Symbols have an entrenched significance in gang culture: gang signs, colors, graffiti, and tattoos provide a coded visual language for communicating gang identification and in-group signaling. In Chicago from the 1960s to the 1980s those symbols were also put to paper, in the form of”compliment cards” that were traded and collected by members and their allies.
Decades later, Brandon Johnson has also been collecting the cards, which he compiled in his new book Thee Almighty & Insane, published in December. He considers them sociological artifacts, printed with Olde English typography, powerful icons, and names like Cowboy, Sylvester and Lil Weasel—all of which meant something specific to the people exchanging them. Today, they also reveal aspects of Chicago’s urban history during a time of acute migration within the city.
Johnson was 12 when he came across his first gang card in his childhood home in Chicago. It was nestled inside of a cigar box filled with his dad’s keepsakes. “I asked him about it and he told me that his friend made it in graphic arts school,” Johnson says. “Being younger at the time, I didn’t really question it.” Years later, on break from the University of Denver, he rediscovered the card cleaning out his things from his parent’s attic. Curious about its significance, he took it back to Colorado and looked up ‘Royal Capri’s (Chicago),’ the name of a minor gang from Northwest Chicago that was printed in red ink in the center of the card. The card, he learned, was part of a larger phenomenon of “compliments of” cards exchanged by local Chicago gangs, adorned with information symbols, nicknames, territories, and enemies.
Johnson spent the next five or so years collecting other examples of these cards, which he found on eBay or through individual sellers—mainly former gang members who had kept their collections. He eventually learned the real story behind his dad’s card, too: As he told Vice in a recent interview, his dad got it from a friend in high school whose parents had moved to his neighborhood near O’Hare to get away from gang life. Other cards he found online were “compliments of” the Latin Kings, a notorious Hispanic Chicago street gang, as well as gangs like the Insane Pope’s, the Insane Unknowns, and the Stoned Freaks—the latter of which boasts a slogan of “Sworn to Fun Loyal To None.” Gang names range from Lil Ceasar and Salsa to Kookie Ridgerunner, and symbols of power, like crowns and crosses, were common across gang lines. Allies identified each other based on these familiar symbols.
Less benign symbols allude to the history of a city long divided along racial lines. In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, racial unrest in Chicago was exacerbated by an influx of immigrants, many of them from Latin American countries. In 1965, the civil rights movement paved the way for amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act that repealed quotas limiting immigrants from countries outside of Western Europe. As a result, Hispanic immigrants in Chicago moved into historically white neighborhoods, prompting “white flight” to the suburbs. “Many of those who stayed behind were expressing nativism and resistance,” says Johnson. “This found an expression through the street gangs.” The Almighty Gaylords, one of the most powerful white gangs at the time, included blatantly racist symbols like Klansman on their cards.
While many gangs were divided along racial lines, over time alliances started to form among white, black and latino gangs. Two main sects formed: the Folk Nation and the People Nation. Many of the cards Johnson found have the symbols for either of those groups—pitchforks for Folk and six-sided stars and pyramids for People—either turned upside down or broken in half in a simple of disrespect for the enemy. Johnson associates the prevalence of Olde English type on both sides as an assertion of power. He recently saw an exhibition in Mexico City that traced the usage of Olde English fonts in everything from The New York Times to the Catholic Church, each signaling in its own way authority and control. He points toward the use of similar fonts by the Nazis as well. “They are menacing and have always had that quality in some sense,” Johnson says.
With Thee Almighty & Insane, Johnson has unearthed a strange and fascinating piece of graphic and urban history that has clearly resonated with people. Since the book was published in December through the independent house Zingmagazine books, where Johnson is the managing editor, it has sold out its first print run of 500 books. Still, Johnson says that exposing the history while not glamorizing or celebrating gang culture can be a difficult balance to maintain. The key, he says, is contextualizing it. In addition to what he found online, Johnson read three memoirs by members of three different gangs at the time, and he continues to add to his research. For the next printing, he’s expanding on a brief essay about the cards’ history in the front of the book.
Gang violence is still a problem in Chicago, a city that experienced 4,300 shootings and more than 750 homicides in 2016 alone. During the decades the compliments cards were exchanged, gangs violently divided a city already engulfed in racial tensions and civic unrest. Meanwhile, cities like Los Angeles and New York experienced gang violence as well—yet strangely enough these cards are a uniquely Chicago thing. That specificity seems reason enough to preserve the printed ephemera, while remembering the time and place from whence they came.