Chicago history

Review: Hail, Hail, The Gang’s All Here—Compliments of Chicagohoodz

Compliments of Chicagohoodz: Chicago Street Gang Art and Culture
James “Jinx” O’Connor & Damen “Mr. C” Corrado
Feral House

Al Capone’s Chicago Outfit gets most of the attention, but the city hosted scores of gangs long before (and after) Scarface moved here. Many have come and gone, dissolved or absorbed by other gangs, while others expanded well beyond the city’s borders. But Chicago’s gangs persist, of course, though their presence was more palpable in the pre-Graffiti Blasters days (1993), when every wall, rooftop, and garage door sported a spray-painted gang logo.

Author James “Jinx” O’Connor’s interest in Chicago gang art and culture was piqued during that sketchy period. A former Guardian Angel, for 30 years he’s collected gang paraphernalia: patches and compliment cards (business cards showing a gang’s logos, the members’ nicknames, and assorted symbols), a number of photographs of gangbangers and their territory-marking murals, and first-hand lore about the life from current and past members, toward the end of writing a book on the subject—now realized with Compliments of Chicagohoodz.

Published by Washington state-based Feral House, long-time purveyor of forbidden knowledge and unsavory subjects, Compliments of Chicagohoodz was among the final projects pursued by founder Adam Parfrey, who passed away last year. The book was completed and released by current publishers Christina Ward and Parfrey’s sister Jessica, and the Feral House imprimatur remains intact with this deep dive into an unexplored, secretive, sometimes dangerous culture. Full disclosure: I wrote for Feral House once. A single essay for Parfrey’s anthology Apocalypse Culture II. Not one of my best, and we politely battled over the edits, but it gave me the opportunity to work with one of my favorite publishers. Once I remember Parfrey telling me he found plenty of great researchers who weren’t great writers and plenty of great writers who weren’t great researchers, but the complete package was hard to find.

O’Connor falls closer to the “great researcher” side, which is not to say he’s a bad writer in any way. His prose leans toward basic journalism; clear and concise, but there’s little coverage of what he or his subjects were thinking or feeling, or what it all means. Not many soldier-poets among his subjects, I guess. He makes up for this with a nice, thick slab of facts, photos, and insights on a usually invisible world. I was concerned Chicagohoodz would be yet another account of a seedy culture by yet another heedless white boy. To my relief, the book lacks Hunter S. Thompson impressions and Vice style danger tourism.

Originally a resident of Riverside, IL, O’Connor became interested in gang art when he made a friend whose family moved to the west ‘burbs to get away from his gang. The interest turned into a hobby, and a summer job gave him time to photograph graffiti in the big city. After moving to Chicago, he took to driving and biking through the neighborhoods, snapping pictures of murals and searching for anyone wearing the local gang’s colors to ask for details. Just as often they’d find him—a member usually stationed nearby to protect a mural from being splashed with paint by rivals—coming over to ask what the hell he was up to. After explaining, he was often able to convince gangbangers to talk or even take him onto the roofs where the biggest murals were. Connected by alliances, one gang led to another, and O’Connor’s collection grew. His approach—one of audacity mixed with nonthreatening curiosity, I hazard to guess—apparently kept him safe. I imagine “Jinx” would be fertilizing a corn field or intermingled with highway asphalt if he’d tried it with the Mob or a local one-percenter club.

Not all his meetings were pleasant. On his behalf, a friendlier gang asked another driving through their block if they wanted to talk. They did not. Furthermore, they followed O’Connor’s car for several blocks afterward. “Jinx” had a few near-misses, once peeling out and running a red light to avoid a brick or bullet through his window after a gang recognized his passenger/guide’s tattoos. Guns have been drawn in his presence, and he describes the sound of bullets whizzing past as he sought cover. Less perilous, though irritating, the police frequently pulled him over and searched his car—the sight of a white boy in certain neighborhoods catching Chicago’s finest’s eye.

O’Connor’s diligence led to an amazing collection. The bulk of the book consists of page after page of the aforementioned compliment cards, going back to the earliest days. Decades before the Kings, Disciples, Royals, et alia, appeared, Chicago had multiple social athletic clubs (SACs), usually connected with a sports team, the neighborhood’s dominant ethnic group, or both.  First appearing in the 1940s, compliment cards likely evolved from SAC invitations to dances and other social events. The cards served several purposes. Most were handed out to invite girls to parties and potential recruits to join, but sometimes they were thrown in stacks of 50 onto a rival gang’s corner as a challenge.

Early cards were lo-fi affairs. Unsurprisingly, many were printed free of charge in high school shop classes, with the gang’s name, a list of officers, and clip art of top hats, martini glasses, Playboy bunny logos, and the like. The cards got busier. Dead members earned a RIP beside their names. Rival gang abbreviations and symbols were inverted to show disrespect, with the initial K—for killer—as a suffix. (Say you don’t like the T-Birds from Grease. Just add the abbreviation TBK and everyone knows where you stand with Danny Zuko and his pals.) If a rival came across your card, a diss or death threat was inevitably scrawled on it. And the cards passed from hand to hand to hand.

O’Connor spends much of the book explaining such semiotics. Most older Chicago gang names and graffiti emulate medieval heraldry and old-school images of machismo and power (kings, lords, knights, bishops, and popes). Olde English calligraphy also lent itself to rapid, if inelegant, tagging. Later gangs adopted more sinister imagery (devils, skulls, and pitchforks), and added intimidating adjectives (insane, almighty, maniac, and unknown) to their names.

O’Connor goes beyond the cards and graffiti. Raised on images of leather-jacketed and -vested gangs through The Warriors and Happy Days, the fact that many Chicago clubs favored varsity sweaters was a revelation to me. Decorated with coats of arms and stripes in the gang’s colors, it’s more unsettling to see the juxtaposition of preppie sweaters, gang signs, and sawed-off shotguns than you’d think. Jumping a rival and stealing his sweater also became a practice.

For all the art contained in Compliments of Chicagohoodz, you won’t find much beauty. The best is at the skill level of that kid you knew in high school who scrawled pentagrams, band logos, and cool Ss on his desk. Heck, he probably threw up tags himself. Astonishing volume aside, the contents aren’t laid out in any particularly compelling way, but maybe that’s appropriate. Every card is different, yet every card is the same. The symbols vary, but there’s always a list of deceased members, accompanied by declarations of death to the mopes on the next block. Grim stuff.

Most of the photos are lacking the crispness we’ve grown used to in the digital age. I envision 1980s Jinx driving around with his 35mm—one was stolen from his car as he searched for murals once—or disposable camera, snapping pix and bringing the rolls to Fotomat or the Jewels to order prints. The photos do lend a gritty verisimilitude (while reminding my badly aging self of how long ago the 80s are now), but I wish he’d taken a professional shutterbug with him. In fairness, like a war photographer, I presume he had to sacrifice finesse for speed. Yet, Chicago history fans and lovers of nostalgie de la boue will find much to like here. Despite their quality, the various snapshots of sign-throwing gang members of yore and the Chicago and suburban buildings that hosted their sigils are rare things. Fashion mavens will adore the many looks from the not-so-good old days, from the leather jackets and duck’s ass styles of the 40s and 50s to the gloriously feathered hair and pimp ’staches of the 70s and 80s.

It’s an impressive piece of work, compiled with a dogged devotion to getting things just right. It best resembles a museum catalog for an exhibition, the text terse and descriptive, if a bit freeform as a whole. Compliments of Chicagohoodz makes a game attempt to compartmentalize and be chronological, but there are so very many gangs and so very many threads to follow, and text is often suddenly broken up by several pages of compliment cards, sweaters, logos, and the like. All terribly cool, but it’s hard to find a particular narrative to latch onto.

Maybe O’Connor’s pursuit was danger tourism or slumming on some level, but he provides a better perspective than we get from the news and entertainment industry. In Chicagohoodz, gang can mean many things. Not necessarily negative, though usually. Many were started by unvarnished thugs, but some began semi-innocently as party crews, while one current international crime conglomerate was founded as a human rights group. But while the weed of crime may bear bitter fruit, that fruit is quite profitable, and more often than not the gangs took the dark path.

O’Connor excels from another angle: despite the suggestions of a certain politician and his admirers, gang isn’t synonymous with criminal organization run by immigrants of color. The book’s bits on the Latin Kings and Black P. Stone Rangers’ revealed how much I already heard about them versus the absolute nothing I knew about Chicago’s white gangs, many of whose cards featured not crowns, stars, and baby devils, but rather swastikas and klansmen. Most favored white supremacy—imagine—wanting to keep nonwhites out of their ’hoods. But Compliments of Chicagohoodz reveals how often the original philosophical/prejudicial underpinnings of some gangs have faded. Former yellers of “white power” now have black and Latino members in their numbers, just as clubs that, historically, ran to the black or brown have taken on white members. Overarching alliances like the People and Folks also brought once rival gangs under their separate banners. It’s dizzying. Literally, where gangs are concerned, nothing is black and white anymore.

*****

Whenever O’Connor was pulled over by the police, he’d explain his project, leading one pissed-off cop to admonish him, “What the fuck are you doing? This is the kind of thing we’re trying to get rid of, and you’re hyping these guys up!” An unfair judgment. I came across nothing I’d call “hype” in the book, nothing to make Johnny Goodkid look up his local gangbanger lodge (that’s what they call them, right?) to join up and have the adventure of a lifetime. Compliments of Chicagohoodz is less on hyping and more on showing O’Connor’s collection and sharing a portion of hidden Chicago history. Not a comprehensive gang history—as I said it’s more of a catalog, displaying an attention to detail I’ve encountered in military medal collectors, miniature soldier painters, and Civil War re-enactors—but respectable. You get the sense O’Connor wants to get things exactly right, and with no embellishments. Considering his subjects, that’s probably a good idea. I think O’Connor had a lot to say and wanted to say it all, but it might have been better served in a firmer and more sequential format. Some charts, graphs, and pictographs wouldn’t have gone amiss too. Credit to him though for preserving a subject neglected out of…good taste, I suppose.

Compliments of Chicagohoodz left me with one thought: gangs eat youth. Many escaped—growing up and starting families, careers, and less chaotic lives—while others moved on to organized crime (O’Connor describes one gang as a “farm league” for the Mob), or death. The litany of nicknames, usually flashy sobriquets like Joker, Satan, Shorty, or Capone, often with the appellation Li’l before their names, followed by RIP is numbing. O’Connor himself experienced the death of several friends and guides over the years. Their passing—by guns, knives, drugs, or avoidable accidents strike a dull drumbeat throughout the book. I pondered what draws kids to gangs. Protection, power, and a place of honor among your comrades, sure, and sometimes they’re not given a choice. But the book’s contents made me wonder what need was fulfilled by the trappings “Jinx” collected.

Some sociologist has probably explored the obsessive drive men and boys have for the collecting and memorization of the minutiae of military insignia, sports statistics, trading and game cards, comic books, and video game challenges and  achievements. Back in the day, the accoutrements of gang life might have served as similar enticements for the “peewee”, “midget” or other junior members of a gang. Is it a stretch to suggest the fascination with pitting colorfully named fighters with storied pasts against one another comes from the same place? I wonder if the above games and past-times serve to divert young male aggression elsewhere. If so, the technique needs some fine-tuning. Maybe a complete overhaul, in light of the online thuggery practiced by fans of the above. It does leave me thinking that somewhere in Compliments of Chicagohoodz there’s a slimmer book or long-form essay exploring this aspect. I hope O’Connor tackles that project next.

Compliments of Chicagohoodz is available for purchase at local bookstores and the Feral House site.

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