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Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos

Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos
Photo by Alice Dubot

It's a fine line between striking fear into the hearts of your enemies and signing a confession of criminal activity on your face. But in a fast-paced city like Houston with little patience for extensive introductions, some large Gothic letters on your forehead could save everybody a bit of time and trouble in a shootout and/or arrest.

"It signifies to the world that you're in a gang, but for law enforcement it's great," said Special Agent Troy Shalloup of the FBI, who has no complaints.

George Rhyne, Texas Anti-Gang Center administrator, said another reason many criminals are willing to risk their freedom for a flashy piece of ink is because they genuinely want to express devotion to the gang as an alternative family in lieu of actual loving families. Damn. That's real.

In any case, both men agreed that Houston's younger gang members tend to be more subtle about tattoos, or are moving away from them altogether. It's probably because they're more attuned to the self-incrimination pitfalls of social media promotion. No one thinks that drug store stickup selfie is cute, except for the cops. Same goes for that neck tat illustrating your entire rap sheet.

The Houston Police Department, DEA, FBI and local anti-gang agencies combined forces to create StopHoustonGangs.org, which aggregates gang identification signs. Here's a look at some of the region's most prominent street gangs and their favorite tattoo archetypes before they go out of style.

Tango Blast "Houstone"

Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos
Photo by Bob B. Brown

Homegrown Tango Blast consists of Hispanic men who originally came together for protection from long established prison gangs like Texas Syndicate and Texas Mexican Mafia. Houston, Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth all have their own branches with city-specific tattoos.

The hyper-local set, known as "Houstones," are definitely super proud of H-Town. They've appropriated the Astros star as one of their classic symbols, usually paired with local area codes 713 or 281.

Shalloup said Tango Blast is a growing irritant for law enforcement because of the sheer size of its membership and its innovative business model, which is basically do all of the crime, whatever. Houstones don't seem to have a particular pet project, nor do they have stringent rules for signing up. No constitution, no real bureaucracy. It's the Wild West gang of choice for young people thinking about giving that career criminal track a shot, but are unsure of commitment.

Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13

Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Despite being named for a plant - albeit a poisonous plant - MS-13 is one of the most violent gangs in Houston. Part of their notoriety stems from a public relations campaign that involves full facial tattoos. Common symbols are the "devil's pitch fork" hand sign and common activities include murder, mass murder and human smuggling.   18th Street Gang

Facial teardrop tattoos for the 18th Street gang signify number of murders.
Facial teardrop tattoos for the 18th Street gang signify number of murders.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Dies Y Ocho, 18th Street, is one of the most visible gangs in Texas. They're known to splash giant 18s, or when fancy strikes, "XVIII" across town and each other's necks. They're a transnational gang that specializes in human smuggling. Though prominent in Houston, 18th Street poses a serious threat to law enforcement in San Antonio.

Treetop Bloods

Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos
Screenshot from StopHoustonGangs.org

The local set of the nationally renowned Bloods, Houston's Treetop Bloods are likewise majority African American and identify with the color red. Other symbols include the acronym MOB, "member of Bloods" or "money over bitches," the five-point star, dog paws and the letters CK for "Crip Killer."

In post-Recession years as all formal and informal industries struggled to regain stability, black gangs like the Bloods have been known to collaborate with the Aryan Brotherhood when it came to moving drugs.

"The only color these gangs really know is green," Rhyne said. Too sweet.

Latin Kings

Know Your Neighborhood Gangbangers by Their Tattoos
Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The Latin Kings are one of the largest and most organized street gangs in the nation. It originated in Chicago and dominated the drug trade there until Chicago police cracked down in the 1990s and split the Latin Kings into micro sects. The Kings have since trickled south, with active Houston gang members repping black and gold and marking their territory with their classic five-point crown.

True to Wild West form, Texan Latin Kings don't hold too much respect for their Midwest old-timers though. They might consult Chicago transplants for advice here and there, but local Latin King sets do what they want.


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