Sureno gang graffiti first appeared on 18th street and remained there for more than four months even though it is the city's policy to remove it immediately. Photo by Andrea Valencia.

Pasted in the window of a dormant pizzeria on 18th Street was a familiar notice from the Department of Public Works: a letter, dated Oct. 2, demanding the landlord remove small taggings from the window or risk a $500 fine.

The letter has now been removed. However, just across the street a more sinister tagging has been neglected since May. It’s written in black letters on the sidewalk between Capp Street and South Van Ness Avenue: “Sur 13 esto me pertenese” (sic), or “Sur 13 this belongs to me.”

“Sur 13” are the calling letters for the Sureño gang, which claims the northwest Mission as its own. The graffiti lies on the edge of what the gang considers its territory. The issue is particularly concerning because police believe the gang has been involved in some recent violent incidents, including the murder of Lorenzo Jimenez in June and the shooting of a pizzeria worker in July.

According to the FBI’s 2011 gang threat assessment, Northern California and adjacent states have experienced a “substantial” influx of Sureño gangs.

The graffiti remained on the sidewalk for more than four months even though the department aggressively targets landlords to remove such taggings and has a policy to immediately remove obscene graffiti.

“Gang graffiti is in fact a high priority to be removed,” said San Francisco police officer Martin Ferreira, who is in charge of graffiti abatement. “Gang graffiti is often written to mark territory and intimidate rival gang members. A citizen that encounters gang graffiti should immediately report it to DPW for removal.”

It could also be dangerous.

“One example of violence sparked by graffiti occurs when gang graffiti is placed in a rival gang’s area or turf,” Ferreira told the Bay Citizen last year. “This action is most likely to be perceived as a disrespectful act, and can cause a cycle of violence that affects the entire community.”

Ferreira is not the only one who thinks so. According to the website of the Los Angeles Police Department:

“Gang members use graffiti to mark their territory or turf, declare their allegiance to the gang, advertise a gang’s status or power, and to challenge rivals … When a neighborhood is marked with graffiti indicating territorial dominance, the entire area and its inhabitants become targets for violence. Anyone in the street or in their home is fair game for drive-by attacks by rival gang members. A rival gang identifies everyone in a neighborhood as a potential threat. Consequently, innocent residents are often subjected to gang violence by the mere presence of graffiti in their neighborhood.”

DPW sent an inspector to examine the sidewalk tag in July after receiving an anonymous complaint, said department spokeswoman Rachael Gordon.

The tagging was not identified as gang graffiti, and the inspector gave the property owners two days to remove it instead of cleaning it up immediately, as is the city’s policy. The property owners, who could not be reached for comment, attempted to remove it, Gordon said.

“On Aug. 8, the inspector went and it looked like it was removed. It was much lighter and the property owner did what he was supposed to do,” Gordon said.

The graffiti still remained, however. DPW sent out a cleaning crew after a reporter’s query.

While DPW routinely sends inspectors across neighborhoods looking for graffiti and other nuisances through its Spruce Up by Sun Up program, much of the graffiti removal is complaint-driven, Gordon said.

However, a quick survey of businesses and residents shows that they are either unaware of or unwilling to report graffiti.

“I didn’t even know what that was,” said a woman doing laundry near where graffiti was written. Her answer was common.

Others just don’t want to get involved.

“One doesn’t get involved with the police, one doesn’t get involved with gangsters,” said a nearby business owner, who asked that his name and business not be revealed for fear of repercussions. “That’s how one lives comfortably.”

While the graffiti is now very faint and almost unrecognizable, just around the corner on Capp Street, a new graffiti appeared a few weeks ago. It’s written in big black letters and reads “Sur 13 POR VIDA,” or “Sur 13 FOR LIVE.”

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Rigoberto Hernandez

Rigoberto Hernandez is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. He has interned at The Oregonian and The Orange County Register, but prefers to report on the Mission District. In his spare time he can be found riding his bike around the city, going to Giants games and admiring the Stable building.

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  1. I have a novel idea. Lets actually catch these criminals and then make them clean it up rather than us having to pay our taxes to have a City employee clean it up. I believe it’s called “restorative justice,”. It’s unbelievable that homeowners and businesses are held responsible rather than the criminals.

  2. On 16th St….no I would not feel safe. On 18th St I would probably make an attempt but I see your point.

  3. If that was in my block I would have used solvent to remove if the same day instead of waiting for someone to remove it. It would have been far more efficient.

    1. I would prefer to do the same, but it’s easier said than done. Just think it through.

      The tag on Rondel is next to the memorial for a slain gang member with intimidating guys hanging around all day. All around that area on 16th are plenty of gang members hanging out all day. Would you really feel safe painting over or removing their tags with them standing right there? Their M.O. is violence and I’m not willing to get beat up, stabbed or shot because I tried to clean a wall. Let the city take care of it, hopefully in a timely manner (which is why I requested the number for DPW gang graffiti line).

      1. I walked past the 16th St & Rodel St graffiti for many days since I live right there. I noticed the building owner attempted to clean it up three times, only to get hit with more, larger graffiti a few hours later. The final clean up was done at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning with a small team. They waited them out, to make sure the mourning process was done, or at least the graffiti was forgotten.

  4. What’s the number at DPW to report gang graffiti?

    I’ve reported gang tags to SFPD Gang Unit and they just say to call 3-1-1, which resulted in no action.

    1. 311 gives you a case number for every complaing you have to ask that they get back to you and follow up using the number, sometimes a couple of times but it works