Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.

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9780226667720: Wallbangin': Graffiti and Gangs in L.A.

Graffiti is as ubiquitous as telephone poles in America's cities; it is as old as the earliest civilizations. The most public medium in the country today, graffiti can signal territory, love, or liberation. Ironically, graffiti is understood by only a fraction of those who encounter it. Usually read as a sign of urban decay and as a loss of control over the physical environment, graffiti has become one of the most potent cultural languages of our age. Wallbangin' is an unprecedented, in-depth look at this phenomenon as it is embodied in the neighborhoods of one of its epicenters, Los Angeles.

Anthropologist Susan Phillips enters the lives of the African-American and Chicano gang members to write a comprehensive guide to their symbolic and visual expression. She not only decodes the graffiti—explaining how, for instance, gang boundaries are visually delimited and how "memorial" graffiti functions—but she also places it in the context of the changing urban landscapes within the city. Graffiti, she argues, is inextricably linked to political change, to race, and to art, and she demonstrates how those connections are played out in contemporary L.A. Wallbangin' is, on this level, an iconography of street imagery. But it is also a very personal narrative about entering the world of L.A. street gangs—a world of pride, enemies, affirmation, and humanity where gang members use graffiti to redefine their social and political position in society.

To many outsiders, graffiti is cryptic, senseless scribbling. But Phillips explains it as an ingenious and creative solution to the disenfranchisement felt by those who produce it. With personal narratives, provocative photography, and contemporary voices, Wallbangin' unlocks the mysteries behind street-level ideologies and their visual manifestations.

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From Kirkus Reviews:

paper 0-226-66772-3 An anthropologist from UCLA constructs a semiotics for decoding the graffiti markings of street gangs. Phillips expresses an interest in the general availability of graffiti as a sign system both historically and cross-culturally, but her main focus is on how gangs in L.A. deploy this form of writing to symbolically demarcate their geographical and political boundaries. Her impetus for the book was an incident in which one young Hispanic ``tagger'' was killed and another wounded by a white vigilante who was carrying an illegal handgun. Public response to the story seemed to indicate a high level of support for the shooter, thus indicating that the general fear of graffiti and its effects on neighborhoods warrants severe measures be taken against its practitioners. What the public fears to be a cryptic threat to its safety and quality of life, Phillips recognizes as a creative response to a situation of nearly intolerable disenfranchisement. More than this, Phillips employs her study of graffiti as a methodology for writing and thinking about gang life and issues without fixating on violent behaviors and stereotypesas often occurs in academic work on street gangs. By photographing wall markings and then bringing the pictures with her as she seeks out individual artists for interviews, she builds a bond with informants who might otherwise have been very hesitant to speak about their work with an anthropological field-worker. She studies and compares the graffiti styles of African-American gangs, such as the Bloods and the Crips, and Chicano gangs, such as the Santa Monica Little Locos, and explores how the medium allows gangs to close themselves into bounded systems, cordon off territories, make their places within neighborhoods, define friends and enemies, and negotiate a host of political and cultural concerns. Perhaps the least hysterical exploration into the life of urban street gangs in the US to date. (13 color, 104 b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

From School Library Journal:

YA-A superbly appealing cover invites readers to explore the world of graffiti, hip-hop, and gangs. What follows is a good introduction to hip-hop culture. Readers will gain new insight into the social, political, and economic world of the minority community. In addition, they'll learn new meanings for the words " friends," "family," and "foe." Phillips does a fine job of comparing and contrasting the lifestyles of young Chicano and African Americans of Southern California, who happen to be in gangs. The text is profusely illustrated but only a few of the photographs are in color, with gang members displaying their art. It delineates the effect neighborhood, politics, and culture have on daily life for these urban teens. The most outstanding feature of the book is the pride, spirit, and allegiance that come through in the voices of these young people. Teens will not view this book as a glorification of gang behavior, but rather as an objective look at a specific social group not readily covered in mainstream media. Gangs do exist in many communities and one hopes this book would provide interested parties with vital information on how to communicate with them. A must-read for anyone concerned about the future of Generation X.
ayo dayo, Chinn Park Regional Library, Prince William, VA
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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