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Firstly, the history of African-American gangs extends as far back as the 1920s and early 1930s. They formed street gangs on the Eastside of Los Angeles near Central and Vernon Avenues. The downtown area of Los Angeles was the first place where they settled around the same time. Moreover, African-Americans began to move south during the years to follow, from downtown Los Angeles , down Central Avenue towards Slauson Avenue. During that period of time, the area between Slauson Avenue and Firestone, also known today as Manchester, was occupied primarily by white residents. But, African-American populations grew south of Firestone, in Watts between 92nd Street and Imperial.
The most publicized gangs in Los Angeles were the 'Goodlows', 'Kelleys', 'Magnificents', 'Driver Brothers', the 'Boozies', and the 'Blodgettes' which hung out on street corners such as the Imperial Free Way, also known as the 'Blodgette Track', where the 105 Freeway is today. The street gang 'Boozies' was formed of a family of many brothers and friends who were involved in prostitution and robbery. They used to hung out on areas such as the Jefferson Park and Denker Avenue. From the Central Avenue area on the eastside of Los Angeles, was occupied by the 'Magnificents' who were a group of youths, that became less famous in the late 1930s as the they became older.
Secondly, in the mid 1940s new Black gangs were about to form in the Central Ave area, and in East Los Angeles. The most known gangs during this period were the 'Purple Hearts', that occupied 31st Street, and 28th Street. And later on, by the late 1940s several more clubs appeared.
Also in the late 1940s, the clubs gained popularity in the Black community. While some were attempting at political organizations, others were formed to serve as protective mechanisms against the White violence from the white clubs. White residents developed a resentment towards the new migrants, especially due to the fact that Blacks migrated in a large number from South during WWII.
The illegal actions that some Black clubs were involved were petty thefts, robbery and assaults, and extremely rare murder. Chains, bats, and occasionally knives served as weapons of choice in disputes, although they were mostly settled by hand to hand. In early 1960s, the Los Angeles Police Department started to identify the Black youths and car clubs as 'gangs', this period of time representing the peak period of this groups.
Some of the most popular car clubs that dominated through out the 1950s and 1960s in Los Angeles, were the 'Low Riders', the 'Coasters', the 'Highwaymen' and the 'Road Devils'. These were followed by other major territorial clubs such as the 'Businessmen', the 'Slauson', the 'Gladiators', the 'Huns' and the 'Rebel Rousers'.
Later on, in 1965 an alliance was forged by these clubs and then participated in the Watts Rebellion in August. After the event took part many of these gangs got involved in political organizations that lead to radical movements during the years from 1965-1969.
For example, the 'Slauson' gang member Bunchy Carter became the leader of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Other influential figures of the Black consciousness of the 1960s were Ron Wilkins, Gerald Aubry, William Sampson, Robaire Nyjuky, and Hakim Jamal. They were all former club members prior to 1965.
These Black goups were considered to be radical and a threat to the national security of the United States, and rapidly became victims of the police brutality. In January 1969 the gang member that I mentioned before, Bunchy Carter, was murdered at Campbell Hall at UCLA, in a dispute with US members. The two members of the US organization, George and Ali Stiner were arrested, convicted and sent to San Quentin prison for their involvement.
Although this case was closed, there are still many unanswered questions concerning Carter's death. Some insist that the Karenga's US gunmen where police infiltrators that were working with the FBI, while others say that when Carter was shot and killed, he was armed and on the point of attacking an US associate. This case represents a turning point in Black Los Angeles identity as youths, because they were too young to participate in the movement with organizations such as the Black Panter Party and US.
In 1969 a new powerful street gang was formed namely the 'L.A. Brims', who was affiliated with the 'Crips'and the 'Blood'. There were also the 'Piru Street Boys' in Compton, the 'Bishops' and the 'Denver Lanes'. The 'Pirus' which are 'Bloods' now, were known for a short period of time as the 'Piru Street Crips' prior to 1972. They were recognized after the traditional blue bandana that was part of their attire.
By the summer of 1972, the 'Pirus' disassociated themselves from the 'Crips' due to a conflict between them and created with the 'Lueders Park' an alliance against the 'Crips'. After the 'Crips' committed murder of an 'L.A. Brim' member, the 'Pirus' linked up with the 'Brims'. Their goal was to combat 'Crips' intimidation and to create a new alliance in order to counter them.
The 'Pirus' and the other groups decided no longer to wear the blue bandanas, symbol of the 'Crisps', and created a new united organization which later became known as 'Bloods'. They also had bandanas but in an opposite color, red. The 'Bloods' became a powerful organizations and was formed of all the groups who had been threatened or attacked by 'Crips'.
Finally, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of former gang members were either incarcerated or dead and their legacy and the gang subculture was being celebrated and commodified through rap music, film and fashion. What is more, in the early 1990s this cultural trend represented a subject of interest for various authors and publishers. Their fascination about the life in the ghettos and barrios following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, lead to the formation of a new trend of gang memoirs in the US. Their attention was centered also on graphic tales of violent confrontation and territorial belonging. These tales were written by both African and Latino former gang members, and set in Los Angeles.
According to the National Youth Gang Survey Analysis that measured the extent of gang problems, there were at least 30,000 gangs and 800,000 gang members active across the USA in 2007. And up from 731,500 and 750,000 in 2002 and 2004. Not to mention the fact that by 1999, Hispanics accounted 47% of all gang members, while Blacks were 34% and Whites 13%.
1.2 Subcultural practices of gangs
When talking about gangs, its inevitable to mention the fact that they have their own styles and rituals. As both Mexican and African American gangs are concerned, they have given symbolic meanings to their style and rituals. For instance, Mexican American gangs historically paved the way for many subcultural trends of contemporary African American gang members like low-riding or smoking 'the chronic'. Also the prison Pendleton shirt served as a trend for the streets, as the 'prisonization of street life'.
Both groups formed subcultural trends that include the hand-thrown set signals and graffiti marking territory. They even brought a new style on fashion, using colored neck bandanas and sports caps in order to signify set affiliation. These trends best fit the youth subcultures in UK by the late 1960s.
The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), founded in Birmingham in 1964, firstly emerged the rise of subcultural studies in the UK. Stuart Hall, Ken Gelder, Dick Hebdige and others explored the ways in which urban youth adapt and use rituals as symbolic responses to societal issues like poor wages, unemployment or educational inequality.
Best to fit in this climate of urban decay were the 'Crips' due to the fact that they gave structuralist meanings to their own styles and rituals. As gang sociologist Malcom Klein explored, yearning for identity is a powerful incentive for joining an African American gang. Gang nicknames replace birth names, creating new possibilities for individual identity, as part of identification with the larger gang unit.
Cultural historian Robin G. Kelley explores Malcom X's contribution in the subculture of black working class youth during the WWII as detailed in The Autobiography of Malcom X (Haley, 1965). Keley's domains of interest were fashion, music and dance and according to him, partaking in this subculture helped Malcolm X and other youths to establish identities that resisted the hegemonic culture of the era with its racism and white nationalism. In Kelley's opinion, black youth constructed their own subcultural image as a direct response to common social issues of the era.
Furthermore, the development of the gang subculture needs to be considered in the wider economic, political and social setting of America, California and Los Angeles. Gang's experiences along with its traditions, customs and styles serves as cultural form and entertainment. For instance, the neck-scarf and Pendleton shirt became items of fashion outside the ghettos in the 1980s. This was considered by Hebdige as 'currency for exchange'. The gang's subcultural responses to the social issues of the era rapidly became material for rap music and videos.
1.3 Graffiti, Tatoos and Rap
Examining graffiti on the urban environment in detail, one can understand the attitudes, behavior and social processes of certain parts of society. Graffiti can provide valuable information on these segments of society that are not often in public view in the urban environment. In our society there are subcultures that have gone against the relative worth that the dominant culture has laid out and have been overshadowed by the practices of popular culture.
By understanding and interpreting graffiti you can unveil unseen facts about these subcultures. There are several types of graffiti, each associated with a different type of culture, serving a distinct function. For instance, gang graffiti in Los Angeles serves as an important text to better understand the social and cultural meaning of these marginalized groups. Interpreting graffiti through the use of photos show how gangs from different ethnic backgrounds claim space, communicate thoughts and feelings, and express group and individual identity.
In the past, graffiti has been studied by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, linguistics, and even geographers. In 1977, Peretti examined and interpreted graffiti in order to understand adolescent personality, Reisner in 1971 to understand ancient cultures, and sexual attitudes and artistic style by Romotsky and Romotsky in 1975. In 1980 Bruner and Kelso dedicated their work to the examining and understanding of gang's behavior and communication, and in 1999 Alonso tried to explain the territorial matter. From these findings we can assume that graffiti is rich in information and can be simply explained as a manifestation through which a variety of subcultures communicate thoughts and feelings and express group and individual identity.
Prior to WWII, graffiti was first encountered in Mexican and Chicano communities from Los Angeles, and began to increase in the early 1970s. Nowadays, graffiti is observed especially in the inner cities of the African American 'hoods' and 'barrios' in the Hispanic communities. The use symbols, names, numbers etc serves as a way to deliver messages, to dictate rules and express group identity.
According to Alonso's work in 1975, African American gangs use more symbolism to express identity, territoriality and supremacy and they call it 'hit-ups'. What is more, Romotsky and Romotsky in 1975, referred to the Hispanics style of writing as 'placas'. They often use this elaborate style of large letters and colors to write the name of the gang. The lettering style and iconography problematizes any attempts of interpretation by an outsider.
There are very few studies specific to gang writing. These styles formed by indigenous youth from the inner cities, have been used in the mural tradition of Mexico. The mostly used is the old English style, loop letters, box, pointed and square letters. The life from barrios and gang culture can be best interpreted through these mural paintings which represent an attempt to preserve Chicano gang culture.
Unlike Hispanics' mural work, African American gang graffiti is less stylized, using block or square letters. Their graffiti express threats of violence against other gangs and in some cases even against the state. The African American gang graffiti can be easily characterized as boastful, because they usually make claims of supremacy and territoriality and threate other gang members. Their style is less sophisticated but they use a variety of symbols and codes for communication puposes. For instance, the use of arrows and hand signs represents a way of enforcing control by letting outsiders know that they belong to a specific 'hood'.
Moving on to the prison gangs, we shall admit the fact that there is a unique segregation in prisons across America. In this environment populated by criminals of all degrees and varieties, gangs have their own subdivisions. The handwork of the tattoo artists is the most respected inside prison because they work with primitive tools and inks and run the risk to severe punishment and consequences. Tattoo designs from the outside world are often coppies of the bravery, designs and skills of prison tattoo. The most used designs are the clock face tattoo without hands which represents doing time, the teardrop or tombstone tattoos, pictures of cell windows with the sun shining outside which means, I'm getting out soon, or the combined smiling and frowning theatre mask tattoos which symbolize the mentality of play now, pay later.
Further on, Hispanic gang tattoos vary a lot because they relate to the numerous specific gangs. 'Nuestra Familia' is a Hispanic gang that commonly tattoos themselves with the letter NF or NS. Another common image in the Nuestra Familia's tattoo work is a sombrero tattoo over a machete tattoo which is dripping blood.
'The New Mexican Mafia' has a seal which represents a blade edged circle with a skull and crossed blades contained inside of it. Another popular tattoo among Hispanics is the pachuco cross tattoo. This cross is surrounded by three small rays or dashes and is placed on the hand crease between the thumb and forefinger. The cross symbolizes the death and resurrection while the three rays represent each of the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Another famous tattoo is the three dots drawn to form a triangle, which is commonly placed between thumb and forefinger. This tattoo can symbolize 'mi vida loca', or, if you are in Cuba, it denotes that your criminal speciality is larceny.
In the African American communities, gangs often use letters and numbers to show their lack of membership in straight society.
'Crips' started out by terrorizing local neighborhoods and schools with assaults and strong arm robberies. Their color is blue, and popular tattoos incorporate the letters WS for West Side tattoos and the letter C for Crips.
Another powerful gang is the 'Bloods' which is often identified with the color red. Tattoos include the word crab written upside down with a star tattoo substituted for the 'a', this tattoo was designed to deride Crips; RBD which stands for Red Blood Dragons; and, the word bloodwritten across the knuckles of the right hand.
'The Black Guerilla Family' gang often chooses tattoos featuring a dragon attacking a prison gun tower or the letters BGF, typically in Old English lettering.
These gang subcultures turned their daily activities into rap music, prior to the arrival of contemporary street gang memoirs in the 1990s. The likes of Eminem and Vanilla Ice have embraced and interpreted contemporary black rap styles. Longings for blackness certainly spurred the commercial success of rap, and its popularity was further fuelled by its candid first-person form. The musical genre which paved the way for rap is 'hip hop'. This kind of music often promotes break-dancing, and the lyrics depict gangster's daily life. It can be accompanied by graffiti and is popular among African American and Latino youth cultures.
By the mid-1980s, a distinctive version of rap was becoming popular on the West coast, becoming increasingly pre-occupied with violent tales from the inner-city. The term 'gangsta rap' was invented by artist Ice Cube in 1989 and his original band, Niggaz With Attitude (NWA), became the first gangsta rap act to reach number one on the Billboard pop album chart in June 1991. And by late 1991 this version of rap was becoming a real success, generating an impressive $700 million in music sales.
I have started this chapter with an overview of street gangs from past to present and continued with presenting their subcultural practices, in what ways urban youth adapt and use rituals in order to acquire social status, and demonstrating how street gangs differentiate from one another, i.e. through tattoos, graffiti and rap music.
Tattoos are used by gang members in order to identify themselves, to symbolize commitment and also a crime or threat. Usually considered badges of honor, they are encoded messages that identify the members of that gang.
As I showed previously in this chapter, the best way to study gangs is to analize graffiti, because it aids to understand the social and cultural meaning of these groups which have become a global phenomenon. Graffiti serves as an excellent tool of communication and expression.
According to cultural scholars, gangsta rap and ghetto action films formed part of a black cultural movement that originated with those who have suffered most by the conditions of post-industrial America and years of deliberate race and class subordination.