Today I took my first tour of Bushwick, Brooklyn. A friend of mine once admiringly described the neighborhood as “raw as fuck.” I fell in love with the neighborhood not too long after stepping off the train. It reminded me of Bedford-Stuyvesant in a way. Poor but colorful. “Bombed out” just enough to give a really nice mix of landscapes. Great graffiti. Elevated train tracks. A few piles of rubble. Colorful people. My kind of place. The neighborhood is overwhelmingly Hispanic. It has a high crime rate, and probably can get a little scary at night. There are also rumored to be giant, code-violating lofts packed with poor artists. I’ve been meaning to investigate those.
I was walking down one of the neighborhood’s side streets when I noticed a long row of motorcycles parked along the curb. A leather clad man was standing near them. All of the walls along the street were covered in graffiti, so I sensed the opportunity for a great portrait.
One of the men was standing off on his own, so I approached him first.
“Excuse me sir,” I said, “Do you mind if I take your photo?”
“What’s this for?” he asked. I explained my website. “Hold on,” he said. “I want my friends to be in the picture.” He called to the two men standing nearby. Only one of them agreed to join him. Both men were dressed in all black leather. ”The Forbidden Ones” was stitched in large letters across the backs of the jackets. I arranged the men as best I could around a bike that had been parked on the sidewalk.
They seemed to be enjoying the process. They were laughing. They tried a few different poses, and I sensed a willingness to cooperate. But it was nearly noon so the sunlight was oppressive. The colors were a bit washed out, the shadows were huge, and the sun was glaring off the chrome of the bike. I suggested we move the bike 50 yards down the sidewalk to a better wall of graffiti. “It will look great because of all the purple,” I told them. The third man, who had opted out of the photo, was now encouraging his two friends. Before they could even answer, he shifted the bike into neutral and began pushing the bike down the sidewalk.
“That was great,” I told them. “What are you guys’ names?”
They introduced themselves. Chino is the one on the bike. Eight-ball is the one standing. They seemed like interesting guys, so I continued with the questions: “So what is this?” I asked. I motioned toward their matching outfits. “Are you guys in a gang?”
“Yeah,” said Eightball.
“I take it from the writing on your jackets that it’s called The Forbidden Ones?”
“Can I take a picture of your ring?” I asked Chino.
My random street interviews always start slowly and awkwardly. So I normally just dive right in.
“So is there violence involved?” I asked.
“There can be,” said Eightball.
“It’s not like it used to be,” said Chino. Chino was a good deal older than Eightball. “It’s nothing like the old days.”
“What were the old days like?”
“You know, people fighting for ownership of the block. People were getting killed over street corners. Guys were fighting over who owned a corner when in reality, ain’t nobody owned nothing.”
“So what happened?”
“Things change,” said Eightball. “Sometimes things just change.”
“But what caused the change?”
“People,” said Chino. “People changed.” People like Chino. “We realized that instead of destroying the neighborhood we should be protecting the neighborhood. We should be helping the neighborhood.” He pointed at the graffiti-covered walls that lined the street. “You see that grafitti? I authorized that graffiti. That stuff is by real artists from the neighborhood.”
“You own all these buildings?” I asked.
“No,” said Chino. “But this is my block. Ain’t nobody painting my block without permission.”
“What about the people who owned the buildings? Did they have a say in it?”
“Yeah, I went to them and said your building looks real bad, we’re gonna paint it. And they said OK.”
“Were you in a gang when you were younger?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I was wrapped up in it. You really couldn’t avoid being wrapped up in it. But now it’s all about helping the neighborhood. And riding my bike.” I noticed the number “222” tattooed on Chino’s neck. I figured it was gang related.
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing at the tattoo.
“That’s the date my daughter was born,” he said. Chino had outgrown violence it seemed. He’d matured. A taxi driver once said to me, ‘young blood is different than old blood.’ Such a powerful quote. Could the blood of a neighborhood grow old? Could it settle down, like Chino?
“You see that bike over there?” Chino pointed at a bike with purple ribbons tied to the handlebars. “That’s a cancer bike. Every year we raise money for cancer. That’s for my wife.”
“Does your wife have cancer?” I asked.
“She does,” he said. “She lives with it every day of her life.” Things change. Sometimes things just change. Blood grows old. People get cancer. But what about the young blood? How can the blood of a neighborhood turn old, if there’s always young blood coming in?
“What about you?” I asked Eightball. “Were you in a gang?”
“Nah,” said Eightball, “Not me.”
“He wasn’t in a gang,” said Chino. “But he had his shit going on. He was wrapped up in it.”
“Oh I was wrapped up in it,” said Eightball. “I was a real knucklehead. If it wasn’t for Chino, I’d still be a knucklehead. Chino saved me.”
“How’d Chino save you?” I asked. Uncomfortable with the praise, Chino looked down at the ground.
“You know,” said Eightball, “he gave me guidance.”
“I showed him what he could do if he got straight,” Chino said. “And now he runs one of the best Tattoo parlors in town– Hood Inc. It doesn’t get better than that. I just showed him what was possible. Everyone in the Forbidden Ones has a job– there are about 20 of us in the Brooklyn chapter, and we all support each other. If anyone needs a tattoo, we go to Eightball. If anyone needs their bike fixed, they come to me.”
“Does the gang have a code of conduct?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Chino. “Of course.”
“What is it?”
“I can’t tell you that unless you’re in the gang.” A few moments passed in silence. “But I can tell you this,” he said. “If you ask me for one hundred dollars, I’ll loan it to you. But if you steal a penny from me, I’ll beat your ass.” A few more moments passed in silence.
“Other than that,” said Chino, “we just ride.”