Photo by Billie Nicholson

Have you ever given any thought to the symbols, graffiti or the clothing worn by people around you? These items are considered icons and are used to communicate beliefs and affiliations. Gangs, insurgents, terrorist groups, and individuals use iconography as a symbol of group unity, for rapid recognition by other members, and to communicate their beliefs to the larger populace. Observing the presence or absence of icons can be a key to situational awareness.[1]

In their book, Left of Bang, Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley define an icon as any symbol used to convey a person’s or group’s presence, beliefs or affiliations. These are used to draw allies, get new converts, intimidate or repel enemies and to further an agenda. They often communicate complex messages with simple images in an environment. Citizens can use iconography to understand what things are important in an area to individuals and groups.[2]

Iconography can be divided into two parts: icons that appear on people and in the environment. Geographically, iconography can tell us the intent or beliefs of those who imprinted it, whether the groups in the area are in conflict and the relationship between the people living there and the people who left the iconography. There is a significant difference between allowing these icons to remain in place and taking action to remove them. Is there tolerance and acceptance or one of resistance or dissociation from the “artists?” The iconography on an individual provides important information – their beliefs, associations, and their perceived status. Icons are important to the individual, but even more so to the criminal.[3]

There are three main categories of iconography to be aware of: graffiti, tattoos, and clothing and other artifacts.

  • Graffiti-any writing or drawing on a public space without permission of the owner. There are three types of graffiti 
    • Territorial-tagging done by groups to define a territory 
    • Political and ideological-expressing some political or belief statement
    • Threatening-menacing or intimidating[4]
    • Flags and colors have meaning and send messages
  • Tattoos-are permanent and often possess significant meaning to the wearer. They are meant to gain attention and send a message.[5]
  • Clothing and other artifacts-branding for group identity, providing a sense of unity and solidarity and are used to communicate messages.[6]

Spend a little time as you walk or ride around a community studying the iconography. You will learn some interesting things.


  1. Van Horne, Patrick and Riley, Jason A., Left of Bang. New York: Black Irish Entertainment LLC, 2014, 68
  2. Ibid., 131
  3. Ibid., 132
  4. Ibid., 133
  5. Ibid., 134
  6. Ibid., 136

Billie Nicholson,Editor
August 2018

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