Brandon Johnson saw his first gang business card when he was around 12 years old. Nestled inside a cigar box filled with his father's old pocket knives and squirrel pelts was a wrinkled curio ––"compliments," it said, of a group called the Royal Capris. When the preteen inquired as to who Jester, Hooker, Sylvester, Cowboy, and Lil Weasel were, his dad simply replied that a friend had made it in art class back in the day. Later, when he was in college, Johnson dug a little deeper and uncovered a largely untold story about the history of gangs in Chicago.
Today, Chicago is one of the most deadly places in America. In 2016, the city saw some 4,300 shootings and more than 750 homicides—more than in decades—and some were gang-related. It's tempting to view these business cards as a throwback to a more quaint time given the gun violence currently devastating Chicago, but they actually help tell the story of how it came to be divided along racial lines. Some of the cards are silly and feature graphics like the Playboy bunny, but others feature hooded Klansmen––a reaction to shifting immigration patterns in the 60s and the perception among some whites that their homeland was being threatened.
Granted, Johnson, now 32, has no relationship to any gang violence. He's just a dude from the suburbs with a poetry MFA and a lot of ephemera that's been collated into a book through zingmagazine. I called him up this week to ask how he put together Thee Almighty & Insane, what it can teach us about the history of a deeply troubled city, and why this hyper-specific print subculture went the way of zines.
VICE: For starters, in your research, did you ever figure out who the Royal Capris were and why your dad had their card decades later?
Brandon Johnson: So the Royal Capris were a minor white gang from the Northwest side of Chicago. There's not a lot of history that I've been able to find about them specifically, but my dad grew up kind of near O'Hare Airport in the suburbs, and in high school, a friend of his was in the Royal Capris. He had actually come to my dad's high school in the last year or two––I think his parents were trying to get him away from the city and gang life, so he could finish school. Anyway, my dad befriended him, and I guess he just passed my dad that card, and he held onto it because it was a cool little token. He put it in a cigar box with some other things from his childhood, and it ended up in our attic, where I eventually found it.
How did you get your hands on more of them?
It seems like a lot of it is former members who actually collected the cards while they were in gangs. There was a lot trading when the cards were actually made. So it's just kind of a natural progression from people having collections while in gangs to getting older and getting out of them but still having meetups where former rivals would all party together and exchange ephemera like cards and cardigan sweaters with patches. I got my cards through the internet from a former member of the Gaylords who had amassed a very large collection from buying people out over the years. And then also this collector of things of that nature who was a house DJ in the 80s. He knew someone who was selling off a collection of Latino gang cards that were more rare.
What's a typical scenario in which one of these would be handed out? I mean, there's no real contact info or anything on there that could be construed as useful, right?
The contact info was the corner or where they hung out––their territory. I think it was just to rep their gang mostly, for pride of the gang, the prestige of being in a gang. I've heard they were used to recruit, so giving them out to younger guys in the neighborhood and saying, "Yeah, that's us." Also I think just as general tokens for affiliation. If they were having a party at a bar or something, they could say, "Show them this card at the door, and you'll be good." And I think they were looking back to social-athletic clubs that existed in the city before their time and what some of the gangs came out of, actually, like softball teams and stuff. So membership cards. It was something they adapted from the groups they came out of.
Did the rise of gangs in Chicago have to do with the decline in participation in civic organizations that some historians say characterized mid-20th century America?
I think that might be true of the gangs that came out of softball clubs, but the Latin Kings were a political group in the 60s. And there were greaser gangs made up of high school kids getting together about territory and girls and stuff. What happened in the 70s and 80s was lots of migrations around the city and so things kind of divided along racial lines. The white gangs felt like they were defending their neighborhoods from Latinos who were moving to where they lived, and there was simultaneously white flight occurring. The Latino gangs felt like they were defending against discrimination, looking out for their people, and trying to just now defend a life for their people in Chicago. If you look through the book, you can see for example that the Gaylords have white power symbols and things like that, and I've heard it said that this was more posturing, but it's there. But, at the same time, there were alliances that were across races.
Did you learn how to read the cards by diving into urban history or solely by by studying their aesthetic?
I guess a little bit of both. It's evident in the cards who are members of Folk Nation, People Nation––these were started in the late 70s. The Folk Nation was started by Larry Hoover, and he was the leader of the Gangster Disciples, and he was in prison at the time and reached across racial lines to create a sort-of alliance. In reaction to this, the gangs that weren't included created another alliance. In the late 70s, this was a big dynamic that occurred. Folk and People have different symbols. So you can kind of see who's against one another or with one another. There are a couple books out there written by former members that give first-hand accounts, and other sites that provide history for these things.
Can you talk a little bit about the iconography of the cards? Everything seems to be in almost Olde English, and there's imagery like unicorns, which seems goofy for would-be gangsters. What should the virgin eye be focusing on?
As an outsider, seeing this weird aesthetic, like "The Almighty Midget Gaylords from So-and-So," you're like, "What does that mean?" But I don't know, it made sense to them in certain ways. Putting symbols upside down means a sign of disrespect, for example. And I think certain things were like stock graphics that maybe the printer had available, because they were using what they had at hand and saw other gangs doing. The design decisions were a bit limited to what they could find or hand-draw.
Check out our VICE News short on how 2016 was the worst year for gun violence in Chicago in decades.
How were these cards made, and did their quality confer special status like in that scene from American Psycho?
There's definitely varying quality, and from what I can tell, they were all made with off-set printers. It seems like there are a lot of local printers throughout the city where the gangs could go to and get 500 cards for 20 bucks or something. Pretty standard business cards, but some of them, like a Latin Kings one I have, is like a glossy gold color with black printing, and that would be a little more premium. Some look a little three-dimensional and have a diamond-effect, which are more desirable as far as collecting them goes.
Can you talk a little bit about how external factors fed a narrative of newcomers versus established groups, and how that helped lead to the formation of these gangs?
In the 60s and 70s, people were abandoning cities for suburbs, and there were new migrants coming in around 1965, when Congress made changes in our immigration policies as a result of the civil rights movement. And it allowed people from outside of Europe to come to the US in larger numbers. So there was a large amount of Latino immigration happening, and a lot of them were going to Chicago, because there was a lot of opportunity in the big city. So between these civic projects that were happening like the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the building of highway interchanges, etc., different groups that had been established like Puerto Ricans who had been there a couple of generations, were being pushed out and evicted. They needed new places to live, so they moved inland a little bit to places like Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Wicker Park. A lot of those people there were moving out to the suburbs because Latinos were coming into their neighborhoods, and they didn't like that. So these shifting dynamics and the people who stayed behind felt like their neighborhood was being invaded. This all ended up helping create street-level conflicts between teenaged boys who were almost certainly influenced by older people in their community like their parents who had certain views.
It's unique to Chicago, yes, and that's something I find very interesting and special about them. I'm from a suburb of Chicago, so I have some degree of pride in that city, and I just think it's cool that it's an idiosyncratic phenomenon in that way. I can't say why it only happened in Chicago, but it did, and it's part of it's history and is a unique print subculture that existed right before things went digital.
Learn more about Brandon Johnson's book here.
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