Police officials have confirmed an upward trend in gang tagging in Lakewood areas and specifically the Tillicum neighborhood in the past weeks, but the personal monikers don't hold the same foreshadowing as they did in previous years.
Lakewood Police Gang Investigator Sean Colon said Hispanic gangs are on the rise and that a small group is responsible for a rash of gang graffiti correlated with a Serrano set called Logan Heights Clicca based out of San Diego.
Gang tagging shows territory ownership and pride. Often times one signature is crossed out, inferring disrespect or current gang-related strife.
Their abbreviated signature has been accompanied with the Roman numeral X and 3, which stands for the 13th letter in the alphabet, M, referring to Mexico. These signatures have been stamped across private property, business buildings, parks and on public school grounds and have caused thousands of dollars in property damage. Local jurisdictions and community members and groups have had to remove the gang markings.
Colon said he and other members of the gang unit gathered enough intelligence to arrest one of the gang tagging suspects known as "Vago" about two weeks ago. Police are actively searching for another Hispanic gang member known as "Lil Silent."
"We're not overwhelmed with gang tagging but it's happening," Colon said.
Gang graffiti is spread out across Pierce County, but it has been higher concentrated in Tillicum — a Lakewood neighborhood — and Ruston Way in Tacoma. Dan Livingston, director of a youth community center in Tillicum called Youth For Christ, said it hasn't been this bad in a couple years.
"It kind of makes me angry," Livingston said. "We do a lot to display a different reputation for this community and focus on the positive and let people know things are different. It (gang graffiti) sends a message that nothing has changed, when it really has."
Tillicum is a poverty-stricken neighborhood. More than half of the area's population — an estimated 2,830 residents — live in poverty and nearly 80 percent of housing units are rentals. Few residents own their homes, which is associated with the area's property maintenance, upkeep issues and transient living, according to the Tillicum Neighborhood Plan.
Livingston's youths that stroll in after school feel safe at this center. An ethnically diverse crowd, he said the kids have family ties to gangs but they really don't see it play out. He said the Latino population in the community is growing.
"We try to make it a safe place," he said. "That activity is not permitted."
He said the Tillicum community has done a better job of being proactive when they've notcied gang tagging.
"Nobody has had to say, 'Hey lets do something about.' Everybody responded to it the way they were supposed to. It means there are more people who care about this community than don’t care about this community."
Colon said it's hard to pinpoint why there has been a spike in gang graffiti, but some of it, he said, is tied to when gang members get out of jail and reintegrate back into the community. Colon said gangs like Folk Nation, Gangster Disciples, Nocc Outz (a small Crip gang based out of Tacoma), Tacoma Eastside Piru (Piru is a Blood gang), Royal Samoan Piru and Westside Piru (Pacific Islander gang) are found in Pierce County but haven't demonstrated the level of deadly crimes like years before.
Assaults, robbery, theft, shoplifting and drug dealing are the main types of crimes Colon said his special operations unit have been focusing on.
Gang tagging in Lakewood had a more serious connotation when rivals like the Hilltop Crips and Lakewood Hustlers clashed and used tagging to show disrespect or looming retaliation. Now, Colon said it's more of an annoyance and that follow-up violence is much lower, at least for now.
However, there has been one gang-related homicide and two officer-involved shootings this year. In 2010, Lakewood police reported zero homicides. Compared to much larger, organized gangs in the Los Angeles area, Lakewood hasn't experienced an increase in gang violence.
"Gangs here aren't organized," Colon said adding that some of the gangs have a base of less than 10 members and even fewer than five.
The Lakewood Police Department has two full-time investigators and a narcotics K-9 handler and four part-time officers that fall under the special operations and major crimes unit.