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“Gang Signs” in the Chicago City Sticker: A Rorschach Test

Does Chicago’s new city sticker depict the signs and symbols of the Maniac Latin Disciples? Or is it an annunciation of the city’s public safety officials? It’s as much in the eye of the beholder as anything.

A weird story bubbled up from the local blogosphere and into the local media last night: “City Sticker Artwork Shows Gang Signs?” It’s described rather obliquely:

A blogger who writes about police issues identified the position of those hands as symbols often flashed by members of a notorious Chicago street gang. Concerned citizens began calling the clerk’s office Tuesday after those allegations hit the web, the clerk’s office said.

Jody Weis wasn’t much clearer:

Jody Weis, a former police superintendent who is now president of the Chicago Crime Commission that puts out a handbook on city gangs, said he initially saw the imagery on a Blackberry and didn’t think it looked like a gang sign.

But a short time later, when he blew up the picture on an iPad, he could see it much clearer and he changed his mind.

“It’s very, very close to a gang sign,’’ Weis told the Tribune when reached by phone Tuesday night. “It’s not exactly, but it’s very close,’’ Weis said.  “It’s too close to be a coincidence.’’

OK, here’s what happened. The “blogger who writes about police issues” goes by Detective… well, let’s just say the blog name might get blocked at your office, depending on how robust your filter is. He—just assuming it’s a he because of the blog name—picked up on what he thought were gang signs of the Maniac Latin Disciples bracketing a symbol of the gang. The MLD is a 40-something-year-old Chicago gang with a racially diverse membership that the Chicago Crime Commission’s Gang Book estimates as “at least” 2,750, a small but dangerous gang that was the subject of a CPD crackdown last summer after two young girls were caught in a Northwest side crossfire. According to the Gang Book, two or three admitted MLD members were arrested each year for murder between 2008 and 2011.

If you’re a grownup, you can read the post here. It got picked up by the widely read Second City Cop blog, which has posted several times on it (1,2,3,4). And now it’s a mainstream media story.

Here’s the sticker next to the gang sign and heart symbol in question, from the Gang Book:

Chicago city sticker gang signs

So… yeah. Is it “very close” to a gang sign? Detective Redacted thinks so (emphasis mine):

Look closely at the fingers and how they are being held…The 1st finger in front of the 2nd finger with the thumb extended back… It’s the pitchfork sign. A normal drawing of the hand would not have each 1st finger extended past the 2nd finger.

Last night I gave it to the most neutral subject who happened to be sitting on the couch with me, my wife, and asked her what she thought. She said it’s clearly not a gang sign, because you can see all five fingers raised on a couple of the hands. The MLD sign has two fingers down, because the hand represents a pitchfork, another of the gang’s symbols.

Jody Weis and the cops who brought this to the media’s attention spend their lives dealing with gangs, so I can see that a gang sign is the first thing that would come to mind—as well as the fact that the heart topped by the hands, well, looks kinda like a heart with horns. But I’m a weenie liberal arts major, so I thought it looked like an annunciation.

Annunciation Phillipe de Champagne

It was surprisingly easy to find an annunciation painting with the angel throwing an MLD sign at the Virgin Mary. Maybe the city sticker artist is a fan of Philippe de Champaigne; so was Cyrano de Bergerac. Or maybe de Champaigne was a Maniac Latin Disciple. Or maybe the fact that you can kind of see all five fingers represents the gang signs and the devil horns uncurling into an annunciation, representing how the city’s law enforcement officers are redeeming the city from gang—yeah, that’s the ticket. Someone tell Susanna Mendoza.

Or maybe don’t ask me; I spent a lot of money training to interpret things into oblivion.

But that’s not the only evidence brought against the sticker; the Sun-Times summarizes the some of the online research of the bloggers and their commenters (the internet being a rich source of gang research these days; emphasis mine):

Herbert Pulgar, the 15-year-old Lawrence Hall Youth Services student who designed the sticker, has photos of youths throwing the sign on his Facebook page, and of himself in a red bandana — the MLD’s color.

The Facebook page, which also features a photo of Pulgar posing with the winning sticker design, includes a long section of comments about the photo of youths showing gang signs. One commenter asks: “what u doing throwing up the fork ha what are u a gangbanger.”

But every source I’ve seen, including the Gang Book, has the MLD’s colors as blue or light blue, and black. And if everyone who was photographed showing a gang sign was a gang member, you’d have to lock up basically everyone under 30.

So who’s right? I have no idea. People who are trained to see evidence of gang membership might see the sticker as representative of gang symbols; people who aren’t might think it’s totally nuts. It’s a mirror of the problem with gangs: who’s a gang member? Who’s a gangster? Some people who are become gang members because they’re actually involved in semi-organized crime. Some people become gang members because it’s safer than not being one. Some people are simply caught up in the milieu, and adapt the trappings, consciously or not. Jody Weis doesn’t “know what was in the boy’s heart, but somebody needs to find that out.” But is what in the boy’s heart also in his head?

It’s a hard question. Art criticism always is.

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