Graffiti and Gangs
in L.A.
Wallbangin'  Susan A. Phillips 
This masterful, schola
gang members without glor
rly work humanizes
ifying their violence.—Library Journal


From Chapter 3
Chicano Gang Graffiti

Ethnographic Lessons

Leo gave me my first lessons in ethnography. I'm not sure how he was able to know my job better than I knew it myself. But somehow his innate understanding forced me to see the consequences of my actions as an ethnographer and as a human being. Fieldwork is a slow and sometimes painful process. So much social and emotional angst accompanies trying to get to know the people you want to work with. It involves putting yourself where you do not belong, where you may not be wanted; making painful social mistakes; having to deal with issues of race, trust, honesty, money, class. Ethnographic fieldwork is made up of people with moods and personalities. You have your unlucky days and your lucky days, which makes fieldwork something of an emotional roller coaster.

Working with gangs in the city where one lives is not considered typical anthropological fieldwork. I was a commuter anthropologist. I never lived with the people I worked with but, in typical L.A. style, would drive over to my field site and hang out with them. I thought wishfully of moving to where my informants lived and envied those who could leave the country to immerse themselves in another culture. They didn't have to go back and forth all the time like I did, from real life to anthropological life. Such movement called out the superficiality of the ties that I made with people, how connections to them were driven by fieldwork and were therefore completely unnatural. I struggled with my lack of integration into people's daily lives and, as a result, continually deemed my fieldwork an abject failure in terms of traditional anthropology.

The contradictions that commuter fieldwork presented were difficult for me to reconcile. All anthropologists experience contradictions, whether or not they work in urban settings. But for me, the traveling especially made me continually question the construction of our city. Why did I constantly have to be aware of my own role as cultural oppressor? I was a consumer and had to support the powers that be to live my daily life. It was difficult doing fieldwork knowing that I was the enemy to so many of those whose knowledge I sought. In the long run, this back and forth process proved an important focus to my view of the city, but during fieldwork I considered it a mild form of mental torture.

There were also times, however, when I was grateful to be able to go home. Even though I was afraid of making stupid cultural mistakes (which I did a lot), some of the time I was just plain afraid. Once in Watts I had such a bad time that I was relieved to drive to the lily-white suburb of Torrance where I had been raised. It was a place I had deemed "cultureless" and had learned to despise. But at least no one stared at me with hate on the street there. How ironic that the place I best fit in was the place I least wanted to be.

As with most major cities, it is the nature of Los Angeles to segregate people. This segregation makes you feel comfortable on your own turf and uncomfortable on somebody else's. Because of the city's size (its famous sprawl), such zones of comfort can be enormous but still manage to exclude entire populations from their midst. I had to develop survival mechanisms for the hatred I encountered when I crossed those boundaries. I certainly felt exhilarated when I did so successfully—when I did fit in and felt welcomed and accepted, and even wanted. Ultimately, the power of those moments made it possible for me to do fieldwork in a city where divides of a few miles sometimes seemed greater than those separating nations. [See a map of the distribution of gangs in the Central Vernon neighborhood, South Central Los Angeles.]

Leo was the first person to help me learn to negotiate those divides successfully, and in the process he taught me how to deal with my own mistakes in the field. Fieldwork is full of anthropologists making mistakes. Some of those mistakes can be costly indeed. But mostly people understand them and try to help you to comprehend the nature of your mistakes. In the process, they help you learn your trade: how to be an anthropologist and how to understand the nature of their culture. I had relatively few dealings with Leo altogether, but even after his death my experiences in the field always seemed to revolve around him or to lead back to him somehow through his family and friends.

I learned many lessons from my first fieldwork. They were so painful that I long resisted putting them to paper. They seemed to expose both the best and worst elements of my personality. My work with the 17th Street gang in Santa Monica was haphazard and unsystematic. It spanned over a period of about four years. It was embarrassing to look back at my glaring mistakes, my unmaintained ties, and the way I flitted in and out of the gang members' lives. I could rationalize my problems away, I know: my informants moved in and out of jail, my fieldwork wasn't all that bad. I had also just started in a graduate program for which I was woefully ill-prepared. But in my heart I knew I could have done better.


Figure 3.26. North versus South gang graffiti (Delhi, Calif., off Highway 99, 1996)
Photograph by Susan A. Phillips. All rights reserved.

Figure 3.26, color version


Figure 3.1. Leo and Lil Trigger, Santa Monica (27 June 1991) Rest in Peace
Photograph by Susan A. Phillips. All rights reserved.
Figure 3.1, color version'


It was 1991. I had been taking pictures of graffiti for about six months but had somehow managed to avoid coming into contact with people. I think I was just trying to be careful, to get a feel for the whole street scene. But after all that time and all those photographs, I craved interaction with the people whose work I had documented almost daily. It was nothing other than a freak accident that finally gave me the opportunity to connect with the gang members from the Santa Monica neighborhood close to where I lived. I was on my way to take some more pictures. It was like any other summer day for me—I had my camera and planned to park my car and then walk to an abandoned house that was a popular graffiti target. Instead I drove around the corner to see the flashing lights of police cars and a crowd gathering. A car had driven itself literally up a telephone pole cable and was suspended, rear fender resting on the ground, at a forty-five-degree angle. After somehow extracting himself from this precarious position, the driver had fled, and I think the police were still chasing him when I arrived.

Among those gathered were two gang members distinguishable by their crisp white T-shirts and baggy black pants. I carefully positioned myself next to them as I started taking pictures of the scene. Pretty soon a third, older gang member on a tiny bicycle came riding over. He asked me if I was working for the paper. I said no, but sort of mentioned that I was actually on my way to take pictures of gang graffiti. He said that was cool. One of the younger ones was named Ruben. He and his friend told me that I could meet them later around the corner where they hung out. So I walked off to take a few pictures, and a bunch of little boys ended up giving me a guided tour of their neighborhood. I was grateful to them for their acceptance and company.

Across from the abandoned house was the apartment whose courtyard served as the hangout for the 17th Street gang. When we reached it, I said good-bye to the little boys and told them I would see them again soon. I walked across the street toward the group of gangsters with my heart pounding. I was looking for Ruben, but only saw the older guy who had been on the bike. I went over to him. It was through him that I met Leo.

Somehow Leo was in charge. Either that or he was naturally a little interested in and very suspicious of my project. We talked, he asked me questions, but it seemed from the start he knew exactly what I was doing and, more, how I should be doing it. When I saw his tattoos peaking out from his shirt, I practically begged him for a picture. After he said, "No, I'm not about to take off my shirt and show you my tattoos," I kept pushing, asking, "please, please, are you sure?" Different people came by, curious, asking about my project. Then as Leo was just about to leave, he suddenly lifted up his shirt to pose for me. I was so nervous I could barely focus the camera. One tattoo around his neck read "I Just Don't Give A Fuck" in the beautiful Chicano gang script; over his heart was another of a rosary and praying hands with an inscription that read "Pardoname Madre Por Mi Vida Loca." Forgive me Mother for my crazy life. He also had a big "17" on the back of his neck, and some little "SM's" and "17's" here and there on his wrists and elbows, for Santa Monica 17th Street. He let me take the pictures at a variety of angles—but made sure never to show his face. A friend of his, Trigger, jumped in at the last minute to cover up his eyes on one of them just to be safe.

As I headed for my car, I heard them shout, "Hey, we could use a ride!"

I remembered the conversation with my mother just before I left that day. She was in Northern California and knew I was going to a place full of unknowns. The last thing she said to me, half joking, was, "Don't give anybody a ride!" I said okay. But when Leo and Pelon asked, I knew I wanted to give them a ride. I automatically trusted them, even though my brain told me I should be afraid. But I also hesitated, remembering the promise to my mom. After all, they were gang members. They killed people, didn't they? They committed crimes; they raped people, didn't they? So I refused them.

"Hey, we trusted you!" they responded. "We let you take pictures of us!"

I managed to say no, that I was just some stupid white girl with a camera, but they, they were real gangsters who could really hurt me if they wanted. I think I kind of flattered them in this way, which is the only thing that made my refusal even semi-acceptable. At the same time I felt confused by not being able to trust my own feelings. How could I negotiate this world if I was supposed to be afraid of the people I wanted to work with? I continually struggled with that issue throughout my fieldwork, but that was the only time I ever refused a ride to anybody if I felt okay about it. Looking back I realize that it's good to do these things once, to help gauge decisions for the future. It's just too bad it had to be with Leo that first time.


The next day I went back there and Leo kind of sauntered over and just let me have it. I guess he had been thinking about me and had become more and more angry. He said I had been way too pushy the day before. Trying to defend myself, I said yeah, but I got what I wanted (i.e., the pictures). He countered that the only reason I got what I wanted was because he had given it to me. He had let me take those pictures, like a present. He asked, was I trying to study them under a microscope? Like they were insects? I said no. I tried to explain about anthropology, how it was learning about different cultures all over the world. But I was embarrassed. I said it would be so much easier if I were Chicana—that I wished I was. But as soon as I said this, Leo said, "No. Susan, you have to be proud of what you are."

I tried to know that this was true. Later I figured that this was one of the main things about doing fieldwork I first learned from Leo: you have to accept who you are in order to have others accept you. They were proud of themselves, that's what the gang was all about. I should be proud of myself too. He said he was proud of me because I came down there and wasn't afraid—but that I had been too insistent.

I went home that night almost in tears, feeling like I had made some terrible mistakes during my first experiences, which at the time seemed excruciatingly important. How could I have been so insensitive and disrespectful to them that first day? Being pushy, getting what I wanted, then not even giving them a ride? And that second day being so rude in my defensiveness. I hoped that Leo didn't think too badly of me, and I couldn't blame him if he did. But we were cool after that. He knew I was just beginning and that he was helping me learn. I gave him his pictures, and he liked them.

I got to know some other folks, began interviewing for a methods class I was taking, and had some crazy barrio experiences. I didn't see too much of Leo after those first days, but he was always around me somehow, in the background of my mind. His expectations were something for me to measure up to. From him I learned that you need to trust in order to be trusted. . . .

Representing through Graffiti

Chicano gang members represent their neighborhoods in graffiti in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Their graffiti ranges from the most minute writings on walls and concrete scratchings to larger-than-life gigantic images that require the use of ladders and crates of spray paint. These messages have the ability to stand on their own and act for gang members even when they themselves are not around; their public nature makes them an important locus to position self and group at a distance through shorthand symbols. Graffiti are crucial mechanisms for the acts of representing through which gang members intertwine their emotional and political concerns.

Gang members identify basically four interrelated but distinct types of graffiti: hitting up, crossing out, roll calls, and RIPs (memorial graffiti). They correspond roughly to the categories with which Ley and Cybriwsky (1974) designated Philadelphia graffiti: affirmative and aggressive. Through "hitting up" and "roll calls," gang members make positive statements about group belonging and membership (what Ley and Cybriwsky indicate to be roughly affirmative). Through "crossing out" or "challenging," they engage other gangs in discontinuous dialogues that are ritual struggles for power and recognition within their community (what Ley and Cybriwsky indicate to be aggressive). Constituting the last category are the memorial markers gang members make for homies lost during the course of these struggles; generally they are called "RIPs." These categories relate to different elements of gang life and membership. Through the text I link them as often as possible to the social concerns that further bind gang members to their neighborhoods and culture.

All gangs define themselves in part by who they are and in part by who they are against. Because of their generations-long history, Chicano gangs seem to have a mostly positive form of identity, focusing on the production of pride-affirming messages. Gang members represent levels of identity through different kinds of events, body decoration, writing, and speech patterns. While the general forms this expression takes are common to all Chicano gangs, the specific content varies from gang to gang. Each neighborhood has its own name, specific color, hand signs, initials, sometimes insignias, and common nicknames. In figure 3.6, for example, Sotel gang members from West L.A. are signing S, 1, 3, for Sotel 13; and all sport the common threads of the 1990s gangster. Behind them is a composition in brown Old English lettering (brown is the neighborhood color) that I watched them complete together.

Graffiti is one among many gang practices that help gang members define their group within the spaces where they live. Examining graffiti and its links to other types of cultural production through time is a uniquely strong method for charting social and political change. Graffiti—a barrio's visual, tangible history—offers living proof of both changes and continuities in neighborhood concerns.


Figure 3.6 "Sotel" in Old English letters. (1992)
Photograph by Susan A. Phillips. All rights reserved.

Figure 3.6'


Copyright notice: Excerpted from pages 95-99 and 117-19 of Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A. by Susan A. Phillips, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1999 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Susan A. Phillips
Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.
©1999, 432 pages, 13 color plates, 118 halftones
Paper $27.50 ISBN: 978-0-226-66772-0

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Wallbangin'.

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