In Bacliff, Texas, a small town situated near the refineries of the Gulf coast, the signs along the main thoroughfare “Grand Avenue” communicate a world that is not what it seems.

A “game room” is code for casino, a “spa” is code for prostitution, but the lingo is the only covert thing about these businesses. The game rooms and spas — of which there are at least a dozen in town — set up shop in relatively cheap, pre-fabricated structures on the most highly-trafficked road alongside legit businesses and residential areas. They’re frequented by locals day and night, but with an awareness that these structures are temporary — they will inevitably be shut down by the authorities, but perhaps only to move a few blocks down to another warehouse with another name. Let me be clear, this is no miniature Las Vegas, but this is just one example of a  landscape that appears when a mixture of illicit gambling and prostitution occupy a very public space.

The Lucky Star on Grand Avenue, seen above, is either a game room or a spa, but it is unclear. Most game rooms and spas lack windows and are in pre-fab buildings, but the large size of the building points to game room, as does the “lucky” in the title. Or is the Chinese script in the window code to passersby that this is an “Asian” spa?

At night, this equally ambiguous display lights up in front of Lucky Star. Frenzy of passion? Frenzy of greed? We look to signs to guide us, but they are often misleading. Yet perhaps if simple Frenzy is what you are looking for, you’ve found your place.

Nevada Jacks, on the other hand, is clearly a game room. The large tan warehouse, professional sign, and impressive landscaping indicate that this is a more legitimate or more family-friendly game room, if you will. It seems Nevada Jacks’ cleaner appearance could help distract from the illegal activities inside, but even if Nevada Jacks were shut down, a new game room would quickly pop up in its place, either re-using the same structure with new signage or with a trailer on-site.

The VIP Plus game room is more typical of game rooms in Bacliff. The DIY signage and clear casino imagery like hearts and spades does not hide the gambling inside, but also lends it a “mom and pop” feel. The pre-fab structure is also key. Before this was VIP Plus, this was another business, probably a game room, but the structure is only secondary to the success of the game room, with the draw being the lure of big bucks inside.

Lucky U is in a building pretty similar to Nevada Jacks, but featuring a homemade sign more common to lower-budget game rooms. As with the other game rooms, style is less important than functionality and visibility. The yellow spot light attached to the orange extension cord ensure that the Lucky U sign is not overlooked in the midst of other game rooms.

As for the spas in Bacliff along Grand Ave., many try to maintain their secrecy and stay off this main road. Recently, a spa on Grande Ave. with a large banner sign reading “BACLIFF SPA” was shut down after being open for only two months. Perhaps to the spa’s proprietors, the seemingly free-spirited Grand Ave. seemed a place where coded signage was tacitly accepted by residents and overlooked by the police.