What are Gang Signs?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Gang signs are hand or body gestures used to identify fellow or rival gang members. They are gang-specific, and often include the display of numbers or letters. Gang signs can also work similarly to sign language, with certain gestures denoting intention or action.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Typically, gang signs show allegiance or alliance with a particular gang. “Stacking” a gang sign in public can help identify potential allies or foes. It can also be a threatening gesture or attempt at toughness, to frighten rivals or non-gang passerby. This can lead to confusion, as many gang signs are similar to non-gang related gestures, and flashing the wrong sign can lead to dangerous confrontations.

The history of gang signs is quite ancient, and probably develops out of early secret societies and hidden groups. Identifying signs that are unobtrusive and known to have meaning only to initiates have been used quite frequently throughout history. The gesture may not need to be a specific sign; secret handshakes and passwords can also be used to mark out friends in dangerous situations, and are used by some gangs to day. In the Book of Judges of the Christian Bible, the Gileadites are able to distinguish friends from enemies after a huge battle by asking them to speak a password that their foes cannot pronounce correctly: shibboleth. The term has come to mean a password or identifying feature; gang signs are essentially a shibboleth.

Some signs can indicate intention or convey other information. If passing through a gang area, some gangs have special signs to explain that they are on gang business or simply passing through. Between gangs with uneasy relationships, a sign for a peaceful passing may prevent a dangerous and even violent meeting. On the other hand, if rival gang members choose to ignore the sign, it can act as provocation. Signs can also tell the outcome of gang business such as drug deals or fights, but can also be used to indicate the outcome of any effort.

Gang signs do not necessarily need to be affiliated with street gangs or illegal behavior. Societies of all kinds may have gestures or physical rituals that mark them out to one another. A secret or repeated handshake between friends or an oft-repeated call-and-response can act as an identifying feature, just as a gang sign can. The purpose of gang signals is to distinguish the initiate from the rest of the world; it is a sign of kinship in uncertain or unwelcome turf.

While some choose to be in gangs filled with violence and illegality, others choose to join socially acceptable “gangs,” like sports teams, book clubs, or even groups of long-term friends. Identifying gestures are not necessarily bad, and certainly not only associated with a criminal lifestyle. However, if you live in an area with a serious gang problem, it may be wise to look at police information on the local gangs and even try to look up their specific signs. Understanding what you are seeing pass between local gang members may be beneficial to you in terms of safety, and may prevent you from accidentally throwing up the wrong message.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments



Isn't that what gangs want to do: squelch other gangs? I think that rather than reacting strongly (and risking forming our own gang), we should learn to have a heart of compassion for gang members and people involved in organized crime. They need to be reeducated.


I often see strange lettered graffiti on local power boxes and other public sites. These speak one thing to me: "bad part of town." Signs like these can decrease home value and make people loath to move to a certain part of town. They usually signify a territorial marking of some sort. Eyesores like these should be dealt with promptly, but it is even more important that the gangs themselves are squelched.



Not only flags, but religious symbols, could be seen as gang signs. Family crests and certain ways of greeting could also be seen in this way. The real question is, what constitutes a negative sign? We all use signs, so it's obviously not an inherently bad thing, but can be very powerful. The sign of the cross is, by far, the most powerful and common sign in the world.


Gang signs are only looked down on because they are at the "bottom rung" of society and potentially violent. Signs on a larger scale, often known as "flags" are even more dangerous, but allegiance to these signs is viewed with respect. Somehow we learn from a young age that we must ally our minds with these great signs.

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