April, 2007 - Photographer, Howard Gribble Interviewed by Christian Acker

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HS: So what is your connection to Cholo graffiti? Why did you take such care in documenting this?
HG: Well, I had seen it around when I was in high school in the late 1950s and early 1960s, though it didn't seem as prevalent and in your face as it would later become. But at about the same time I was listening to local radio and some of the Disc Jockeys would allow listeners to make on air dedications of the records being played. The usual type stuff, "From John to his girlfriend Mary". This was common all over the country. However, I did notice that the Mexican youth usually extended the list of those being honored to include many family and friends, often with unique nicknames. These dedications would often amount to a "roll call" and at the end they'd wrap it up with an emphatic reference to their neighborhood. So I'd hear of places with cryptic sounding names like "White Fence" and "Clanton 14" and "Wilmas". And naturally I'd wonder about these places and their residents. What I was hearing was actually a form of tagging the airwaves with the callers seemingly intent on getting their 'hood's name "up" as often as possible. Though I've only recently come to recognize the connection between dedications and graffiti, it seems that this is certainly an origin of the standard gang graffiti format seen about town to this day.

Living in the midst of all this I was aware of and quite interested in the whole scene. At the time media coverage of gangs was usually confined to individual incidents. You didn't see in depth features and gang lifestyle was not a part of popular culture, as it is today. But getting out and about in the L.A. area I began to slowly learn more. Up until the mid-1960s I somewhat naively believed that the whole Chicano gang cultural thing was a fairly recent development. But in the library I found a book that revealed the astonishing fact that the Pachuco (a term that had almost vanished from everyday usage) lifestyle had been around since before I was born! The book, "American Me" by Beatrice Griffith and published in the late 1940s, was a sympathetic treatment of the zoot suit Pachucos and the riots of the war years. And there was mention of some of the areas of the city I'd heard of in the dedications and even graffiti. So for me there was a real history there, even then. And I admired that.

At the same time programmatic architecture (those crazy diners in the shape of dogs and similar stuff) caught my eye and I decided I'd like to do a series of paintings documenting the subject. But when I set out to photograph reference examples I discovered that few survived. I did notice a lot of graffiti though and soon realized that its varied images and powerful messages were unique. That, coupled with the outlaw nature of the enterprise, made graffiti itself an attractive subject to document. So I took it up as a project with little thought as to any end it might serve.

Howard Gribble: A very interesting piece! First of all the roll-call lists half a dozen members by their given names rather than the gang nicknames so often seen.

Secondly, we have the "RXS" marking on the left. In her excellent book "Wallbangin' " author Susan A. Phillips offers considerable speculation as to the meaning of the "R-S" marking often observed in early gang graffiti. At least in this case, the meaning is clear. To the right we have spelled out the gang name, "Royal Saints".

Under the "RXS" is "CxS" for "con safos", which means "protected by God". And without a doubt, one would expect nothing less than God's blessing for them for they are, after all, the "Royal Saints"!

Political awareness is also represented by the "Chicano Power" at extreme right. Such sentiments were rarely seen with gang graffiti at the time. 

Howard Gribble: "Jardin" (Spanish for "flower garden") is an archaic gang name for the South Los Angeles community of Gardena. The term fell out of popular usage at least 40 years ago and only an Original Gangster (called a Veterano in Chicano gangs) would remember this bit of trivia today. "Gilbert" did this clean piece of work.

HS: How large of a geographic area do these pictures cover?
HG: Most of Los Angeles County. I was in the San Fernando Valley often at this time but don't remember a significant amount of graffiti there. East L. A., South Central and the Harbor area were obvious locations but there were smaller enclaves about the city where there was activity too.

Howard Gribble: "Los Tulies" was a part of North Redondo Beach, which was also known as "Jim Town" in the 1950s. The few remaining gangsters in the increasingly gentrified Redondo Beach now prefer "North Side Redondo" or, as also included here, R13. Loco, presumably the writer here, has also seen fit to express his affection for Gloria. 

HS: Did you deliberately seek out gang graffiti to photograph or did you photograph what you happened across in your normal travels?
HG: Once I had the equipment needed I decided to make a project of it. I probably started near home but almost immediately realized that I needed to cover as large an area as possible and try to document regional differences. So I'd just drive around the streets looking. Most of these photos were taken in a "drive by" fashion. Admittedly, most of the good material that's been published about graffiti and gangsters has featured interviews and interaction with the writers themselves but I didn't have the skills -- or balls -- to take that approach.

Howard Gribble: More than half a century before Dog Town became a popular line of merchandise for skateboarders there was a neighborhood in Los Angeles bearing that nickname. It took its name from the city animal shelter (or, as it was known then, the "dog pound") located nearby. The clothing logo, rendered in classic Chicano gang style lettering, is obviously "inspired" by (if not ripped off from) these old placas. It seems highly unlikely that the homies would trademark their vandalism so they missed out...but who of us would have ever guessed?

"Trese", which appears below, is Spanish for the number 13, which was an important icon in gang grafitti. 

Howard Gribble: "Deadeye" from Dog Town has created this placa with a deft hand. It should be noted that the swastika, as used here, is more of a decorative device than a political symbol. Most gang members of the time would have had only the vaguest notion of its association with the Nazis. 

Howard Gribble: The Chola Queens were a female gang from Lawndale. In an interesting and common departure from proper grammar, their gang nicknames are proceeded by "La", the Spanish equivalent of "The". Other members at the time included "La Chica", "La Chuca" "La Negra" and "La Shorty". 

HS: I know you have commented on the use of swastikas in the placas as a pretty common motif, but you're opinion is that they are probably not related to Nazi/race politics? Why do you think it is as common as it is? 
HG: While culling the collection for pictures to upload to Flickr I was a surprised by how frequently the swastika appeared. I hadn't remembered it as being that common. I still believe that the average gang member of that era (and this one as well) probably had only a vague idea of what the symbol stood for. But they did understand its shock value and incorporated it solely for that purpose. During the same period some motorcycle and car clubs adopted the German "Iron Cross" as part of their image and that continues to this day. The difference probably is that the "Iron Cross", while also a part of Nazi regalia, dates from the early 19th century and therefore has less stigma attached to it. I think gang members more than likely just lacked the political and historical sophistication to recognize this difference.

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