The Forgotten History of Teen Angels, the Cult Underground Zine That Documented Cholo Culture

Collage by Teen Angel. Image courtesy of Teen Angels Magazine.

In the 1994 cult classic movie Mi Vida Loca, the chola character known as Sad Girl describes Teen Angels as a “magazine that shows how we are really like.” As her sister La Blue Eyes flips through its pages, she turns teary-eyed when she lands on a passionate poem written by a Chicano inmate, complemented by a fine-line pen drawing of praying hands. She immediately falls in love.

Hand-drawn portraits of cholos with their lowriders and homegirls, guides to perfecting pachuca hairstyles, and poems describing the whole-hearted dedication needed for “Loving A Convict” were staples of Teen Angels, a zine that chronicled the culture of Southern California’s Chicano neighborhoods. Started in 1981, Teen Angels magazine was known as the “voice of the Varrio”, the only publication at the time that featured the artwork, poems, dedications, photographs, and essays of Chicanos, particularly those who were gang-affiliated or in prison. Until the mid-2000s, when production of Teen Angels ceased, the magazine maintained a loyal, underground following among Chicanos who could finally see themselves reflected in print.

In the 1980s, the hallmarks of Chicano gang culture – tattoo sleeves, graffiti art, and the crisp khakis and colored bandanas of cholo wear – were often viewed as signifiers of crime and violence by police and society at large. Mainstream media marginalized Chicano voices, providing a one-dimensional portrait of barrios as violent and drug-ridden.

Teen Angels cover, Issue 166. Image courtesy of Teen Angels Magazine.
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Teen Angel, the artist behind the self-titled magazine, provided a counterpoint to this narrative by celebrating the artistic brilliance and originality of Chicano gang culture. Thanks in part to the magazine, which worked as a platform for Chicano inmates to disseminate their artwork to the outside, prison-style art received recognition among young Chicanos who learned to draw by tracing the art in Teen Angels’ pages. Before the age of social media, Teen Angels served as a network to readers and contributors interested in the unique fashion and tattoo styles of barrios across the country. Now that cholo culture has gone mainstream with references everywhere from Givenchy catwalks to Kanye West’s TLOP merch, the roots of cholo culture and Teen Angels’ contribution in promoting and popularizing the culture is often forgotten or taken for granted.

The LA Art Book Fair exhibit hopes to reestablish Teen Angels’ status in Chicano art history.

But this year’s LA Art Book Fair hopes to reestablish Teen Angels’ status in Chicano art history. From February 23 to 26, Los Angeles will witness the largest exhibit yet of original Teen Angels magazines and art. Included are the complete collection of Teen Angels (starting with its first edition in 1981), as well as the original artwork that graced the unforgettably vivid covers – both part of long-time aficionado Bryan Ray Turcotte’s private collection. Teen Angel’s personal items, like his desk, childhood drawings, sculptures, and original artwork published inside Lowrider Magazine and Teen Angels will also be displayed, thanks to curator and Teen Angel’s close friend David de Baca. With over 200 pieces of artwork, the Teen Angels exhibit will be the largest showcase at the LA Art Book Fair to date.

Teen Angels prison art submission. Image courtesy of Teen Angels Magazine.
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For those in attendance who wish to start their own collection, de Baca, in collaboration with Turcotte, is releasing a book featuring the cover art of the first 180 issues of Teen Angels, usually drawn by Teen Angel himself. In contrast to the black-and-grey, prison-style drawings that filled the inner pages, these covers revealed Teen Angel’s preference for whimsical, chromatic recreations of street life. “He always liked the covers to have these bright, vibrant colors,” de Baca explained in an interview with Remezcla. Even when Teen Angel used inmate submissions to illustrate the cover, he would color in their black-and-grey drawings, since they weren’t provided colors in prison.

Of course, Teen Angel is mostly known for his “bubble heads.” He frequently sketched gangsters with guns in hand standing against a graffiti-covered wall, inspired by his observations of street life in Southern California. But what stood out most were their cartoonish, wide-eyed heads, which resembled animations made popular in the 1940s and 50s. These bubble heads transformed what may be viewed as intimidating scenes to an outsider into something “fun,” de Baca remarked. Many of his characters were also given nicknames inspired by those given in the barrios by gangs, like La Chorty and La Krazy, who recurred throughout in Teen Angels‘ issues.

In retrospect, Teen Angels reads like a Chicano humanities journal.

The publication, banned by mainstream carriers for its supposed support of gang violence and crime, captured cholos and cholas in moments of romance and camaraderie, telling everyday stories of the barrio. For example, one issue illustrates an afternoon in the park between lovers, with a cholo dressed in a colorful sarape and bandana while his partner sits on a lowrider bike listening to a boombox. Teen Angel also published other magazines that told Chicano stories, like Green Angels, which chronicled Chicano soldiers deployed abroad, and La Bandera, which told the history of the Mexican Revolution.

Teen Angels art submission. This eventually became the cover for issue 31. Image courtesy of Teen Angels Magazine.
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In retrospect, Teen Angels reads like a “Chicano humanities journal,” says Claudia Zapata, co-founder of Chingozine and PhD student in Art History. For Teen Angel, it was important to show the value of cholos, gangsters, and prisoners, who unbeknownst to outsiders had developed a lifestyle that encompassed fashion, hair styles, lettering, graffiti, cars, tattoos, drawings, hand signs, and more.

“Maybe there are some bad things about this person, but I’m going to show you the good things about this person like the way he dresses,” de Baca said, explaining Teen Angel’s thought process. “Maybe you don’t like all this writing on the walls, but look at the style this guy has when he writes on the walls. Teen Angel looked past these negative things, and embraced what he saw as good qualities of this lifestyle and the things that they did that were unique.”

For most of his life, Teen Angel lived in obscurity, never publishing his name or photographs of himself in his magazine.

Born in Illinois in 1939, David Holland, otherwise known as Teen Angel, started drawing at an early age. He loved cars and when he traveled with his dad, a military serviceman, to California in the early 1950s, he was struck by the lowriders and Chicano culture. After serving in the 1950s and 1960s, Holland settled in San Bernadino, California in 1977, where he contributed to Hot Rod magazine and Lowrider Magazine. But when Lowrider replaced his centerfold drawings with beer ads – which Holland thought would affect Chicano neighborhoods negatively – he started Teen Angels. For decades, Holland drew, curated, designed, and stapled together the magazine in his living room with his family and a few friends, until the mid-2000s when he handed over the operation of the magazine to his sons Smiley and Payaso.

For most of his life, Teen Angel lived in obscurity, never publishing his name or photographs of himself in his magazine. Before de Baca met Holland, he imagined Teen Angel as an old school pachuco. Apparently, Holland preferred his readers to imagine the man behind Teen Angel as they wished. “When people see my drawings, I want them to feel proud of their culture. I want them to be happy and be enlightened by the artwork. However they picture me in their mind, that’s what I want them to see,” de Baca said, quoting Holland.

Teen Angels issue 177. Image courtesy of Teen Angels Magazine.
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In serendipitous fashion, de Baca met Holland about eight years ago, becoming best friends with the man whose magazines had shaped him as a young Chicano. Before Holland’s death in 2015, De Baca promised to keep Teen Angels’ legacy alive.

Cholo culture is now more popular than ever with Old English lettering showing up all over high-end streetwear. But de Baca, who used to iron on the Old English-lettered name of his gang on his shirts, isn’t here for the celebrity appropriation of cholo culture. He prefers to see Teen Angels’ influence amongst young Chicano zine makers like Puro Chingón Collective and Maricón Collective as well as tattoo artists. Tamara Santibañez, a Brooklyn-based tattoo artist who references prison-style art in her tattoos, will present her Teen Angels-inspired tattoo designed in the Los Angeles exhibit.

For the young Chicanos establishing themselves in creative outlets like zines and tattoo work, de Baca hopes the Teen Angels exhibit will reveal a wealth of Chicano art that they can feel proud of.