Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in Los Angelesby Susan A. Phillips
Graffiti is as ubiquitous as telephone poles in America's cities; it is as old as the earliest civilizations. The most public medium in the country today, graffiti can signal territory, love, or liberation. Ironically, graffiti is understood by only a fraction of those who encounter it. Usually read as a sign of urban decay and as a loss of control over the
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Graffiti is as ubiquitous as telephone poles in America's cities; it is as old as the earliest civilizations. The most public medium in the country today, graffiti can signal territory, love, or liberation. Ironically, graffiti is understood by only a fraction of those who encounter it. Usually read as a sign of urban decay and as a loss of control over the physical environment, graffiti has become one of the most potent cultural languages of our age. Wallbangin' is an unprecedented, in-depth look at this phenomenon as it is embodied in the neighborhoods of one of its epicenters, Los Angeles.
Anthropologist Susan Phillips enters the lives of the African-American and Chicano gang members to write a comprehensive guide to their symbolic and visual expression. She not only decodes the graffiti—explaining how, for instance, gang boundaries are visually delimited and how "memorial" graffiti functions—but she also places it in the context of the changing urban landscapes within the city. Graffiti, she argues, is inextricably linked to political change, to race, and to art, and she demonstrates how those connections are played out in contemporary L.A. Wallbangin' is, on this level, an iconography of street imagery. But it is also a very personal narrative about entering the world of L.A. street gangs—a world of pride, enemies, affirmation, and humanity where gang members use graffiti to redefine their social and political position in society.
To many outsiders, graffiti is cryptic, senseless scribbling. But Phillips explains it as an ingenious and creative solution to the disenfranchisement felt by those who produce it. With personal narratives, provocative photography, and contemporary voices, Wallbangin' unlocks the mysteries behind street-level ideologies and their visual manifestations.
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Wallbangin' Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.
By Susan A. Phillips
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chicano Gang Graffiti
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 couldleave 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.
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
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
"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.
Excerpted from Wallbangin' Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.
by Susan A. Phillips
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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