By JULIE MURPHY (news-journalonline.com)
February 18, 2010
There was a time when gangs boldly advertised who they were by wearing their allegiances permanently inked on their skin, but since tattoos have become mainstream it's more difficult for police to peg who's who.
Locally, law enforcement has stepped up its anti-gang efforts out of necessity. Florida has the fastest-growing gang population in the United States, said Department of Juvenile Justice Sgt. Chuck Long, northeast regional director of the Florida Gang Association.
"For the past five years we've aggressively tried to identify members in the area," Volusia County sheriff's Lt. Eric Dietrich said.
Volusia and Flagler counties have more hybrid gangs -- new youth gangs that may name themselves after notorious gangs but are in no way representative of the original -- than nationally affiliated gangs, he said.
The Bloods, Crips, Latin Kings, Sureños and Sur 13 are known to be in the area; some represent the original gangs and others are hybrids. Local officials refuse to reveal what gangs belong in which category.
"With tattoos, it's not like the olden days where you can use them to (identify a gang)," said Volusia County Sheriff's Office Investigator Kurt Schoeps, a member of the FBI's Safe Street Task Force.
Barbed wire, teardrops and chains all started with prison gangs, Ormond Beach tattoo artist Willie Harry said.
"You have to be careful about what you copy," he said. "You don't want to put somebody's club or gang tattoo on someone who's not a member."
But clearly it's happened or these designs wouldn't be common.
A teardrop by the eye can mean different things to different gangs. The wearer may have served time in prison, killed someone, lost a family member or fellow gang member, or may wear it as a show of allegiance to one of two alliances of many gangs, depending on whether it's worn on the right side of the face or the left, according to Robert Walker, a national authority on gang identification.
"We know people who aren't even gang members who have teardrops," Schoeps said.
Some gangs identify by area code -- 386 is one of them -- and teens with no gang affiliation will ask for the tattoo just because they've seen others with it.
Andrew "AJ" Johnson, owner of AJ's Nova One Tattoo and Body Piercing in Port Orange, sends "little junior gang bangers" packing if he gets wind they are trying to affiliate with any gang.
"I reserve the right to decline artwork just because it's a stupid idea," he said. "And at the top of the list would be to put a teardrop by your eye."
Neighboring tattoo artist Chris Mack won't do anything in the colors red or blue. Or anything else he deems to be gang-related.
"We have a lot of people who think they are Bloods," he said. "They try to be sneaky about it (by asking for a non-traditional gang tattoo) and say something like, 'I want a bulldog, but I want it red.' "
Despite the skin-art fad and the "impersonators" who are trying to create a tough image -- when it comes to gangs, there are no "wannabees," officials say.
"They're violent because they want to prove themselves," Schoeps said. "We would never use the word wannabee. Most are involved in drugs and burglaries, and where there's drugs, there's violence."