoughts

My Thoughts
On February 24, 2008

I just returned from a trip to Phoenix, Arizona and Sedona, Arizona. The landscape is beautiful, with stunning views of mountains, cactus, and open sky. While in Phoenix, I noticed more gang graffiti than when I visited a couple of years prior. On my drive up Route 17 to Sedona I noticed petroglyphs on the landscape and began to think about the connection between those ancestors who created the petroglyphs hundreds of years ago and the gang members who create their gang graffiti today.
First I must say I have a deep appreciation and reverence for the Nation American culture, lifestyle and spirituality-based way of life. I also have a great amount of empathy for the plight of the Native people and what the settlers, of what we call the United States of America, did to them and their land (and continue to do today). Also I have a great degree of empathy for the gang members I have worked with, their plight as people of a history they do not know, as their ancestors were stolen from other lands (Africa, Caribbean) and brought to a new land against their will. The Native American people and the African-American people do have this in common: their heritage was stolen, attempted to be erased, and their culture destroyed. For this I am deeply saddened.

Onto my thoughts: Petroglyphs are markings made hundreds of years ago by the people inhabiting the area. Here is a simple example:
photo by W. Hansen

Petroglyphs are either chiseled (with an antler or another tool) into stone, etched with cactus juice or pecked into the patina of the stone or sometimes painted, with blood or plant substances. Little is known about the true meaning of these markings, as the people who made them have vanished. These symbols date from 750-1450 AD. Many interpret the symbols to include migration, spirituality, maps, clans, the heavens, etc. Petroglyphs have a variety of meaning, depending on who made them, where they are located and the time they were created in. Sometimes we see lone petroglyphs and other times we see numerous glyphs on one site.

Gang Graffiti can also be etched, chiseled, painted, and scratched onto objects such as buildings and streets signs or the landscape (rocks, trees). Gang graffiti tells the reader who occupies the territory, who might live there, what gang (or clan) controls the area and may also give warnings to rivals. The same is true of the glyphs.

Here is an example of a clan petroglyph
photo by W Hansen

Some believe this shows movement of people or spirit from one location to another. Others believe it depicts that they endured some type of battle or catastrophe in the area this was glyphed in by invading sources.

Compare that to this depiction of a gang who live in an area and are being encroached on by invading gang members
photo by Lisa Taylor-Austin

This photo shows a Native, who has earned three feathers for his deeds done for his clan.
photo by W. Hansen

This photo shows a gang member who has earned a reputation for deeds done for his gang (clan).
photo by Lisa Taylor-Austin

This photo has over 70 different glyphs within it
photo by D. Austin

Compare that with this gang graffiti from Compton with numerous set, person and neighborhood references.
photo by Lisa Taylor-Austin

What is also interesting is that glyphs are made by abrading, pecking, and grinding. Gang graffiti is made by spray paint, etching, and scratching. Glyphs have different styles: Archaic (5000 BC – 300AD), Freemont style (500AD-1400AD), and Anasazi style (300AD-1300AD). I am sure there are more styles, these are just a few. Gang graffiti has Old English style, block letter style, and bubble style. The comparisons are many!

This is just a taste of examples. The complexity of the glyphs and the graffiti is enormous. I do not claim to be an expert in glyphs, but I do find the comparisons extremely interesting. Some may say there is no comparison as Natives were trying to tell their story and gang members are just “thugs who commit crimes.” When we take the judgment out of it, when we just look at it for what it is: both peoples are trying to tell their story to the next onlooker, from their own perspective. Both peoples have endured tragedies; both peoples have a story to tell. This is where my interest lies…in the story.

The Native peoples were/are very spiritual beings. It is engrained within the culture. What often is not known about gang members, is that many of them, are too, very spiritual beings. Often gang members will talk about God, Allah, The Creator. They have deep insight into the practices of world governments and often read hidden meanings into their motives. They view themselves as a society within the United States. Native peoples are sometimes living on soverign land, or reservations, seperate from the outside world. Their traditions are rich in the spiritual. Vision quests, soul journeys and sweat lodges are common. Native people have great pride in belonging to their culture. Gang members have great pride in belonging to their culture.

What many people do not realize is that gangs exist, not just to committ crimes, but they also serve a positive purpose for their community. Some gang members will only deal with people within their own community, chosing not to interact with the outside world. The same is true for Natives living on the reservation.

Both of these cutlures believe that the clan, the gang, is bigger than they are themselves. They have loyalty, affinity, love, respect for the greater whole. The comparisons between these cultures and the messages they leave for us are profound! Also both cultures seem to be understood by the outside world, only on a very superficial level. Native peoples and gang members are both viewed as “savage people” by a prejudiced society. Few take the time to really learn about the people and their ways. Stereotypes, racism and exploitation often affect both cultures. Both cultures seek to maintain themseleves and their families by the means made available to them.

I hope we take the time to learn, to question, to understand.


If you are ever in Sedona, Arizona, look up my friend Clay Miller