On the streets of South Central Los Angeles, Richard Jinman sees gangland at close quarters.
The graffiti on the walls of the old warehouses on Slauson Avenue is hieroglyphics of life and death. "This is the border skirmish area," Alfred Lomas says, pointing to gang names sketched on the raddled concrete. "If you see a sign that has been crossed out, it can mean someone has been killed."
Lomas knows what he's talking about. Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, he was a kid when he joined the city's largest Hispanic gang, Florencia 13. He robbed banks in his 20s and became addicted to drugs and alcohol. Spells in prison followed. Now, at age 46, he runs LA Gang Tours, a company introducing curious visitors to the epicentre of southern California's gangland.
"How you doin'?" he asks, extending an arm wreathed in prison tattoos. "Are you nervous?"
It's a fair question. South Central, an area of about 2.4 square kilometres bordered by Slauson Avenue to the south and Washington Boulevard to the north, is synonymous with violent gangs - the Crips and Bloods in particular. Beaten down by recession in the 1970s and ravaged by crack cocaine in the '80s, the area has been immortalised in rap songs and movies as an urban battleground. "Rule No.1: get yourself a gun," Ice Cube advised on the track How to Survive in South Central.
So yes, I'm a little nervous.
Lomas nods. "LA is the gang capital of the world," he concedes. "And the bank robbery capital of the world. Although that number went down when I retired." He laughs dryly.
LA Gang Tours, which began operating in November last year, does its best to allay such fears. Its tour bus stays within "Gun Fire Free Safety Zones" set up as part of a ceasefire between South Central's three largest gangs. The vehicle, carrying up to 50 people, is clearly marked and follows a well-publicised schedule. And although passengers are asked to sign a waiver acknowledging they could become victims of crime, Lomas says that's "more of a marketing ploy" than a genuine safeguard. His standing in South Central, where he is known as a tireless community worker, and his commitment to use profits from the tours to create jobs for its young people, makes incidents unlikely.
Today, there is no bus and the schedule is improvised. Lomas is taking me on a private tour in my hire car, a service that costs $65 a person.
We start not in South Central but beneath the 6th Street Bridge in downtown LA. The big chase scene in Terminator 2 was filmed nearby on the concrete bed of the Los Angeles River but Lomas is more interested in graffiti. He points to the far bank of the river where a crew called the Metro Transit Assassins painted the largest tag in the world. Removing the three-storey-high letters cost the city $3.7 million.
Still downtown, we visit the so-called arts district to see more graffiti by the Mexican-American artist and tattooist Mark Machado (aka Mr Cartoon). Machado, who has inked some of the biggest names in hip-hop, has a lurid style that combines everything from Day of the Dead imagery to clowns and hotted-up cars. He also uses gang imagery such as teardrops, a symbol for the "play now, pay later" ethos of life outside the law, Lomas says.
When the time comes to pay, gang members often end up at another downtown landmark, the Los Angeles County Jail. The bland monolith on Bauchet Street is home to 20,000 inmates and has hosted celebrities including OJ Simpson, Robert Downey jnr and musician Rick James. "It's a very dangerous place," says Lomas, who spent more than a year inside awaiting trial.
We leave downtown and begin the short drive to South Central. Turning right off South Alameda Street, we pass rows of squat bungalows. Lomas conducts a history lesson from the passenger seat. In the first half of the 20th century, a city covenant forbade blacks from owning property outside the borders of South Central, he says. Those restrictions were relaxed after 1948 but racial tensions often escalated into violence. In 1965, the Watts Riots left 34 people dead and more than 1000 injured. When recession struck in the 1970s, street crime began to burgeon and gangs such as the Bloods and Crips found no shortage of recruits.
"You had to defend yourself," Lomas says. "Blacks and Hispanics in these areas couldn't become boy Scouts.
"Those were white organisations. They developed what were known as 'clubs' and those groups eventually became gangs."
At 55th and Holmes, we spot two men trying to jump-start a battered blue Cadillac. Lomas winds down the window: "Hey Marty, whassup, dog?" The men's bodies stiffen for an instant. Then the face behind the Cadillac's windscreen splits into a giant grin. "C'mon," Lomas says, flicking off his seatbelt. "Let's give 'em a hand."
We join Marty at the rear of the buckled Cadillac. It slowly picks up speed and the engine sputters into life, the driver waving as he pilots it around the corner, destination unknown. "This is Richard," Lomas tells Marty.
"He's from Australia."
Marty extends a big, scarred hand that's missing a finger. A childhood accident, he says. He was being chased and had to jump over a gate; getting caught wasn't an option. Marty pulls up his T-shirt to reveal more wounds: a tapestry of scars caused by bullets and knives. His own wild days are over but his son was arrested recently for carrying an unlicensed gun. Lomas shakes his head. "He was strapped?" he says sadly. "Oh man."
We drive on. The bungalows give way to tough-looking housing projects. South Central is home to the infamous Pueblo Del Rio projects at the intersection of 55th and Alameda Street as well as Imperial Courts, where the rogue-cop movie, Training Day, was shot.
Despite the drab architecture and obvious hardship, there is little sense of danger. Not on a warm spring day, when South Central feels almost benign. Lomas nods but points out a bullet hole in a stop sign and a floral tribute to a girl murdered in an alley. Suspended above several intersections are listening devices that alert police to gunfire and help them pinpoint its location.
"A friend of mine was killed just over there," Lomas says. "He was wearing headphones. They walked up behind him and shot him six times in the head."
At 1466 East 54th Street we pass a pretty cottage surrounded by flowers and plants. It looks idyllic. But this was the site of the 1974 shootout between police and six heavily armed members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the radical group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. The SLA members all died in the gun battle and the original house burnt to the ground.
We find a more uplifting landmark at 1765 East 107th Street. The Watts Towers, a group of 17 eccentric steel towers, were built by an Italian construction worker named Sabato Rodia between 1921 and 1954. These strange, organic forms look like the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi; their incongruity is spellbinding.
Not all of Rodia's neighbours felt the same way. Disenchanted by acts of vandalism, he left South Central in 1955 and never returned. But the towers remained and have become cherished: an island of beauty in one of the toughest urban landscapes on Earth.
They force visitors to see South Central differently, a quest shared by Lomas. "I've had people come on the tour who say, 'I used to hate gangs and people who belong to them,"' he says. "Meeting the people who live here makes them change their mind."
Qantas flies to Los Angeles from Sydney (13hr 25min) and Melbourne (14hr 15min) for about $1865 low-season return, including tax. United and Delta also fly non-stop from Sydney; V Australia flies non-stop from both cities. Australians must apply for travel authorisation at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov before departure.
LA Gang Tours operates from The Dream Centre, 2301 Bellevue Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90026. Tickets cost $US65 ($61.65). Private tours cost $US65 a person (minimum of two people). See lagangtours.com.