Books by Susan A. Phillips

Released: June 1, 1999

paper 0-226-66772-3 An anthropologist from UCLA constructs a semiotics for decoding the graffiti markings of street gangs. Phillips expresses an interest in the general availability of graffiti as a sign system both historically and cross-culturally, but her main focus is on how gangs in L.A. deploy this form of writing to symbolically demarcate their geographical and political boundaries. Her impetus for the book was an incident in which one young Hispanic "tagger" was killed and another wounded by a white vigilante who was carrying an illegal handgun. Public response to the story seemed to indicate a high level of support for the shooter, thus indicating that the general fear of graffiti and its effects on neighborhoods warrants severe measures be taken against its practitioners. What the public fears to be a cryptic threat to its safety and quality of life, Phillips recognizes as a creative response to a situation of nearly intolerable disenfranchisement. More than this, Phillips employs her study of graffiti as a methodology for writing and thinking about gang life and issues without fixating on violent behaviors and stereotypes—as often occurs in academic work on street gangs. By photographing wall markings and then bringing the pictures with her as she seeks out individual artists for interviews, she builds a bond with informants who might otherwise have been very hesitant to speak about their work with an anthropological field-worker. She studies and compares the graffiti styles of African-American gangs, such as the Bloods and the Crips, and Chicano gangs, such as the Santa Monica Little Locos, and explores how the medium allows gangs to close themselves into bounded systems, cordon off territories, make their places within neighborhoods, define friends and enemies, and negotiate a host of political and cultural concerns. Perhaps the least hysterical exploration into the life of urban street gangs in the US to date. (13 color, 104 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >