Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
Members of the New York street gang Savage Skulls strike a pose reminiscent of West Side Story. The trademark of the primarily Puerto Rican gang was a sleeveless denim jacket with a skull and crossbones design on the back. Based in the South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point, the gang declared war on the drug dealers that operated in the area as well as running battles with rival gangs.  

 

 
Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
Savage Skulls members walk the sidewalk shoulder to shoulder, in a scene right out of West Side Story.

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
Savage Skulls member, displaying a member’s leather jacket, poses with her child holding his pacifier. The gang provided some sense of family and stability to many disaffected youth.

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
The Savage Skulls hone their skills through mock fighting.

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
A savage Skulls member of the Dirty Dozen Gang, a friendly rival of the Skulls.  

New York City in the 1970s was a landscape of freedom verging on anarchy. The city, which teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for the better part of the decade, had fallen into disrepair as the federal policy of “benign neglect” revealed itself as yet another malignant practice of the Nixon administration. The policy, which claimed to be designed to ease tensions after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, did nothing of the sort. It authorized the abandonment of urban neighborhoods, particularly those with a majority African American population, leaving the people of the community to fend for themselves.

As a result, street gangs gained power as they defended their turf. The gangs, which had long been a part of the city’s fabric, grew in fame and resonance. The street gangs of the Bronx, most notably the Savage Skulls, Glory Stompers, Blue Diamonds, Black Cats, and Black Spades, were among the forerunners of the nascent Hip Hop movement, which had just begun to take shape. Street gang activity peaked in 1973 and then began to decline. But it was right at its apex that photographer Jean-Pierre Laffont ventured into the Bronx to see what was going on.

In his landmark monograph, Photographer’s Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990, which garnered Glitterati Incorporated the 2014 Lucie Award for Publisher of the Year, Jean-Pierre Laffont recounts the journey into Savage Skulls territory. He writes, “During the summer of 1972 the name of this gang made headlines in New York City newspapers more than once, as they violently settled scores with drug dealers. Gang members were easy to spot on Fox Street, one of the main streets in the Bronx, but one still had to approach them. For a first encounter I didn’t want to be alone, so I went with a cameraman friend. From the supposed safety of our car, we initiated contact with several of them with surprising ease. They quickly had numerous questions for us: they wanted to know who we were, where we came from, what we wanted, where our images would be printed, and if we worked in black-and-white or color. When we assured them we weren’t reporters from the American press, they invited us to follow them; we did, and they introduced us to about 20 other gang members. The majority of them were between 13 and 20 years old of Puerto Rican origin, and Spanish went fast among them. Right off the bat, they told us they didn’t want to be questioned about their lives or their gang, but said we could film and photograph them.

“I returned alone the next day with just a camera and they welcomed me as if I was an old friend. They showed me where to park my car securely and I followed them into their world. The Skulls were the ‘Enfants Terribles’ of their neighborhood. They strolled from block to block and stopped to chat with the police. From time to time they would meet a member of another gang and I saw them pass off a pistol in broad daylight without a care. They liked to line up side to side along the entire width of the sidewalk. Their uniform was a jean jacket, sometimes of leather, upon which was sewn ‘Savage Skulls’ in large letters.

“Their graffiti was everywhere. ‘Savage Skulls’ was written on doors, walls, garbage cans, telephone booths.  They were very affectionate with each other. The couples made out in public and held hands. Together they formed a large and very close family. They spent a lot of time with their relatives and played with each other’s babies. Their mothers sat on their stoops joking and teasing them. They fought playfully with one another using sticks as pretend guns, and practiced fighting with knives.

“I learned that their leader had just been released from the hospital after being wounded by a bullet in the abdomen. His number two hadn’t been so lucky, and was dead. I took photos without asking a single question about the shooting and no gang member violated their code of silence.

“In the neighborhood, were many empty public spaces, including basketball courts surrounded by wire fences where they would climb and chase one another like in a dance. I photographed them and thought of the film West Side Story.

“They took me to their club in the dark basement of a building. Two or three lamps with colored light bulbs lit the wall, upon which were scattered posters of movies, sports figures, girls, and bands. The music was very loud but they didn’t dance. This was a place where they could talk without end about their projects, their outings, and their encounters. They drank beer and showed off their ‘bling’: knives, handcuffs, brass knuckles, etc. When I took my leave, they gave me hugs and told me to ‘come back whenever you want,’ and I felt that they meant it sincerely.

“The Bronx was densely populated with several other gangs at the time: the Dirty Dozen, the Seven Immortals, and the Savage Nomads, to name a few. Rival gangs had clearly delineated zones with rules of engagement. It was obvious to me that anything that occurred outside their universe held little interest to them. Though living in an outer borough of the biggest city in the world, they made no effort to integrate into a society that ignored and rejected them. They didn’t think of themselves as citizens of the United States; they respected their own laws and made others respect them as well. They had an elected leader who they obeyed. Their goal was to defend themselves against the police. They declared war against drug traffickers, who were forbidden from entering their zone. Some gangs had been known to send interlopers plummeting to their deaths from rooftops for the police to find on the sidewalk.

“I felt admiration for these struggling, disadvantaged youths, who, by banding together, found a way to empower themselves and support each other despite the misery that engulfed them.

"Today, it is with great tenderness that I look over my photos of the Savage Skulls. I am often asked many questions about them and I've recently been offered the opportunity to get back in contact with some of the former gang members who are still alive. I will be seeing them soon... 40 years later... Actually, a lot of people are interested in this story: there is a lot of excitement from professionals and spectators who love this gang's story."

Links 
Photographs from Photographer's Paradise: Turbulent America 1960-1990 by Jean-Pierre Laffont 
Curated by Miss Rosen 

 
Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
A very young member of the New York street gang Savage Skulls shows off an improvised weapon while wearing various patches on his denim vest.

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
A member of the Savage Skulls poses in their clubhouse with a bottle of Colt 45 and a knife. The Savage Skulls declared war on drug dealers and refused to let them have control over their neighborhood.

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
A savage Skulls member of the Dirty Dozen Gang, a friendly rival of the Skulls.  

 


Bronx, New York City, New York/July 20, 1972
Savage Skulls graffiti adorns the door of a public restroom. The South Bronx neighborhood of Hunts Point was in the midst of severe social decay during the 1970s.