Long before Chicago gangs took to social media to stoke violent feuds, the street crews of the 1970s and ’80s—from Thee Almighty Gaylords to the Insane Spanish Cobras—gilded their reputations and recruited new members in the customary manner of the professional class: by handing out business cards, known more commonly as “compliment cards,” that displayed cryptic symbols of pride, lists of members’ nicknames, clues about controlled turf, and no shortage of emblems of disrespect to enemies. With Thee Almighty & Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards From the 1970s & 1980s, Brandon Johnson has assembled more than 60 compliment cards from his personal collection into a 96-page clothbound book, released in December and now in its second printing. Johnson, a 32-year-old native of southwest-suburban Downers Grove and the managing editor of the New York-based contemporary art publication Zingmagazine, spoke about the enigmatic cards as historical artifacts that show Chicago’s street gangs at a period of transition from the hyperlocal neighborhood crews of the 50s and 60s to the wide-reaching organized criminal enterprises of the mid-80s and 90s.

As told to Jake Malooley

The first thing people usually ask is, “Why would a gang have business cards? If you’re committing crimes, do you really want to identify yourself to the police?” Well, the gang members’ names on the cards are all nicknames, and they were not giving police any information that wasn’t already available on the street. These days gangs often promote themselves on Twitter and Facebook. The gang cards are sort of proto social media. They were one form of communication in addition to the very public form of gang tags.

I first saw a compliment card when I was 12 years old. I was going through some things in the attic of my parents’ house in Downers Grove. The card was in an old cigar box of my dad’s childhood effects. It was a box of curiosities—a copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, some squirrel pelts, weirdly—and I started sifting through it to learn more about what his youth was like. My dad is originally from Bensenville, near O’Hare. When I asked him about the card, which repped the Royal Capris, he wasn’t very forthcoming about its origins. He told me his friend had made it in what he called “graphic arts class.” At that time I accepted his answer and moved on. Years later I was back home from college and my parents told me, “You have to get rid of some of your old stuff that’s up in the attic.” And once again I took a peek through my dad’s things, found the card, and was like, “I’m going to hold on to it this time.” I just thought it was cool. Soon afterward I found some information online about gang compliment cards—one site in particular that’s been around a while is called stonegreasers.com—and realized my dad’s card was part of a much bigger phenomenon.

I went back to my dad and said, “Hey, you never really told me much about this card.” He said, “Oh, yeah, actually my friend Ricky was in this gang, Royal Capris, and he came to Fenton High School for his senior year.” I think Ricky’s parents were trying to get him out of the city and keep him out of trouble so he could graduate.

I began collecting the cards about five years ago. I saw a few on eBay and bought them—individually at first, then connected with some buyers as I began building up a collection from there. They ranged in price from about $10 per card to $60 or $70, depending on the rarity. I’ve seen them for sale for upwards of $125, $200. One of the sellers that I bought some of my cards from is a former Gaylord, who was a good resource. I bought some off a guy who used to be a house DJ in the 80s who’s now a mail carrier. I don’t know if he just collected the cards from friends or if he himself was in one of the gangs. That’s the thing about this particular collecting hobby—it’s somewhat shadowy and a bit taboo because it involves street gangs, and there’s an element of menace that surrounds the objects. But as historical artifacts, they interest me.

As part of the research behind the project, I read a slew of books about gangs in Chicago in the late 70s and 80s: My Bloody Life: The Making of a Latin King by Reymundo Sanchez, a pen name; Romantic Violence in R World by Mark Watson, about someone in the Simon City Royals; and Lords of Lawndale: My Life in a Chicago White Street Gang by Michael Scott.

From what I understand, the cards were sort of a prestige thing for gangs. They were looking for inspiration at some of the organizations that preceded them, such as social athletic clubs or other membership-oriented organizations, like political organizations, that had membership cards. The gangs picked up on those traditions. Around the same time as the cards and a little before, gangs used to create and wear sweaters in certain colors with patches. Similarly, they thought the cards added prestige to what they were doing. There were some known local, small printers in different neighborhoods who would create the cards, and gang members used them to rep themselves and handed them out for the sake of recruitment. They’d throw a stack on an opposing gang’s corner to show disrespect or even trade them back in the day and collect them as keepsakes.

By looking at the cards as anthropological artifacts, one major dynamic that becomes apparent is the fact that race played a part in the conflicts between gangs. A lot of migration was happening between the 1960s and the ’80s in Chicago. White and Latino gangs on the north side often clashed over changing neighborhoods. Working-class whites were leaving neighborhoods that they had been living in, while some stayed behind. At the same time there were Latinos being pushed out of neighborhoods such as the Near North Side that they traditionally lived in, and they had to find new places to make a life for themselves. So white gangs often perceived themselves as defenders of “their neighborhood” from encroaching outsiders, whereas Latino gangs saw themselves as defending against racism and oppression. Some of the white gangs used racist symbology. The Gaylords, for instance, used KKK or white-power symbols. I was a little bit hesitant to put those cards in the book, but I didn’t think it was my role to censor history no matter how fraught.

That said, it wasn’t all divided across racial lines. In 1978, Larry Hoover founded Folk Nation, and the People Nation was founded in opposition to that. Each of these gang coalitions had cross-race alliances between gangs. At a certain point the gang and its alliances superseded racial affiliation to some extent. The gangs represented in Thee Almighty & Insane were smaller—neighborhood by neighborhood, but some also had branches in other areas of the city. It wasn’t until the 80s that gangs generally became large business enterprises and grew more concerned with making big profits off the drug market. These days Chicago gangs are once again more fractured due to the crackdown on gang leadership in the 1990s and the demolition of the city’s public housing projects. In another point of comparison to the 70s and early 80s, today’s splintered gangs seem again to be more about very block-to-block concerns.

Some of the gangs that handed out compliment cards in the 70s and 80s were more like social crews, neighborhood boys who spent a lot of time out in the streets. Back then, there was sometimes a finer line between a club of friends and a gang. In the late 60s and early 70s, the Conservative Vice Lords, which were founded in Chicago, branded themselves as a community uplift organization. The compliment cards speak to the gangs being these social institutions even as they promote gang members’ reputations for violence. The Latin Kings started in Chicago in the 50s as a way to support and defend Latino culture before it evolved into a vast criminal operation. People can look at the cards today and they seem kind of silly—the nicknames of the gang members and the gang names like the Almighty Gaylords. But the 70s and 80s were extremely violent times in Chicago. When the gangs on these cards rep themselves as “GLK”—Gaylord killers—they’re not kidding. People died.

Credit: Levi Mandel

One of the other things that’s clear looking at the cards is that beyond promoting their reputations for violence, gangs prized advertising their social elements—how much they party and how good they are with ladies. The Stoned Yarders, for instance, were just a party crew. They weren’t considered a street gang per se. The Party People, on the other hand, originated as a party crew and transitioned into a street gang. So there was definitely a social aspect, because some of the crews had grown out of greaser gangs—a group of young friends and their ladies who hang out at, say, a particular burger joint. One card for the Party People describes the gang as drinkers lovers fighters. They sold the lifestyle as a good time in addition to being violent.

Embedded in the cards is a lot of symbolism. Once you learn the language, it sheds light on how the gangs on the cards interrelate and how they operated. One of the most commonly occurring symbols is the Playboy logo. Obviously Playboy was founded in Chicago, and it seems that gang members saw that symbol as a representation of a certain prestigious, glamorous, or sophisticated lifestyle that has traditionally been associated with Playboy. It eventually became an accepted symbol of the Almighty Vice Lords Nation. You also commonly see cocktail glasses, dice—the gangs were limited by the stock graphics that the printers offered, even though elements of the cards were hand drawn. They also tried to shout out their enemies and disrespect them as much as possible. Like if a gang puts its rival’s symbol upside down, that means disrespect. A crown symbol upside down is disrespect to the Latin Kings, for example. Most initials that end in the letter K mean “killer”—so “K-K,” for instance, means “King killer.”

After I published the book, I thought that more people who were or are members of any of these gangs would come out of the woodwork and contact me. Late last month I had a booth at the LA Art Book Fair and had some of the original cards on display. A former member of the Latin Kings stopped by and bought a copy of the book and he saw that one of the cards I have is from the K-Town Latin Kings. He was like, “Whoa, crazy, that’s my old neighborhood!” He connected with this history of what now seems to him a former life.

While I think the compliment cards are very cool objects as printed ephemera, I don’t ever want to divorce them from the on-the-ground reality that’s behind them. People died and lives were ruined. So while there is this initial, surface-level bizarreness about and attraction to the cards, there’s also a deeper level, a background of violence. It’s interesting how a small piece of paper can carry pretty heavy history.  v