The most prevalent pop culture images of gangs in Los Angeles can be traced to the proliferation of gangsta rap in the late 1980s, when NWA, led by Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and MC Ren burst out of Compton with vivid, aggressive descriptions of drugs, police brutality, urban plight, and economic depression. The popularity of gangsta rap gave rise to a new movie genre, Hood films, about the conditions described by the music. Boyz n the Hood and Menace II Society led the charge, winning critical acclaim and finding box office success. Part and parcel of this milieu was the Los Angeles riots.
The popularity of Hood films and gangsta rap, as well as international media coverage of the Los Angeles riots, put a spotlight on gang culture in southern California that titillated white people, the media, and capitalists eager to package the culture with its gritty "realness," lurid violence, and desperately American ethos, which held echoes of the Old West in its wildness and veneration of strength, force, and masculine archetypes. LA gang photos are a testament to lurid mainstream obsession with the effects of systemic failure and an inability to examine the causes of sweeping social problems, only its victims and their desperate actions.
The 1980s were hardly the beginning of gangs in Los Angeles. Gang culture in LA can be traced to the 1920s, when groups of black and Latino friends created local culture and customs, and got involved in petty crime. The rise of violent gangs began in the 1940s, when the city's African American and Latino populations rapidly grew as opportunities to work for the war effort arose. At the time, African American and Latino families were only permitted to live in certain parts of the city, and white gangs, such as branches of the KKK and groups called Spook Hunters, policed neighborhoods to keep blacks and Latinos out. African American and Latino communities formed their own gangs in response.
In the 1960s, white flight resulted in black and Latino gangs having no white gangs left to fight. Though gangs occasionally turned on each other, though the emphasis on nonviolent protest promoted by the Civil Rights movement put a stop to gang activity until the 1970s, when revolutionary resistance groups like the Black Panthers, formed from a sense of futility in the wake of the failed promises of equality that flowed from the government in the 1960s, helped re-establish gangs in southern California. These gangs led directly into the conditions described by gangsta rap, as Reaganomics, the crack epidemic, the rapid proliferation of drug culture, and urban blight created the perfect pressure cooker for the development of isolated, highly localized cultures shown in these Los Angeles gang pictures.