A Nice Gesture by Jeroen Arendsen

Various personal interests and public info, gesture, signs, language, social robotics, healthcare, innovation, music, publications, etc.

Category: Gang Signs

Virginia is for Gangsters and Lovers

Some agency spent about $400.000 on a ad campaign featuring among others, this picture:

Virginia is for lovers

My first impression was that it shows a very happy and very busy young lady. It’s not often one sees someone simultaneously stamping grapes for wine with one foot, perform a balancing act and still have time to make a perfect heart gesture: bravo! What a nightmare photo shoot that must have been. Or a good bit of photoshopping.

But the news (see Fox) is:

“The Virginia is for Lovers “Live Passionately” campaign will remove images of models making the hand gesture, one of several signs associated with the Gangster Disciples, Virginia Tourism Corp. officials said Friday. The gesture shows thumbs and index fingers formed into a heart.”

I looked up the Gangster Disciples, and I checked Gang Signs, and more Gang Signs, and the most complete Gangster Hand Sign Index, where I found the following sign indeed shown as one of the Black Gangster Disciples:

heart gesture from gangster disciples

We have a match. Now the question remains: is it a wise decision to remove the image from the ad campaign? It is hard to judge from a distance. However, I do not think it was necessary, because it is nearly impossible that actual misunderstandings would arise from the use of the picture. Given the clarity of the image and the text on it, I cannot imagine anyone believing that this lady is flashing a gangster sign. Any gesture that is used as a conventional semiotic sign, or symbol, is what people choose it to be. If the producers of this campaign and the public that is adressed with it both agree that in this context it conveys something like ‘love/heart/passion’, then so be it. Other people in other contexts or other countries are free to attach their own meaning to the gesture.

But, even though I can see no principled reason to scratch the image, it is understandable to do so anyway. Personally, I do not find it a very good picture, nor do I think that introducing a special gesture for a fairly complex message is going to be a succes (do they actually think people are going to adopt it in some way?). And why grant a bunch of gangsters a good laugh if you can avoid it (although they are probably already laughing their heads off from all the free publicity). In that sense, it is damage control to remove the picture.

The best thing might have been to completely ignore the complaints and turn a blind eye to the gangster’s sign. In that way, the gesture might have even been seen as ridiculing the gangster sign. Anyone flashing it could be mocked as a supporter of the campaign ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ instead of being a hardcore gang member. I admit, it probably wouldn’t work that way, but it would have been better than granting the gangster disciples this PR victory.

Other post on MS13 and gang gestures.

MS13 and other Gangs’ Gestures

In the long winter night I wasted an hour on watching a documentary on an American gang called MS13, or Mara Salvatrucha. The entire documentary reeks of US-style fear mongering and is not recommendable. But at some point a girl called Brenda Paz started explaining some of the gestures, or hand signals, of the gang. I got really interested when she said the gestures can be combined, which she called “stacking”. Did they create a nice gesture system of their own? Maybe even an alternate gangster sign language?

After about one minute in the movie Brenda Paz shows how the signs are ‘stacked’.

There is some info online at the Gang Hand Signs Index. It has small collections of signs from MS, the Bloods, Nortenos, Surenos, and a few other gangs. Another small collection is at Gang Signs. Dear old Wikipedia has a bit on Gang Hand Signs, where “stacking” is explained as “throwing up a gang sign”. It also states “Individual letters can be used to tell stories when flashed in rapid succession, each representing a word beginning with that letter”. No details are available. So, besides what miss Paz showed, I actually saw only few gestures. And I have not seen any sort of systematic structure in them. The signs appear mostly used to identify yourself as a member of a gang, or a specific group. Flashing such a sign may serve as a warning or threat as well, more than a hidden form of communication. For MS13, the system of tattoos may be much more elaborate. But then again, perhaps they simply succeeded in keeping their sign language secret?


Nevertheless, if a language is a dialect with its own army, then I will grant the estimated 50.000 gangsters using these signals their sign language. The words they speak do not form a more memorable contribution to Mankind’s legacy anyway.

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