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.
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.