Years ago in Brandon Johnson’s suburban Chicago home he came across a keepsake box of his dad’s in the attic. “One object that caught my eye in particular was an aged business card that read ‘Royal Capri’s (Chicago)’ in red ink, and listed names: ‘Jester, Hooker, Cowboy, Sylvester, Lil Weasel’. It had stock graphics – a pair of dice and Playboy bunny logo – and in the top left corner the words ‘Compliments Of’.”
Time passed and Brandon came across the card again beginning his own research into what his father said a friend “made for graphic arts class in high school and left it at that”. His research however displayed “a greater phenomenon native to the Chicagoland area, most prevalent during the 1970s and 1980s when street gangs made business cards displaying their symbols, nicknames, territories, and enemies”. These business cards, gems of naive graphic design, became the focus of Brandon’s book: Thee Almighty & Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards from the 1970s & 1980s.
These small cards display nuggets of historical artefacts, both in their design and context. Created years before the ease of mass-produced business cards, Brandon recognised their aesthetically cultural worth. “The hand-drawn graphics, the ‘Old English’ typefaces, the outlandish names and clever slogans,” he explains are elements that time stamp the activity and attitude of Chicago’s gang culture. “For example, an upside-down symbol or name is a sign of disrespect. Acronyms ending with the letter ‘K’ mean ‘killer’ – so ’S.D.K’ is short for ‘Satan’s Disciples Killer’.
Brandon’s publication additionally displays racial tensions and “larger social dynamics” throughout Chicago at this time. “The Almighty Gaylords – a prominent White gang in Chicago during this time period – frequently utilised racist iconography and phrases on their cards. While these ideologies may have been half-baked and the rhetoric a form of posturing, demonstrations of racial pride (and hate) can’t be ignored,” he explains. “Readers are encouraged to draw their own conclusions on this subject.”
Published by Zingmagazine books, the book displays reproductions of over 60 cards from Brandon’s card collection. “While some of the gangs in this book are now defunct, others remain active. For various reasons the practice of creating business cards has fallen by the wayside…Those seen here part of a limited stock from the golden era of this phenomenon.”
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