A blue C with an arrow pointing up. A red X over the letters LOC. The number 1500 not far from Rest painted in fat, white cloud letters, a memorial to the dead.
To the untrained eye, the letters and symbols spray-painted under a bridge in the Whitman Park section of Camden are meaningless. But to trained police officers, they signal gang presence and, in some cases, can tip off law enforcement to a brewing feud.
"Graffiti is the newspaper of the street," said Cpl. Edwin Santana, training coordinator for the New Jersey Gang Investigators Association. "It is basically going to tell you what's going on in that specific area, when there's going to be some kind of violent repercussion."
Gangs are no longer just a big-city problem. They're increasingly infiltrating smaller, down-on-their-luck cities, such as Scranton and Wilkes-Barre. They're also edging into rural territory and suburbs, where they can operate with less police supervision and command higher prices for drugs, police said.
All 21 counties in New Jersey reported gang activity in 2010, and 30 municipalities reported gang activity for the first time last year, according to a state police survey. Police in Newark, Trenton, and Camden still handle most gang violence, but gangs are pushing out into neighboring communities, police said.
In Pennsylvania, Mexican drug gangs are well-established in Philadelphia and Reading. Dominican gangs are using Hazleton as a base to expand their reach in eastern Pennsylvania, where they are the most prolific drug distributors, according to a March report from the Department of Justice.
Some South Jersey police officers say they are seeing more gang crimes. In the winter, police in Riverside arrested a man with gang ties after he allegedly put a gun to his girlfriend's head. When they searched his apartment, they said, they found two 9mm pistols and a bulletproof vest.
"We're starting to see this stuff we haven't seen before," Riverside Detective Ron Brock said.
The Bloods, a Los Angeles gang that branched off to New York City, has historically dominated New Jersey and the East Coast, Santana said. The Bloods are heavily involved in selling cocaine and heroin in New Jersey, state police said. The region also includes the Bloods' rivals, the Crips; the Pagans Motorcycle Club; the Latin Kings; MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), a violent gang whose original members were Salvadoran immigrants; and others.
The graffiti help police track the gangs. The writing differs from street art or nuisance tagging, which typically involves someone obsessed with seeing his or her name or initials.
Gangs mark drug turf, sometimes using arrows to direct buyers, other times to illustrate support or disrespect for a gang, police said.
Graffiti can warn rivals to stay away. Crossing out a rival gang member's name can mean impending violence.
"That is the ultimate disrespect," said Sgt. Christina DeCristofor, an intelligence officer with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. "If we see something like that, we know we need to keep our eye on it."
"When you see cross-outs of a specific set or a specific person, you take that threat seriously," he said. "You're going to start seeing some kind of repercussion on that group or that individual."
Graffiti from two feuding Bloods sects appeared in January near the 1700 block of Broadway in Camden just before an afternoon shooting killed a 20-year-old woman who stopped for food at a deli there, investigators said.
In February, Jeremiah Johnson, 17, known as "Po Man," was gunned down at Mount Ephraim Avenue and Morton Street in Camden in what investigators say was a gang killing.
Days later, a witness to the shooting was found dead in a burned, abandoned building marked "RIP Po Man."
Subsets of the Bloods have a strong presence in Camden, and their graffiti mark Camden's walls and street signs. Some are more obvious: a B in the gang's signature red, or CK for "Crip Killer." Some are more obscure, such as LPP for Lueders Park Piru, a subset of the Bloods, or a five-point star, a symbol that the Bloods and the Latin Kings adopted.
Sometimes graffiti can be cryptic, a way to communicate with other members without attracting police attention, DeCristofor said.
"You might see 577, and if you look at the phone pad, 577 corresponds to the letters LPP," she said.
In recent months, investigators say, they have seen more Crips graffiti around Camden.
NHC, for "Neighborhood Crips," is painted all along Mount Ephraim Avenue.
On the heels of massive layoffs in the Police Department, the Crips want to expand their business, DeCristofor said.
"This is a lucrative area - eight square miles, over 150 drug corners," she said. "They're aware that half the police force was laid off. We've talked to numerous sources, both on the street and incarcerated. Now, more so than ever, they see this area as prime for the taking."
Colors: Red, black, brown, pink.
"Dawg," or a pawprint
CK for "Crip Killer," often with the C crossed out.
MOB for "Member of Bloods."
SMM for "Sex, Money, Murder," a Bloods subset.
Colors: blue, gray, orange, purple.
C with an up arrow.
BK for "Blood Killer," often with the B crossed out.
LOC for "Love Only Crips."
Three- or five-point crown.
360 for "whole, complete, and unbreakable."
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or firstname.lastname@example.org.