In 1970s and 1980s Chicago, wearing the wrong sweater could get you killed.
Chicago gang historian James O’Connor recalls, “There was a young man named Tessie, he was a Gaylord. If I remember correctly, I sure hope I’m right, he was, he got caught coming out of a sweater shop, think it was on Milwaukee, he was caught by the Orquesta Albany street gang coming out, and they killed him coming out for his sweater. It’s tragic. There are a lot of stories like that and it’s unfortunate.”
O’Connor grew up in the city’s near western suburbs, where he says he got an up-close look at Chicago’s street gangs. “I had a lot of neighbors that would move in every once in a while and again, I’m a little kid, maybe 10 years old, these kids are telling me, ‘I came from Cicero and when I get older I'm gonna be a Noble Knight.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I paid attention.”
O’Connor says he was never a gang member – in fact, he went on to join the Guardian Angels. But he became fascinated with the elaborate iconography of Chicago’s street gang subculture. He began documenting the extravagant gang graffiti in photographs and researching the history of Chicago’s street gangs, including one aspect unique to Chicago gangs: letterman-style sweaters embellished with gang symbols. Today, O’Connor collects the sweaters as historical artifacts.
So how did something as wholesome as a letterman’s sweater become the uniform of violent street gangs? Their evolution parallels the way many gangs evolved from what were known as social athletic clubs. The clubs, which have roots stretching back to the turn of the century, began as community or school groups, often with sports teams. Some clubs showed off their membership with coordinated jackets. In the 1960s, clubs began to wear letterman-style sweaters in the club’s colors, adding custom patches with their club logos.
Zach Jones, who runs the website chicagoganghistory.com, describes the practice. “Everybody’s identifying with each other by wearing the sweater, that’s part of their club culture. And then as far as the symbols, you’ve got all your different symbols, like snakes, you’ve got eagles, you’ve got the Latin King head with a crown, you’ve got a skull with a top hat. Just about every gang has their own little character or symbols, like a diamond, something like that.”
As the neighborhoods changed over the years, the clubs became territorial, and fights would break out after neighborhood events like softball games.
Says O’Connor, “One gentleman from a social athletic club known as the Esquires from Pilsen, he said they weren't troublemakers, they wouldn’t go to other neighborhoods to pick fights, but when the other clubs would come into the neighborhood they would defend it. Well, they also, playing these other social athletic clubs – he said that we might lose the game, but we'll win the fight.”
As the social athletic clubs devolved into street gangs, the sweaters became a way for gangs to flaunt their colors, and a kind of code developed. Gang members would drape their sweaters over their arms when entering enemy territory to indicate they were not looking for a fight. The sweaters’ colors indicated different functions – a sweater with a black body and colored trim was known as a war sweater, and the reverse scheme was called a party sweater.
Jones explains, “The war sweater would be like, ‘let’s go rumble,’ or ‘I want to cause trouble while I’m representing.’ And the other one was ‘let’s just all party together while I’m representing.’”
Wearing the sweaters could mean risking your life. Gang members would assault and even kill each other to capture the sweaters as trophies. O’Connor says, “Gangs would go another neighborhood and find a gang member wearing a sweater, and they would threaten him and take his sweater. That was a big trophy for that gang member but it was a big insult to the rival.”
A common practice with a captured sweater was to turn the gang patch upside down as a sign of disrespect.
Jones recalls a murder case from 1981. “A member of the Villalobos stole a Kool Gang sweater, so another guy from the Kool Gang wanted to get it back for him, so he went to hunt down the guy who took it but instead ended up hunting down his brother and sister. They're walking down the street, the two of them, a guy hid in the bushes came out and shot them both.”
Losing a sweater also put you at risk from your allies. “If you went back to your neighborhood without your sweater, you were probably going to get beat up by your own gang if you didn’t get your sweater back,” says O’Connor.
For law enforcement, these easy-to-spot indicators of gang affiliation were a godsend. Retired Chicago police sergeant Peter Koconis remembers, “It really was advantageous to us as policemen, because you'd see a group of guys walking down the street with black and gold, with the crown, well, these guys are gangbangers. We'd just pull over, stop them, search them, we’d do that stop and frisk, we'd find guns in the cars, so it was like they were advertising. My partner and I had a little collection, from Popes and Kings and Eagles, we'd take the sweater and turn it upside down, and that used to aggravate the hell out of them.”
Once gangs realized the sweaters were a liability, they began to adopt less flashy practices to show affiliation. By that time, Chicago gangs had split into two factions: Folks and People. Larry Hoover, the leader of the Gangster Disciple Nation, formulated the idea of alliances between gangs while in prison and brought several gangs together under the Folks banner. Jeff Fort, leader of the El Rukns, formed the People Nation as a response. Gangs under the Folks faction would wear their hats tilted to right; People gangs would wear their hats tilted to the left. Jones adds, “Wearing one glove on one hand, rolling your pant leg up on one side, leaving the left or right shoe untied” were also signs of affiliation.
Later, sports apparel was co-opted as gang representation. O’Connor says that “[sports apparel brand] starter jackets became popular. Starter jackets, they looked similar to gang sweaters, they had the colors, often they would even have the emblems – crowns, eagles. Or the University of Kentucky, the Unknowns would wear that. And the Royals, [the Simon City Royals gang] they’ve been wearing those jerseys from day one.”
Now long past their heyday, Chicago gang sweaters have become a curiosity, almost quaint to those who don’t know their bloody history. Occasionally, the sweaters or patches will even turn up for sale in online auctions. Jones says that former gang members hold onto their sweaters as mementos. “A lot of guys, it just sits in the closet and they bring it out for memories, they take a pic. I’ve seen them online – guys 50-something years old, grey in their beard – they're still proud of it, it still symbolizes a lot.”
But to O’Connor, the sweaters represent a more complicated legacy. He slides a grey sweater emblazoned with an Insane Unknowns patch and the name “Lil Kent” onto the table and carefully arranges the sleeves. “This sweater belonged to my friend Danny. I hung around with him for a lot of years and he showed me what the neighborhood, what gangbanging was like in his neighborhood. He’s passed away. He was killed in front of his door.”
Gang sweaters weren’t the only holdover from the early days of social athletic clubs. Koconis also recalls another practice unique to Chicago gangs of the era that helped law enforcement crack down on gangs. “Some of the gangs actually put out little business cards and they would hand them out and it made it easy to identify who was what and who was where.”
Hear more about gang business cards in the video below.
O’Connor believes the cards were another vestige of gangs’ neighborhood club origins. “I can’t say when they started, I’ve seen them as old, myself personally, I’ve seen them far back as 1962, but I’m sure there are cards that are older. There’s probably been some form of compliment cards as far back as, I can’t tell you, but I know they liked to see their names on dance tickets. So when they would throw a party, when the gangs in the early days, social clubs, etc., would advertise for a party, their name would be on there. So they liked to pass those out too.”
Like the sweaters, O’Connor collects them as a relic of the era. “They were used to invite you to the neighborhood as well as the representation. Eventually they got really elaborate. They had one guy in the Gaylords that worked in a print shop, so they were coming out with them every week, and it almost turned into a competition with the Simon City Royals and some other gangs. They would throw them in rival's neighborhoods on their corners bundled up in a rubber band, just to, you know, just to razz them.”
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