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In 1970s and 1980s Chicago, wearing the wrong sweater could get you killed

By Erica Gunderson, WTTW/Chicago Tonight

In 1970s and 1980s Chicago, wearing the wrong sweater could get you killed.

Chicago gang historian James O’Connor recalls, “There was a young man named Tessie, he was a Gaylord. If I remember correctly, I sure hope I’m right, he was, he got caught coming out of a sweater shop, think it was on Milwaukee, he was caught by the Orquesta Albany street gang coming out, and they killed him coming out for his sweater. It’s tragic. There are a lot of stories like that and it’s unfortunate.”

O’Connor grew up in the city’s near western suburbs, where he says he got an up-close look at Chicago’s street gangs. “I had a lot of neighbors that would move in every once in a while and again, I’m a little kid, maybe 10 years old, these kids are telling me, ‘I came from Cicero and when I get older I’m gonna be a Noble Knight.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I paid attention.”

O’Connor says he was never a gang member – in fact, he went on to join the Guardian Angels. But he became fascinated with the elaborate iconography of Chicago’s street gang subculture. He began documenting the extravagant gang graffiti in photographs and researching the history of Chicago’s street gangs, including one aspect unique to Chicago gangs: letterman-style sweaters embellished with gang symbols. Today, O’Connor collects the sweaters as historical artifacts.


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