By George P. Hassett
Sgt. Steven A. Carabino, of the Somerville Police Department, pointed to the fluorescent blue graffiti filled with macabre messages of hate and gang violence and voiced his frustration.
“It’s troubling to see this still up. It’s been here over a year. If this was in Somerville, it would be erased within 48 hours,” said Carabino.
The sergeant was standing only yards outside Somerville’s city limits, under the Greater Lawrence Bridge, in Medford, where the El Salvadoran gang MS 13 and the nefarious Latin Kings vie for territory, underworld respect and wall space on the slate gray walls opposite the Mystic River.
Back inside the four corners of Somerville, childish black ink scrawlings found on Kensington St. announce the arrival of a new generation of Haitian gangsters who call themselves H-Block. Police were initially skeptical of H-Block’s status as an actual gang, but the graffiti is an indication of the group’s new criminal leanings, said Carabino.
“We weren’t seeing a lot of criminal activity from them, but when we started seeing H-Block graffiti claiming certain territories, we began to take them more seriously,” said Carabino.
City police—Carabino in particular—keep a close eye on the messages and pictures adorning the sides of city buildings to stay abreast of local gang activity.
“For the gangs, graffiti acts as a newspaper. It announces their presence, claims territory and highlights the illegal activities of certain gang members.
“That is why the graffiti is so dangerous. It encourages other gangs to do more graffiti, which is often insulting and inflammatory. The gangs will cross out one another’s material, starting disputes which can explode in violence,” said Carabino.
These animosities and tensions, which, Carabino said, are inevitable with the appearance of gang graffiti, are now being played out on the walls of the Greater Lawrence Bridge.
Thin lines of white chalk cover the blue messages and symbols of MS 13. Also in white, covering the block lettering of MS 13, is the traditional Latin King symbol of a crown, the words “six feet deep,” and the letters “D.E.A.”
“Those white lines are a cross out by members of the Latin Kings, a rival gang of MS 13’s. By crossing out, they are showing MS 13 that they have no respect for them and their territory. The words “six feet deep” are a message from the Latin Kings that they are going to kill any MS 13 member, and put them six feet deep in the ground. The initials “D.E.A.” are a reference to the Drug Enforcement Agency and sends a message that the Latin Kings control the drug trade in the area—and are willing to enforce that sentiment,” said Carabino.
MS 13 gang members strategically write their graffiti in a fluorescent blue so it remains visible at night. Their paintings feature the devil-horn hand signals of the gang, gangster aliases and personal messages depicting the despair and frenzy of gang life.
“The spider web drawn above the hand represents the criminal justice system,” Carabino said. “If you’re ‘caught up in the web,’ it means you are in jail—something many of these gang members can relate to, of course. The painted words ‘mi vida loca’ are Spanish for ‘my crazy life.’”
In contrast to the intricate symbols and messages of the well- established MS 13 are the haphazard markings of neophyte gangsters H-Block.
“None of the graffiti is really creative or novel. It is all basically the same. The H-Block guys will just write their name or “H-Block,” and that’s really it. If you have seen one, you have seen them all,” said Carabino, who said reporting new graffiti immediately is one of the most important tactics in the fight to discourage gang graffiti.
“Any time we see new graffiti, we report it immediately to the Department of Public Works, because even though some may see it as only drawings and letters, we know from past experience that this graffiti causes violence and gang disputes. The Department of Public Works handles all of the actual cleaning,” said Carabino
“We remove all gang graffiti as soon as we see it. Usually I hear from one guy – Sgt. Steven Carabino. I got him on my cell phone and we stay in contact,” said DPW employee Thomas Vitello, who makes up half of the two-man cleaning crew.
“We have a truck equipped with a sandblasting unit. The unit hooks up to an air compressor, and then we shoot silica sand and water compound until the residue drops to the ground. It is similar to the way you would smooth wood by rubbing sandpaper on it. By the end, the entire space is left clean,” said Vitello.
Working with the DPW to combat gang graffiti is Middlesex County Sheriff James V. Dipaola. Dipaola believes quick action by law enforcement is the only appropriate response to graffiti.
“We are the people’s voice in opposition to the deleterious effects of tagging. If we consistently and rapidly respond, it sends a message to them that our community does not accept the gang culture. If left in tact, it leads to the degradation of a neighborhood and the devaluation of property,” Dipaolo said. “Removing the graffiti is about affecting the quality of life in our communities: the more graffiti spreads, the greater effect it has on diminishing the quality of life in our communities. We know for a fact that immediate response deters future acts of vandalism.”
On Kensington St. in East Somerville, Carabino reflects on the futures of the young people who have brazenly written their names and gang affiliations throughout the neighborhood.
“I think these guys will have a hard time in Somerville. We work with multiple agencies and utilize all our resources in order to disrupt their criminal activity. I don’t think they’ll like how gangsters are treated at the hands of the criminal justice system.”