Gusmano Cesaretti pulls a book off the shelf in his South Pasadena studio and hands it to me. The book is on Chaz Bojorquez, the Godfather of East L.A. graffiti. He opens the front cover and shows me where Chaz has written in beautiful stylish script, “To El más chingón. You started my career. Thank you. Chaz.” The story of how an Italian kid obsessed with American culture ended up documenting the birth of East L.A. graffiti culture is just one chapter in the crazy fairy-tale that is Cesaretti’s life.
Since he arrived in the U.S. in the 60’s he’s always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, with his camera pointed in the right direction. He’s lucky that way, but like all hardworking creatives, he creates much of that luck on his own. Cesaretti goes out of his way to pursue whatever catches his eye, stopping people on the street—or on the freeway—and asking to photograph them, going into neighborhoods where others fear to go. And if he is told no, he comes back the next day and asks again. His pursuit is without relent until his charm, his wit, his sincerity, his passion and his Italian accent breaks down their defenses and they finally say, “Okay, Okay, come in. You can shoot me, you can shoot here.”
Now in his early 70’s, Cesaretti is speeding up rather than slowing down. His new book, Varrio, recently published by Little Big Man Press, covers his work with East L.A.’s legendary Klique car club. His photographs of the Chosen Few, the first integrated motorcycle club in the U.S., are now on display at the Central Library until May 27th. And his documentary on the club Take None/Give None will screen there on April 14th.
He publishes a free quarterly photo journal called Fotofolio, where he mixes his own work with the work of other well known photographers like Ed Templeton and Esteban Oriel along side photographers who are completely unknown. He mails Fotofolio to places around the world and hands them out on the street in East L.A., South L.A. and downtown.
As we speak he frequently jumps up to show me mock-ups of books he wants to publish. He has ideas for movies he wants to make and museum shows he is ready to put together. It’s easy to see how people open up to him because he easily gives as much as he takes.
The Chosen Few MC, South Central Los Angeles. From the collection “Chosen Few.” All photos courtesy of Gusmano Cesaretti.
PANCHO LIPSCHITZ: You came to the U.S. in the 60’s from Lucca Italy, which is one of those old towns with the wall that stretches all around the city.
GUSMANO CESARETTI: I left November 1963 from Lucca. I arrived in New York, the day, the exact time that Kennedy got killed. I got out of the boat. I put my foot on New York City and Kennedy got killed. Everybody was freaking out. The customs guy didn’t even look at me. He just, boom, stamped my passport. “Next.” I was walking on the street, people crying, looking at the TV news through the window of the TV stores. Everybody was in shock.
I stayed in New York for a couple of weeks and then I went to Chicago where my uncle lived. I stayed with him and he gave me a job in a restaurant.
On the way to the restaurant he goes, “Stop here. Let me go upstairs, I’ll get you a drivers license.” He goes up into this building. He comes back. He’s got a drivers license with my name and everything. He says, “Here, you can drive now.”
So he takes me to the restaurant. The guy puts me downstairs with a bunch of black people, cleaning potatoes, doing all sorts of stuff. I became very good friends with a black guy; he was 20 years old, I was 19.
After a few months the owner came to me and he goes, “I know you don’t know much English, but there’s a group of people—they like the fact that you are Italian and they come here every Thursday night to eat and I want you to be their server.” I said, “Sure.”
So Thursday night came. 15 people came to the restaurant. They were all from Chicago, from Italian descendants. Only one old man was a real Italian. And then I found out that they were a Chicago gang. Every Thursday night they came to eat there. Every Thursday night when they left they gave me $100 tip. That’s a lot of money in 1963.
So after a few months, the old man says, “Come over here I want to talk to you.” He was talking to me in Italian. He says, “What the fuck are you doing working in this fucking restaurant? Che cazzo fai? You’re smart, you’re Italian. You should be working with us.” Then he calls a guy, “Hey Ricardo, come over here. Monday, take this guy for a ride. Teach him how to drive the big car.” Then they bought me a suit. Then they started giving me a little direction like, “Go in the back of this place and there’s someone there with a box. Put it into your car and you have to take it to another place. Simple as that. No big deal. You don’t have to know what’s inside. You don’t have to know nothing.”
So I tell my friend, the black guy, and he goes, “Don’t get involved because you’re gonna be stuck to them forever and if you want to separate, once you start dealing with them they’re going to kill you.” So I went back there and I talked to the owner and said, look I can’t work here anymore. I’m an artist. I want to do my things I want to do. And then I talked to the old man and the old man he was drinking wine, smoking a cigarette. Finally he said to me, “You know what, it’s okay. You can go. Ciao, ciao.” I said, “Thank you so much.” I quit the restaurant. Then my uncle got mad at me and kicked me out of the house because my uncle was connected through the restaurant, but I’m not sure exactly what he was doing.
So I didn’t have a place to stay. I stayed with the black guy’s family for six and a half months. There was no white people in that neighborhood. And I’m walking with him and the black people looking at me, looking at him saying, “What the fuck? What’s going on?” He says, “Shut the fuck up. This is my friend. He’s part of the family.” Every Sunday I would cook pasta for the family. It was him, his father, his mother and two sisters.
I took a lot of pictures there. But after six years I moved to Los Angeles because it was too cold. When I go back to Chicago, even recently, I go to the South Side and people doesn’t even care because if I’m there, I belong there. I’m not looking around like [imitates a tourist looking lost].
LIPSCHITZ: What made you want to come to the U.S.?
CESARETTI: In Italy when I was 15, 16 years old there was a French radio station called Radio Monte Carlo, and every night from ten o’clock at night ’til 4 o’clock in the morning they would play only American music: Jazz and Rock and Roll. I listened every fuckin’ night and then at 4 o’clock in the morning I’d go to bed and then I had to get up and go to school at 8. Then I would fall asleep in the classroom because I didn’t sleep much. And I did that for years. I was reading everything about America because to me it was amazing. I was reading Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs—everything about America was amazing. Then I used to go to Florence and act like I was an American boy walking the streets, “Excuse me.” To me America was the future.
1970’s East Los Angeles. From the collection “East LA Diary.” All photos courtesy of Gusmano Cesaretti ©2012
LIPSCHITZ: How did you pick up the camera?
CESARETTI: The camera has always been with me. My dad gave it to me when I was 14 years old. It was my birthday. And every day for three years before I came to Los Angeles I would go to the library and look at books on photography. When I came to Los Angeles I said, that’s it, I’m going to be a photographer now.
In 1970 I used to go to the Huntington Library every day because I loved the place, and then one day I went inside there and I said to the guy, “I’m looking for work. Do you guys have any jobs here? I love this place. I’ll do anything, cut the bushes, water the plants, whatever.” The guy said, “What do you do?” I said, “I’m a photographer.” The guy goes, “Wow, we need somebody in the photo department.” So I got the job there as a photographer. I worked there for three years and it was like going to the best college for photography. I was printing 30, 40 pictures a day, photographing the artwork, the things outside in the garden.
So I was working there during the day and at night I’d go to East L.A. Every time I would go to a different neighborhood, talk to people. I always mix Spanish with Italian. They go, the guy’s not even American so that’s good. The people were all good to me, very welcoming. I would take pictures of the kids on the street, come back a week later and give them the picture.
Then I start discovering the graffiti on the wall. The graffiti was amazing to me. I wanted to discover the meaning of graffiti. Then I got to know a lot of the cholos, a lot of the gang members, the White Fence. You know I met this guy and he took me to his house. He was from White Fence. He introduced me to his father and then to his grandfather. They were all members of the White Fence. But the beauty of the gangs in East L.A. in 1970, it was more like a community thing. It wasn’t like we kill people, we steal this. No.
In 1976 I was at this low rider meeting. It was on a Sunday afternoon. A guy from Columbia, with a low rider, came. He had a little bag here [at his waist]. He unzipped the bag and give to everybody including me one gram of free cocaine. That was what fucked up East L.A.
LIPSCHITZ: How did you meet Chaz [Bojorquez]?
CESARETTI: I met him here in Pasadena. He had a girlfriend. I knew her, and then I met Chaz. He was a graffiti guy and his girlfriend told me about it. Chaz came one day and I met him. We became friends. We used to go out at night—drink, smoke pot. We used to do a little bit of everything together. I said, “Chaz, you gotta help me out.” So I started going to East L.A. with him and I would see the walls and I would say, “What does that mean?” “Oh it means this, this and that.”
At one point I used to be able to read everything and know what was a good neighborhood. Like I’m going into East L.A. and I find the graffiti on the wall and somebody was having problems with another gang, I would say, this can be dangerous, let’s not go here at night. I was able to interpret the graffiti and the communication of the people in the street thanks to Chaz. He introduced me to really understand the meaning. He was my guide to the graffiti world in East L.A.
LIPSCHITZ: I know you photographed the Klique car club for a long time. Tell me how you met up with them.
CESARETTI: I was driving an old Volkswagen with the small window in the back. It was all beat up, but I loved that car. I saw this low rider next to me and I said, “I love your car. It’s so beautiful. Can I shoot it?” And the guy looks at me and there was another guy in the back seat, and then he goes “Okay, pull over.” So I pulled over and he pulled over and I went outside holding my camera, and he looked at me and he smiled. He went like this and showed me his gun. He thought I wanted to shoot him like that.
LIPSCHITZ: You also told me that sometimes you would run interference for the low riders with the LAPD.
CESARETTI: Cops, they were very aggressive. I would go and talk to the cops and say, “Look, I know these people. I’m a photographer. I’ve been photographing them for months and months. These people are really good people. They come from good families. They were in the gangs before they became low riders. Now they got to have a job so they can supply money to the car to clean it, to wax it, to paint it, to make it look good. So they all have a job. They’re all good people. And the cops, sometimes they say, “Okay, okay.” I was trying to really be nice to the cops. I was trying to say, they’re not doing anything bad. There was always two cops. One cop who was nice and one cop who was bad. So I would talk to the nice cop. And then the nice cop would talk to the bad guy. And then that guy would say, “Okay fuck it. Let’s get out of here.”
LIPSCHITZ: When you first arrived in L.A., what were your first impressions of the city?
CESARETTI: I loved L.A. The weather was perfect. I loved the fact that the city was horizontal. Not vertical like New York, Chicago. The fact that you can be anybody. Nobody knows who you are, nobody cared. You can walk the street, you can be dressed any way you wanted. I like also the fact that when it was 8:00 at night, the city downtown, everybody disappeared. I used to walk around there by myself or with a friend trying to discover a little place here or a little place there that was open.
LIPSCHITZ: How did you get involved in the film industry?
CESARETTI: In 1979, I was in my studio in Pasadena. In the middle of the night, it was like 2:30, 3:00 at night, I get a phone call. I answer the phone and the guys says, “Hi, my name is Michael Mann and I saw your photographs in a magazine and I really like your work. It’s amazing and I want you to come work with me.” I said, “Where are you?” He said, “I’m in Folsom Prison.” I said, “Oh, what did you do?” He said, “No, I’m a filmmaker. I’m making a movie.”
So the next day I went to Folsom prison. I met Michael. He said, “I want you to take pictures of the prison. Don’t worry about what I’m doing.” So I spent a couple days there photographing and then I went back home and I made 50 pictures. I put it in an envelope and give it to Michael. Michael give me a check and said, “Beautiful. Great.” Six months later he called me and said “I’m making a movie now in Chicago. I want you to come over and take pictures for me.” And that’s how we started. From the first film that he’s done to the last, I’ve been working with Michael in everything that he’s done. He’s an amazing guy.
LIPSCHITZ: How do you gain entry into a community you don’t know, like the one in Rio de Janeiro?
CESARETTI: What’s interesting is if you speak a little Spanish and Italian you can communicate in Portuguese. Because they understand what you are saying.
LIPSCHITZ: But how do you pick the project, how do you decide to go to a certain neighborhood?
Villa Mimosa, Rio de Janeiro. From the collection “Villa Mimosa.” All photos courtesy of Gusmano Cesaretti ©2005
CESARETTI: I was scouting locations for a film in Rio de Janeiro. I went everywhere. But there’s this neighborhood called Villa Mimosa which is a red-light district. It’s only for the Brazilian people. But this is a community. It’s like three or four blocks where people are amazing. The women are happy to do it. It’s like a job for them. It’s not like they’re taking drugs and there is, like, the guy pushing them to do it.
So I wanted to photograph, and I come there with my camera and I go, “Oh my god this is amazing.” The guy comes over and goes, “No picture here. Don’t take any pictures. Thank you.” He was very nice. I said, “What do you mean. It’s amazing. I never saw anything like this. It’s so beautiful.” He said, “No picture.” So I walked around and then I went back again the next day and the same thing—the guy says, “No picture.” One guy was angry, he said, “You take a picture we will smash the camera.”
So I spent about a week, every day going there asking, “Please, please. I’m a photographer, blah blah.” One night, it was 7:30 in the evening, this guy, one of the guards there—they were all cops—he was smoking a cigarette. He looks at me and he throws the cigarette on the ground and he says, “Get the fuck in my car. Get inside of my car right now.” I said “Why?” “Get inside of my car right now!” So I went inside. I said Oh shit, I’m gonna get fucked up now.
The guy gets in the car and we go from Villa Mimosa across the city through a tunnel into the other side. The tunnel was filled with cars. The guy was angry. He was pissed. He pulls out his gun and he had his badge as a policeman. He starts shooting up in the air. So people are stopping, moving, until finally we get to the other side and then we go into a neighborhood. A nice little neighborhood. Nice little house, nothing big. We stop. He knocks at the door. I’m nervous. A nice lady—she was 68 years old—she opens the door and the guys says, “This is the guy who wants to take pictures.” The lady looks at me and she says, “Come inside.” So I went inside. She says, “Sit down. What are you Italian?” I said, “Yeah.” She says, “Oh great. Would you like some coffee?” I said, “Yes”.
So the lady started asking me questions, “So why you want to take pictures?” I told her who I was. That I was from Italy, blah blah blah. So she said to me “Okay, I’ll let you take pictures.” She gives me coffee twice and then she said, but if you are going to do something with the photographs, if you make a book I want a percentage because I’m going to use the money for the children of the working ladies. Because she’s got a thing where all the children of the working ladies they’re spending their day in this beautiful space where they have free doctors, food, they sleep there, take showers. It’s amazing. So I said “Absolutely.” So we wrote a little contract. I sign it, she signs it and then she said, “Go ahead, take pictures.”
Street life, Villa Mimosa
LIPSCHITZ: And how did you gain access to Cabrini Green?
CESARETTI: Well, Chicago, I used to live there. And then I found out that they were tearing it down. There were six, seven buildings. There was one building left, so I went over there and I tried for a couple of days to go inside. A lot of people they didn’t want me to be there. Then one day, this young guy comes out, he looks at me and he goes, “You a photographer? Me too. I made a little documentary about some of the people here in Cabrini Green.” And he showed me the film and it was really nice, so I helped him to put the documentary in the Chicago Film Festival. So he spread the word inside. He took me inside of every apartment that was there. A lot of good people, some not too good. Some gang guys, drug dealers, but mostly the good people. Young kids working, going to school. After I took the pictures, like six months, they tear down everything and now there’s fancy apartments.
The last residents of Cabrini Green, Chicago. From the collection “Cabrini Green.” All photos courtesy of Gusmano Cesaretti ©2008
LIPSCHITZ: Tell me about your documentary Take None/Give None. How did you get involved with the Chosen Few?
CESARETTI: I saw a guy on the motorcycle. He had the grip, grrrr… So I went next to him and said, “I would like to take a picture of you.” He goes, “Okay.” And he stopped on the Pasadena Freeway. I took a picture of him, the motorcycle, his jacket. And then he said to me, “Why don’t you come over to the club. Sunday we have a party there.” “Sure.”
So I went to the club. It was at 108th St. down in South Central. I went over there and there were all black people and a few white people. I went in and everybody, “Oh, hi.” They were real nice. I start taking picture. That was 25 years ago. I kept taking picture, taking picture. They invite me here, they invite me there. So I have hundreds and thousands of pictures.
The guy who started the club, he started in 1959 because he didn’t have a family. He wanted to have a family and he loved motorcycles. In 1960 he opened it to everybody; black, white, yellow, green. Don’t care. You like motorcycles, you come with us. We’re all together. We all hug each other. That’s it. He did this before the civil rights movement. He did it with a fuckin’ motorcycle. And he’s such a nice human being. He never did drugs. He never did anything. He was real pure, wonderful, hugging people. 98% of the members they were from gangs trying to be better, because the guys said if you like motorcycle, fuck the gang. Get a job. Let’s go.
And then in 2011 I decided that I wanted to do something with the Chosen Few. So I said, I want to organize a big ride with them and I want to take pictures and I want to document it. There were like 150 guys and we went on the freeway from South Central to Downtown L.A. and back to the club. And then they started telling me stories. There was a friend of mine who worked on the film with me. So we start documenting this, documenting that. Going back here, going there on Sunday, on Christmas, they are giving toys to the kids. And then suddenly the police went in and arrest nine people for drugs and shit like that. They lost the club house they had for 36 years. They were all going nuts. They had bad lawyers and they lost money. It’s all in the documentary.
An excerpt from Take None, Give None (2015), a documentary by photographers Gusmano Cesaretti and Kurt Mangum about the first racially integrated outlaw motorcycle club, the Chosen Few MC, which started in 1960 in South Central Los Angeles.
But the documentary is not really so much about motorcycles as it is about the culture of South Central. It’s about those guys. The way they got together.
The first white boy, his name was White Boy Art, he was the first guy in 1960 they put him in the club. He was on the freeway and saw a guy with a broken motorcycle. The guy [Art] was a mechanic. He stopped. It was a black guy. He said “What’s wrong with your bike?” A few minutes later he made it work. The guy said, “Thank you. Hey come over next week. We have a party.” So they introduced him to the guy [who started the club]. They had a little meeting. They said “stay here, wait for us.” They said, “Hey he’s a great guy and he can fix bikes for us. Who cares.” So he was the first white boy.
LIPSCHITZ: What’s next?
CESARETTI: I’m leaving for Lucca, Italy, on March 15th. In Lucca there are 175 churches but only handful are actually being used as churches. The rest have become studios for artists, musicians. They play music and the echo is amazing. I love it. They’re going to have a show of my work. It’s going to be also a film festival where they’re going to show movies from all over the world and they’re going to show Michael Mann’s films. I did an interview with Michael about how he met me and they’re going to project it on a building at night. And then there’s a gallery with all my work inside. Photographs, and photographs from the movies.
Gusmano’s interview with Michael Mann
Pancho Lipschitz is A Barrio Flaneur and a Barrio flan connoisseur. Follow him on Instagram @pancho_lipschitz