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Did You Know... Gangsters Gave Out Compliment Cards?

Compliments of: Chicago Gang Culture offers a deep dive into the history of gangs in the city of Chicago, spanning the 1960s to the 1990s, and highlighting over 40 years of history with critical essays and a comprehensive documentation that deep dives into the artistic merits and fashion influences that were emitted from a cultural phenomenon that is now celebrated and emulated, but its origins and dark history are often overlooked. The book is written by Chicago native Alec Banks, with a foreword by multi-faceted artist, musician and fellow Windy City native, Vic Mensa.

We caught up with Alec, who gave us the lowdown on a handful of interesting facts from the book, including why the Chicago Police formed their own gang, what sweaters represented during those times and the reason for the use of compliment cards by gangs.

Gangsters Gave Out Compliment Cards

Why were gang members, the Latin Kings, the Gangster Disciples, Insane Popes, gangs like that, passing out compliment cards? Well, it's a layered answer. For one, it was the social media of the era. Before you had Facebook or Twitter or other means of a way to talk shit, to big up your homies, et cetera, this is how you did it. There were card wars where it was a game of who could be the most pervasive in a particular area. In many ways, a compliment card was used to excite potential membership. It was to taunt rivals.


If you lived in a gang neighborhood or between two gang neighborhoods and you were unaffiliated, that was almost more dangerous than being in a gang because you didn't have the protection of other guys and girls. Let's say you're just a civilian and you need to get from point A to point B to go to your job. If you want to do that without any problems, sometimes you would receive a compliment card from a gang as a quasi hood pass. It might say, courtesy of Snake and be a Latin King's gang card. That was basically if somebody approached you and said, what are you doing in this neighborhood, and you could produce a card that said, Snake sent me, I'm all good, it was a pass to say, I'm a neutron. I'm unaffiliated, and I'm just going about my day. Regular citizens could use these cards as a means of proving that they were neither pro or anti a particular gang.

Cardigan Sweaters Were Gang Related

When you think of gangs, you don't really think of compliment cards and sweaters, but here you have these Richie Cunningham Happy Day sweaters existing in Chicago, and they were printed all over the city. It was a way, not unlike what you saw in the eighties and nineties of showing your particular gang color. Whereas in the nineties, gangs adopted the stylings of a particular team that shared their colors, ala, the Bulls and the Bloods sharing the color red. This predated that. Instead of, let's say the Latin Kings who wore white and black wearing Pittsburgh Penguin's gear, they didn't really make that connection yet, but they still had their color palette that was established. There was something called a party sweater and something called a gang sweater. 


If you have the Latin Kings, being yellow and black, a party sweater would be the primary color and the secondary color. Their primary color was yellow and their secondary color was black. If the sweater you were wearing was predominantly yellow with hints of black, this was called a party sweater. This was worn in times of peace. This was worn to maybe parties to show that I'm affiliated with the Latin Kings. I'm cool. I'm someone you should get to know. If the colors were reversed, ala the sweater was predominantly black with hits of yellow, this was called a war sweater. This was used to intimidate rivals. This was used to be sinister. I think of it a little bit like the motorcycle outlaw 1% motorcycle gangs. While they don't have different cuts, the cuts themselves represented who they are and why they were sinister. 


As a result of these sweaters being so important to gang culture at this time, a sweater became a badge of pride if you could pry it off of a rival. There was many sweater related murders in the city of Chicago because the worst thing that could happen to you is a rival whooped your ass and then took your sweater. I guess an ass whooping would be a good thing because a lot of people lost their lives over the sweaters they were wearing. This wasn't just men, this happened with women, et cetera.

The Police Had Their Own Gang

I think one of the most interesting things I uncovered during this research phase was that not only was it a very strange and hectic time in Chicago as different mayors came in and there was initiatives to try to curb gang violence, I uncovered something that I really didn't expect to uncover. This was the fact that the Chicago police had something of a gang of their own called the Insane Fish. They too made compliment cards. They also made sweaters and t-shirts, they wrote graffiti, and in my estimation, it was a way of releasing the steam valve that accumulated as a result of trying to combat gang violence of the era. It was sort of like an inside joke that they took slightly larger than barroom chatter. They would drink beers, they'd go deface a mural. They'd shoot their guns at rats and they would arrest people and tell them, "Have you heard about this gang, the Insane Fish? They're the biggest fish in the sea."


I don't think that they took it too seriously, but it definitely was something that was an urban legend in Chicago, and I didn't know much about it. I was able to find a few members of the CPD who were in their sixties and seventies now who admitted to being part of it. They looked back on it fondly because this was a way of showcasing camaraderie amongst the Chicago police. I think ironically, they matched the stylings of the guys they were trying to catch. I know that the police officers I spoke to actually were a little appreciative that the gangs of the era had compliment cards.


Cards & Sweaters Were Made at Mom & Pop Shops 

A lot of the compliment cards were produced by printers in the city of Chicago that primarily, or non exclusively, printed up a lot of things like menus for restaurants or other things of that matter. There was a variety of places that made the sweaters. I identified the Chicago Knitting Mill on Montrose Avenue, ArtFlo on Roosevelt Road, and the Logan Knitting Mills in Emerald Park as being these sort of ground zero locations. Iconography was created as the byproduct of what was available. So for example, things like the hat, glove and cocktail glass icons, which were probably used for flyers for restaurants or clubs were all formally taken by the Vice Lords. 


Cards were also printed at technical schools. There were high schools in the area that might have had a printing program, and guys would do the printing. The people who created the compliment cards had to get permission from people above them to do it. It was usually bestowed upon individuals who had a slight art background but weren't necessarily Picassos. They might tell you, "Go print some cards at your high school," and they would do as they were told.

Stock Graphics Were Used As Iconography 

Compliment cards were usually printed at printing presses around the city of Chicago. A lot of them relied on stock imagery, things like dice, or crown, or stars, or things that might appear on menus or business cards of reputable businesses. When gangs decided that they wanted to flaunt their allegiances and nicknames not only to the general public but their rivals, they relied on the iconography that was available to them, so think toasting glasses or the Playboy bunny or a cross, things like that. Ironically, the symbols that became battle, ironically, the things that were utilized were things that were afterthoughts. These symbols that were on compliment cards then translated over into gang graffiti. 


You have this convergence of what was available, what was put on cards, and what was subsequently used in spray paint. The actual compliment cards could be physically manipulated as well. I've heard stories and seen examples of something of an origami style compliment card where the letter K was sort of torn out of the edges, or raised, in that case, stood for killer. In this instance, they might be insinuating that they were a killer of a certain faction.


Compliments of: Chicago Gang Culture, published by BEYOND THE STREETS and Radio Raheem, is now available through our online store and will be sold in-person at our flagship gift shop in Los Angeles starting June 10, 2023.