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The Production of Gang Signs

Published in Currency Zones of the Future by Recreational Data & Lucky PDF at Frieze Art Fair 2011. Edited by Ben Vickers & Matt Drage.


Published in December 2010, Statutory Guidance: Injunctions to Prevent Gang-Related Violence has received increased coverage in the wake of the recent London riots. Indeed, it has become central to David Cameron’s ‘all-out war’ on gangs. The document aims to decode the clothing symbolism of certain criminal demographics with the intent of banning all outward signs of belonging to a particular clan.

The guidance observes that a group uses ‘a name, emblem or colour or has any other characteristic that enables its members to be identified by others as a group.’ These inner-mechanisms constitute the visual counter-part to a vernacular that is principally a separatist form of communication. Therefore the functionality of a language, intended to be internally distinctive, but externally imperceptible, is challenged by this guidance document.

If and when Parliament’s injunction succeeds in dissolving one embodiment of this language, it might at the same time hold responsibility for catalysing the formation of a new, more refined language. Ironically then, statutory guidance designed to repress and restrict the visual symbolism of gangs might instead find itself encouraging an increase in innovative creativity. Therefore, in response to legislative conservatism, gangs may find themselves raising the bar on a deviant consciousness.

Although, the guidance specifies methods of visual communication employed by gangs i.e. emblems and colours, its catch-all phrase, ‘any other characteristic,’ opens a fertile grey area from which the future system will emerge. A new constant is required to operate autonomously from an externally acknowledged system of colours. Where once, members were represented by an emblem, or ‘flag’, the gang now becomes disassociated from its colours, emptying the flag of its imbued significance. Through this separation, colour becomes an afterthought; merely an unimportant, transparent coating hung upon the framework. Equally, emblems in their current form are rendered obsolete.

Through this process of refinement, the potential for a material dialect of structural uniformity presents itself. This alteration requires only a slight focal adjustment to the concern and target of the eye; shape, line, scale and proportion replace colour. Reduced to the panels of its construction, the anatomy of a garment can itself be an emblematic object; the symbol of a union. Furthermore, as the icon is inbuilt within the core structure of the garment, it is capable of re-presenting itself in a plethora of colourways.

This potential strategy parallels models already adeptly cemented within the fashion industry. By adhering to a self-prescribed system that exploits slight shifts– as opposed to grand departures – brands have established objects that transcend functioning as a surface on which to apply a logo and instead, act as the logo itself. Nike’s Air Max trainer, Eastpak’s Padded Pak’R backpack and New Era’s 59FIFTY fitted cap epitomize this approach. A cool, architectural confidence pervades the process through which permutations in shade, treatment and fabric act as events for the object to reassert its structure. In essence, the object’s framework and therefore the logo and brand, are further perpetuated by a ceaseless accumulation of self-referential versions.

As such, Nike-ID offers its customers the panels of the Air Max as drop boxes for a prescribed ‘bright, expressive’ palette; a glorified colouring-in book in the guise of a glossy, digital rendering. This model mirrors the success of special “collaborative” projects conducted by brands with designers and artists. The products that derive from these partnerships are again conditioned by the same strategy; variation can be played-out, but only within the guidelines of an established template. For Eastpak, the embellishment of an auxiliary pocket, monogram and detailed zip-head upon the facade of their pre-existing backpack framework apparently constitute sufficient adjustments to declare that the ‘classics have been reinvented.’

Such hyperbole parallels the dynamic effect of minimal alterations within gang culture. The government secures an understanding of the “classic” whether it is a colour, emblem or logo, as a fixed singularity. However, the classic it describes – and seeks to isolate – is in fact a vehicle for perpetual modification and countless transitory manifestations. The introduction of the slightest amendment to this language sets in motion prolonged procedures of consultation, evidence gathering, application, serving and enforcement, as detailed in the injunction. This protraction and destabilisation in the government’s aptitude to respond makes apparent the near impossibility of halting an inherently itinerant dialect. Ironically, the legislative move to disband gang colours can only succeed in making the ability to detect, prove and reprimand gang membership more difficult than ever.


JRB 2011

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