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.