Gang tags in Saskatoon: Marking territory, settling scores and public intimidation
Tags a visual marker for gang presence across Saskatoon
The numbers and letters jump off the garage door in an explosion of competing colours and shapes.
The double garage is in an alley off 20th Street W. near St. Paul's Hospital in Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood, a high traffic t-junction in the heart of gang country.
To a casual observer, the markings on the garage likely mean little more than there is someone in the neighbourhood with an artistic bent and a can of spray paint.
Sometimes it is no more than that — but for police, gang members and academics, these symbols, typically referred to as tags, can offer a rich vein of information on gang activity in a neighbourhood.
"What the tags do is it's a visual representation of what's happening," said Robert Henry, an assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Saskatchewan.
"It allows me to understand who's who, and what's going on within these neighbourhoods."
Members of the Saskatoon Police Service also pay attention to the tags.
There's no area within the city that isn't touched by gang activity.- Sgt. Tony Landry
"I would say that we give some weight to it because it is telling as to what is taking place on the streets," said Sgt. Tony Landry, with the Gangs and Guns Unit.
Landry says the tags can be an indicator of gang movement and expansion. They're a sobering signal that gangs are not restricted to core neighbourhoods.
"There's no area within the city that isn't touched by gang activity," he said.
CBC met with Robert Henry and two members of Str8-Up, the gang diversion group in Saskatoon, to talk gang tags.
Henry and the former gang members offered a commentary on photos of gang tags taken from houses, garages, dumpsters and utility boxes around Pleasant Hill. The photos were taken there because of the volume and variety of tags.
One of the common elements in the tags is how stylized numbers and letters are mixed together. Henry said this is not accidental.
Indigenous street gangs in Saskatoon adopted a style first used by Latino street gangs in California.
"The usage of numbers and the linking of specific letters together in order to identify a specific brand," Henry said. "And that's how I look at tags. It's a brand."
The former gang members did not want to be named because they still work with active members. They provided specific examples to underscore Henry's analysis.
For instance, the letters "I" and "P" combined into a single symbol signifies Indian Posse. Similarly, the numerals 9 and 16 are the same brand, as they correspond to the letters' positions in the alphabet.
Combine the letters "T" and "S" into a single symbol and it becomes Terror Squad. So do the linked numerals, 19 and 20.
The colours of the tags are also significant, because they correspond to a given gang's colours.
"Colours, what people are wearing and the flags they're carrying, and tags are one and the same," said Robert Henry.
The tags mark a gang's territory and a send a message to rival gangs about who is controlling a specific area. Henry said that many non-gang members recognize the significance of tags, colours and locations.
"A lot of youth are mislabelled as gang members because they can understand these signs. The truth is, they have to understand these signs if they want to make it through their neighbourhood safely," he said.
"These tags are put up in specific ways to show control of a neighbourhood, or to show whose colours or who is representing this neighbourhood at this time."
The Str8-Up members say it's significant when one gang's tag is overwritten by another symbol. This is a blatant sign of disrespect and an indicator that two gangs are at odds with each other, or that one gang is claiming another gang's territory.
But Henry and the former gang members say, in the end, there are caveats to these analyses: it is not an exact science.
While colour is significant, some tags painted a certain colour could mean nothing more than that was the available paint colour that week.
Or, someone not connected to a gang showing bravado by association.
Tags seen through a police lens
Sgt. Tony Landry said police consider a number of variables when deciding how much investigative weight to give gang tags in the community.
The tags are of greater concern, for instance, when they appear in parts of the city where gangs are typically not associated. They could signal a gang moving into new territory.
"So we have people that move into particular areas, rent a home and all of a sudden you have some gang activity that's taking place in that particular area," he said.
Landry says that has happened. He would not provide a recent example, but said "we have gang activity that's taking place throughout the whole city."
The veteran gang officer says that finding spaces with tags overwritten can offer insight into what's happening between gangs.
"You start to see that there's a little bit of a power struggle and disrespecting within the rival gangs and that's particularly interesting for our perspective," he said.
"If by chance we've seen two gangs that commonly have been in partnership, let's say, or not necessarily seen as rivals, then all of a sudden we're starting to see that that there's graffiti that's taking place from one particular gang disrespecting another particular gang. That's a little bit telling for law enforcement."
To paint over or not paint over
So what should a person do if they find a gang tag on their property?
Robert Henry and Sgt. Tony Landry are both on the same page here.
"Paint it over. Make it clear that is not a space where this is happening," said Henry.
Landry agrees, adding that police should also be called. The location can be logged, and police assess whether it's simple graffiti or part of a gang expansion.
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Both Landry and Henry say there is no reason for a member of the general public to believe they are being targeted because of a gang tag.
The city has a clear policy on graffiti and gang tags that applies to private and public spaces.
The fire department enforces a bylaw that demands graffiti and tags be painted over with 15 days of a complaint.
If it's still there, the fire department arranges to have it painted over at no cost to the property owner.