What Is Iconography?

In several posts and videos, I’ve referenced iconography as a factor in getting a baseline of an area. In this post, I’m going to address these two questions: What exactly is iconography? And, how does it help give us a deeper understanding into the area?

Iconography refers to images, pictorial material, or symbols used to illustrate an attitude, belief, or feelings about a subject.[1] Traditionally, iconography is often used in reference to studying or critically reading art. Depending on your definition of art, we essentially use it the same way for gathering information about an area to better understand the baseline, individuals, groups, and the dynamics of the groups in that area.

For our purposes, iconography falls into two categories: people and places. When looking at iconography on people we look at tattoos, clothing, and other types of displays that are extensions of a person, i.e. vehicles.[2-3] These identifiers are going to give us some insight into the person’s beliefs, likes or dislikes, and group affiliations, to name a few.  For places, we look at graffiti and other public displays, i.e. flags, posters, etc.[2-3] These also tell us the likes or dislikes, affiliations, etc, but furthermore, these can tell us how the community feels about a group, individual, or message. For example, take a look at this photo.

Covered graffiti

I briefly talked about this in my newsletter a few weeks back. You can see in the photo that the community doesn’t condone the graffiti, the group, or message because it’s continually cleaned off or painted over. With that in mind, what do you think it would mean if all the Donald Trump signs in your community looked like this?

Trump Sign

What does this sign say about the individual or group who posted it in the window to begin with? Looking at this from another angle, by observing this community over a longer period of time, let’s say that you see the Trump signs being replaced by Hillary signs. This can indicate that the political climate is changing directions.

Let’s take a look at the concept of iconography in a way that might be more applicable to your immediate safety. You’ve been working at the same location, downtown, for a few years. You don’t have a long commute but you live on the outskirts of the city.  You always noticed the same type of graffiti near your work. When you first started working there, you would frequently observe the maintenance workers cleaning and painting over it. Over the years, the graffiti was removed and painted over less often. Recently, you’ve seen the same tags in your neighborhood. What would that tell you about the criminal and gang activity in your area? Another scenario to think about, instead of spreading outward, you notice a new tag you haven’t seen before being put on top of the old one. What might this tell you about the criminal elements in your area?

As with any aspect of situational awareness, observing and understanding the iconography is an active process. This requires mindfulness to be aware and the analytical ability to interrupt the symbols that are familiar and research the ones that may not be. It’s important to note that iconography is a choice made by the person or group to display their message. Since it’s a choice it can be hidden, changed, or masked depending on the scenario or goals. For this reason, iconography isn’t the main focus of situational awareness and more of an add on to get a clearer picture and increase your overall situational awareness.

For further reading, check out these two articles by the CP Journal.



1 Iconography. (n.d.). Retrieved May 19, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/iconography
2-3 Patrick Van Horne, Jason Riley Left of Bang (New York, N.Y..: Black Irish Entertainment LLC 2014), 132

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