An Urban History: The Influence of Street Gangs on Contemporary Art

By Rodrigo Ribera d’EbreDecember 14, 2015

An Urban History: The Influence of Street Gangs on Contemporary Art
Left: Saber, Too Many Names, 2015, mural, spray paint on wall at the Long Beach Museum of Art. Photo credit: Laura Vargas


THE INFLUENCE OF STREET GANG CULTURE on art in Los Angeles has been systematically underrepresented by academia and art history. Although scholarly research has traced the origin of gang graffiti from the 1930s on, this aesthetic has been largely absent from the dialogue about the shaping of modern art. Since the Art in the Streets exhibition at MOCA in 2011, renowned museums and galleries all over the world have become more accepting of street art, graffiti, tagging, and other such nontraditional multidisciplinary mediums. In Vitality and Verve: Transforming the Urban Landscape at the Long Beach Museum of Art, for instance, on view from June 27 through October 25, 2015, Chicano artists are featured, as is a piece by graffiti artist Saber that boldly confronts the issue of officer-involved shootings. In Los Angeles, this type of art is directly related to a complex interrelationship of the histories of street gang organizations, architecture, urban planning, and the built environment.


In the Roaring Twenties, cultural anthropologists Manuel Gamio and Emory Bogardus discovered a youth phenomenon that they referred to as “boy gangs,” young male cohorts that congregated on the streets without parental supervision. Because of the decade’s emphasis on wealth and consumerism, and the rise of Hollywood, little attention has been paid to the mixed-race, low-income neighborhoods that included Irish, Italian, Slavic, Mexican, Armenian, and Russian-Jewish residents. These neighborhoods were more vulnerable to the small gangs — Alpine Street, Frogtown, 38th Street, Clanton Street, Loma Street, White Fence, and Dogtown in East Los Angeles and 17th Street in Santa Monica, among others — that appeared throughout the metropolis. Many immigrant neighborhoods developed shantytowns around railroad maintenance yards where these boy gangs formed. Sometimes called “tomato gangs,” their conflicts often involved food fights, using produce picked from train cars. Researchers began to see these boy gangs as a threat to the social order.

The Crash of 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression shifted civic attention to economic recovery. During the Depression, government agencies emphasized funding public works projects to keep people employed while simultaneously developing a stronger infrastructure in what turned out to be imperial nation-building. Artists of the era were employed for public works, giving them, for first time for many, a sense that their role in society was necessary. Millard Sheets, a renowned artist of the “California School” and Watercolor Movement (Sheets among other things designed the Los Angeles County seal), said that artistic expression during the New Deal felt politically and socially relevant, like it could affect change.

Millard Sheets, Seal of Los Angeles County, California,
1957, 216 x 216 in, drawing, Author: Kenneth Hahn

During the same time period, gang graffiti began to appear in the form of commemorative plaques — or placas — on walls, on school desks, and as cement carvings in the sidewalks in working-class neighborhoods. These images were symbols of rebellion mixed with a warped sense of patriotism. Even though mainstream society considered gang members to be second-class citizens or foreigners, gang members embraced their neighborhoods with civic pride as they fought to simply exist. The writing on the wall was a reflection of a hard-boiled collective identity, formed against a world that saw them as invisible and unwelcome.

For young Mexican-American men, street gangs and graffiti represented paths to reclaiming public space and forging a relationship with their neighborhoods. Like traditional commemorative plaques that bore names, years, locations, and brief explanations, gang plaques incorporated the same, including the year, names of individuals or roll calls, the name of the gang or location, and street colloquialisms. The typography tended to be block letters learned in elementary school, similar to Bauhaus typeface, rendered monochromatically. This was relatively simple to create with limited technique and tools.


During the Depression, large-scale public works projects such as the Arroyo Seco Parkway (which became the 110), hydroelectric plants, and bridges; the paving of roads, tunnels, and aqueducts; the draining, exhumation, and concreting of the Los Angeles River; and housing projects in mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods all contributed to a new psycho-geographic experience in the built environment. The vast physical space and openness of the Los Angeles metropolis was transformed into a large urban laboratory and became the testing ground for ideas, theories, and styles, with “housing garden-complex” public housing projects taking center stage. World-renowned architects like Rudolph Schindler, Ralph Flewelling, Frank Wright, Gordon B. Kaufmann, Richard Neutra, and others were contracted as consultants and designers.

After the Depression, city leaders, civic boosters, and other influential residents sought scapegoats for unemployment, lack of affordable housing, and other social ills. Mexicans and Mexican Americans, already targeted by law enforcement for social deviancy, were under the microscope. Earlier Americanization campaigns, sponsored by the progressive movement, had tried to assimilate this demographic into the status quo by providing English-speaking classes and manual vocation training, while encouraging pastoral folk arts like basket-weaving, but many refused the assimilation attempts, knowing that citizenship didn’t bring equality. The Alien Labor Act, passed by the California State Legislature in 1931, prohibited any business contracted with the federal, state, and local government for public works projects to hire or employ non-Anglo persons, resulting in hundreds of Mexican Americans being fired simply for their ethnicity. When these workers did what other Americans would do after losing their job and sought public assistance, they were accused of seeking handouts and denounced as socialist agitators. Racist propaganda agitated for repatriation for immigrants and even thousands who were born in the United States. The result of all of this was distrust of government, law enforcement, and authority, and a democratic process that seemed a facade. The uprooting of the Mexican and Mexican-American community, along with harsh discrimination and other forms of social disorganization, encouraged the growth of gangs.

The first housing project to be erected was in the suburban community of Maravilla in East Los Angeles, a predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood. According to Stephanie Lewthwaite in Race, Place, and Reform in Mexican Los Angeles (University of Arizona Press, 2009), Neutra was quoted as saying, “Maravilla’s flimsy, one-story, semi-rural buildings inspire and justify a definite slum clearance campaign, and was indeed well chosen for such a colony aiming at the Americanization of still unassimilated aliens of rural backgrounds.” The village-like living conditions and the effective quarantine produced by the projects increased street gang recruitment and violence and created a dystopian nightmare. In all housing projects developed thereafter, such as Ramona Gardens, Aliso Village, Estrada Courts, Mar Vista Gardens, and many others, street gangs and graffiti multiplied exponentially. William Dunn’s The Gangs of Los Angeles (2007) argues that the simplest explanation is that a Lord of the Flies mentality developed, where unmonitored cohorts of already rebellious individuals, ostracized from contemporary society, succumbed to an innate wickedness. In Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs (2013), I researched this phenomenon as well, and see it as a social contract of lawlessness and licentiousness, where a communal agreement is created with its own set of principles and norms. Since these young men were marginalized from the status quo and the dominant social contract, a new one developed in the underground, in the form of a sovereign street gang organization.


By the late 1930s, several violent incidents including the Happy Valley rumbles of 1939, White Fence assaults on Whittier Boulevard in 1940, the death of two Echo Park gang members by members of Boyle Heights in a drag racing event in Montecito Heights, and the murder of a Clanton Street member who was shot in the head at the Memorial Coliseum by a group from Primera Flats in 1942, brought infamy to Mexican-American street gangs. Law enforcement responded by instituting a “Dragnet” in certain communities, where hundreds of Mexican-American youth were rounded up, interrogated, and jailed for social deviancy. In the media, these boy gangs were referred to as “Mexican juvenile gangs” or “Mexican street gangs,” in an ongoing war on juvenile delinquency.

In 1942, this social phenomenon made it to the front page of the Los Angeles Times in what is now remembered as the “Sleepy Lagoon Murder,” in which members of 38th Street gang beat, stabbed, and killed a partygoer; however, the scandalous way in which the criminal justice apparatus handled the case demonstrated clear violation of the civil rights of the Mexican American, Armenian, and other youth involved. Twenty-four individuals were arrested and charged with murder, attempted murder, and countless other charges, and the prosecution sought the gas chamber for all suspects. They were all convicted on some charge. The incident and its aftermath caused a public outrage, in particular with progressives and local celebrities in the film industry, including Orson Welles, Anthony Quinn, Rita Hayworth.

The complete disregard for human rights and absurd way in which the case was handled influenced hundreds of individuals to join street gang organizations and caused the larger community to put pressure on the system to overturn the case. Soon, gang graffiti appeared everywhere, from beach communities to freeways, routine streets to concrete riverbeds. Over time it became more stylized, utilizing tropes and devices borrowed from Old English, Gothic/Blackletter, California Modern, and Bauhaus, and the streets of Los Angeles filled with aggressive, in-your-face calligraphy. The illegal graffiti reflected the bleak social conditions of the day, yet its aggressive vernacular was highly stylistic and progressive. The city’s failure to find the means to support and respond to the poverty, discrimination, and other issues Mexican Americans and others faced resulted in a direct attack on public infrastructure in the form of criminal activity and vandalism. No art form in the world has been as directly related to criminal activity as this, the propagandist graffiti of Mexican-American street gangs.

In the early 1940s, many second generation Mexican Americans were transformed from docile rural peasants to urban hipster rebels. Rejecting both Americanization and the kinds of Mexicanization campaigns launched by the Mexican Consulate — such as Spanish speaking classes, books in Spanish, and encouraging a return to Mexico — they sought to carve out their own identity by adopting folk culture from their parents, urban progress from their American contemporaries, and pop culture from the world around them. For countless rebellious youth, the zoot suit was key, borrowed from black American jazz musicians. Many Mexican Americans who felt marginalized adopted what they saw as a cultural tradition — including music and dress, jive talk, petty criminal activity, drug use, and rebellious angst — that went against the status quo. This new ideology and lifestyle became both signs and agents of change for the Mexican-American gang member.

Soon the Mexican-American gang member had a uniform, although not all zoot suitors were gang members. Since the United States was preparing to enter the military campaign via World War II in Europe, patriotism was at an all-time high and any radical behavior or style that wasn’t part of the status quo was considered subversive. Some city journalists even considered Mexican American zoot suitors as fifth column Nazis or soviet agitators and sensationalized them in local articles, which influenced hundreds of youth to be drawn to this mysterious underworld.

When the city built the Naval Reserve Armory in Elysian Park for Anglo sailors in training and displaced numerous working-class Mexican and Mexican-American families, it caused a further polarization for Mexican-American youth and authority. Rebellious youth reacted to white assumptions of superiority by engaging them in battle in individual conflicts that culminated in the “Zoot Suit Riots” in 1943. Immediately afterward, Mexican-American street gangs became identified by local residents as “defenders of the barrio,” similar to vigilance committees that existed up and down the state during the California Gold Rush. The “neighborhood” or the “barrio” became an extension of camaraderie, family, and loyalty, and defending it was of utmost importance.

As a result, gang graffiti became more prevalent in many neighborhoods, especially where there were no graffiti removal programs. Additionally, memorials began to appear for fallen comrades murdered by gang violence. Lettering styles used for signatures and neighborhood representation became a propagandist method to instill fear, define territory, and discourage passersby from walking or driving down neighborhood streets. Although considered simple territorial tags, the styles were often shaded with tri-dimensional fill-ins and cursive calligraphy, which produced hybrid hand-style variations.


In the postwar era, mid-century modernism was at its height across California, influencing designers to make products that would encourage consumption while gang typographers created hand-styles and images on streets and bodies that would soon influence countless disenfranchised youth in the metropolis to communicate fear and respect. To have your neighborhood tattooed across your chest in Old English or to tag your placaso on the streets came to symbolize, for youth engaged in gang culture, the highest form of rebellion, existentialism, pride, and even immortality.

By the 1950s, the Mexican-American community began to be more integrated into popular culture. For example, the “greaser” culture, custom car pin-striping and low-riding, and the postwar “cholo” look became part of the American aesthetic, and they slowly worked their way into the mainstream. It started with Kustom Kulture, soul music, weirdo style, and tattoo art, and ended up in films like The Wild One and Rebel Without a Cause. In the 1950s on the streets of Los Angeles, the cholo was the ultimate rebel without a cause, portrayed as a criminal psychopath — not the bourgeois James Dean–type in cookie-cutter suburban communities that co-opted the lifestyle and look as a form of being cool, rebellious, and suggestive. While Abstract Expressionism, Assemblage, Pop Art, and Conceptualism, which contributed to the Light and Space and LA Cool School, flourished in the established world of contemporary art, approaches once considered to be lowbrow began to gain popularity in the Los Angeles underground and set the tone for the local avant-garde.

After decades of imitation, Los Angeles was finally giving birth to its own styles, in part influenced by street art and the California cool that arguably grew as much out of beaches and barbeques as low-riders and zoot-suiters. In 1959, the renowned painter from East Los Angeles Roberto Chavez ruptured the art trends of the day with a bold blend of figurative, surrealist, and expressionist approaches. His painting El Tamalito del Hoyo, 1959, depicts a homeboy from the neighborhood standing in a cool gangster pose with feet pointed outward like a penguin, slicked-back hair, hand in pocket, head tilted back, broad shoulders, with street gang graffiti on a background wall that reads El Hoyo −M− Rifa, which is an East LA street gang, and stands for El Hoyo Maravilla Rifa or El Hoyo Maravilla “rules.” By incorporating the street vernacular, Chavez defied expectations of acceptable art. Up until then, street gang graffiti had never been seen in contemporary art.


In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became commonplace for the typographic styles of graffiti to be transferred directly to skin via amateur tattoos in prison. At the same time, artists like Willie Herrón, Chaz Bojorquez, Lucila Villaseñor Grijalva, and others began to incorporate gang-style graffiti lettering and imagery into their artwork, which fluidly appeared on business cards, periodicals, gallery exhibitions, public walls, and other nontraditional sites. The mural painting that began in public housing projects as a form of social transformation and neighborhood solidarity grew into a significant way to reclaim public space. All community members took part in the mural process. Often, rival gang members worked on murals together, depicting a cyclical process of gang violence and life in public housing via symbolism, and an emerging social consciousness encouraged a peace accord for the duration of the mural process. The success of the murals in the projects influenced citywide murals and, by the 1980s, Los Angeles was hailed as the mural capital of the world.

In 1976, tattoo artists Charlie Cartwright and Jack Rudy opened a tattoo parlor on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles and created single-needle, black and gray, fine-line tattoo art. Until that point, this tattoo aesthetic was primarily only rendered illegally by Mexican-American inmates in the prison system. When the Dogtown skateboarding phenomenon appeared in the Venice/Santa Monica area in the late 1970s, the punk/cholo aesthetic of the region resonated with disillusioned youth across the nation. A few years later, New York–style graffiti took Los Angeles by storm and once again an underground social movement transformed local youth. By the end of the decade, street gang and New York-influenced graffiti, Dogtown style, prison-style tattoo art, and public murals transformed the built environment and contemporary art. Today, approaches that started in the streets and jails of Los Angeles have influenced artists in Tokyo, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Barcelona, Sydney, Amsterdam, Berlin, and beyond. For more than 80 years, Mexican-American street gang culture has impacted contemporary art via a “dark progressivist” vernacular and today it can be seen as a cultural commodity experienced anywhere from iPhone cases to commercial airlines.

Cryptik, Walnut Mantra Case, 2015, 124.44 x 59.18 mm,
wood etching, Photo Credit: Cryptik


Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre is the author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, The NAFTA Blueprint, and A Grave Situation.

LARB Contributor

Rodrigo Ribera d’Ebre is the author of Urban Politics: The Political Culture of Sur 13 Gangs, The NAFTA Blueprint, and A Grave Situation. He is also the writer/director of the upcoming documentary film, Dark Progressivism, an urban studies film that follows the trajectory of Los Angeles gang graffiti, murals, and tattoo art, and their impact on contemporary art. He has written several articles about art and culture in Los Angeles, published in the Huffington Post, and he is currently a graduate student in the creative writing department at Mount Saint Mary’s University.


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