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Art creating reality: the case of organized crime

by ukasz Kosowski

Organized crime inspires contemporary artists all over the world. From
computer games, comics, mangas, animes to books, music and last but not
least films, everywhere we can find accents directly connected to syndicates.
That relation is even more complex, when investigated. In my paper I describe
importance of art for organized crime, which uses it as a way to create their
own mythology, helping in public relations. For Westerners there is a short way
between hearing mafia and thinking Godfather. Not many knows that existing
Italian crime families were so delighted by the way they were described in the
book (and later shown in the film) that they started to act like the fictional
characters and use terms from it, e.g. godfather itself was never used to
describe the head of a criminal organization before its appearance in Mario
Puzo's novel. In the end I briefly show how social impact of popularization of
crime by contemporary art differs all over the world.

"(...)there were more and more students demonstrations. Many young

people thought that the yakuza film characters were almost like student
leaders, fighting the system against impossible odds. They took them quite
seriouslyboth students on the left and the right. And they felt deep empathy
for the characters when they would die at the end. There was the aesthetic,
too, that saw a terrible beauty in dying this way. In these films, the only way
left to make a change in the system is through violence. But the majority of the
audience for yakuza films were blue-collar workers who felt virtually at war
with the faceless, white-collar, corporate bosses. No one felt they had a system
they could depend on. Everyone identified with the individual hero or anti-hero
going up against the system(...)" - Sat Junya
In this paper I am going to describe a connection between contemporary
art and organized crime, but the discussion cannot be started without defining
what is contemporary art and what is organized crime, and that is not an easy
task. Both matters take sleep of eyes of many scholars all over the world, e.g.
there are more then 160 official definitions of organized crime, and I did not
want to make from my article a strictly theoretical work, hard to understand for
readers. Therefore I have chosen few, most commonly known and met,
As for the contemporary art, by which I understand works created after
the Second World War, I am going to focus on four of its faces: film, literature,

graphic novels and computer games. Choosing those countenances of art was
motivated by popularity among organized crime groups, and their impact on
societies, and particular groups of recipients most responsive to the content.
The last two graphic novels and video games - can be seen as controversial
for some, but I strongly believe that those mediums can be judged as art, and
probably only future generations will be able to apprize them properly. Non the
less there is not enough space here to follow this discussion, which is a big
topic by itself, but in the same time an other question appears: what is the
target, the mentioned particular group of recipients, of those mediums? I will
answer, by using an example from Japan. Miyuki I. Sundara in her article about
yakuza has written:
The yakuza is an all men's society. They do not trust women. The only
visible woman in the group is the boss' wife, called ane-san. Ane-san means
"older sister." All members give her the same respect as the boss because she
is his wife. However, she does not get involved in the business. Her position in
the group is the boss' wife, and not a member of a group.
The yakuza do not trust women because they believe that women are
weak. They believe that women cannot fight like men, that women are not
born to fight. To a yakuza member, the most important thing is courage. If
there is a battle, you must be ready to fight to the death, rather than lose the
battle. Yakuza members must be willing to die for their boss.
The Author has taken her knowledge from an interview with a former
yakuza member but the image created by these words is quite clear and
universal throughout the whole criminal underworld (with some exceptions, but
again it is a matter for a different paper). In general it is a place dominated
by men, and the main target of most of the art creations are men, young and
old, from various backgrounds. With that in mind it should be much easier to
understand the forms preferred by artists.
Finally the organized crime. The easiest and the most universal
definition of that global phenomenon had been prepared by United Nations:
"Organized crime" is understood to be the large-scale and complex
criminal activity carried on by groups of persons, however loosely or tightly
organized, for the enrichment of those participating and at the expense of the
community and its members. It is frequently accomplished through ruthless
disregard of any law, including offences against the person, and frequently in
connexion with political corruption. (United Nations 1975, 8)
The term
organized crime usually refers to large-scale and complex criminal activities
carried out by tightly or loosely organized associations and aimed at the
establishment, supply and exploitation of illegal markets at the expense of
society. Such operations are generally carried out with a ruthless disregard of
the law, and often involve offences against the person, including threats,
intimidation and physical violence. (United Nations 1990, 5)
Having that covered, without going into further details, I am going to
make short presentations of three mafias, which I have chosen for this paper
Italian style cosa nostra, Chinese triads, and Japanese yakuza.
Italian style cosa nostra is the closest one with history, image and
geography to what Western world connects with organized crime. Structures
of it's predecessor, Sicilian mafia, are used as a model for defining similar

structures in different countries. The beginnings of which can be traced back to

the middle ages and criminals roaming through lands of the biggest Italian
island, but organization itself emerged from more or less chaotic criminal
initiatives in the XIXth century. Those movements emigrated across the
Atlantic together with Italians, looking for a better future in the New World.
Unfortunately mechanisms and traditions migrated together with people. In no
time there appeared organizations offering protection, also against similar
enterprises developed among other minorities (Jews and Irishmen need to be
named). Those groups finally transformed into more commonly known mafias,
for which heydays started with American prohibition. The ban of alcohol
allowed them to become a popular hero among common people. Those
organizations were, and still are, a great inspiration for writers, and other
artists, but also for other organizations. It happens because they were first to
discover the power of creating image and legend through supporting art, but
that will be discussed further.
In the same time, on the other side of the globe, two dragons raised from
the ashes of political struggles in Eastern Asia Chinese triads and Japanese
yakuza. Both can be easily defined as criminal, non the less both started from a
higher positions among their fellow citizens.
Triads developed from secret societies, which were always a popular
response of common people to unjust governments, which was directly
connected with loosing the mandate of heaven. Those movements, standing in
opposition to main powers in China, were always sooner or later brought to the
point, when they needed to turn to illegal means to gain funds for their actions.
That was what, at the end, turned them fluently into creations, which could be
named as organized crime. Banned from the main land by Mao Zedong, they
have found safe havens in Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Especially the former
British colony was always seen as a capital of triads, and it is also there, where
strong connections were developed between Chinese underground
organizations and art, mainly cinematography. It must be noticed that it
happened much later then in Japan, sometime in the 80s, because British
government was censoring all artistic production that could be judged as being
against Europeans or could promote dangerous local movements and organized
crime was judged as such. Non the less, they were becoming stronger, and
finally started to use artistic means to present their cause and build public
relations, just as they Japanese cousins were doing so successfully.
Moving further east, to the Land of the Raising Sun, organized crime
developed as it tries to convince the public from very romantically pictured
and remembered cast of knights - the famous samurai. Those legendary
masters of sword and arts grew deeply into Japanese folklore, taking
permanent place in the hearts of people. Yakuza as direct descendants of those
warriors used their legend and also means to create it, going much further,
now being a big part of Japanese pop-culture.
For careful readers it is already obvious, why organized crime all over the
world has turned to art it is all about creating an attractive image, a legend.
Creating Legend
Stories were always a good companion of men. Starting from those only
brought by witchdoctors, shamans, and professional story tellers, moving
from fireplace to fireplace, from village to village, ending with 3D cinema and

virtual reality. With evolution of culture, different methods appeared to deliver

stories, about gods, heroes and the world itself. Art developed as a way of
expression of feelings, abstract thinking, and closing legends to people.
All that quite naturally started to be in the middle of attention of political
and social powers, using those means as tools for propaganda, promoting their
own causes. Different periods of time characterized with different tools, which
were evolving in their own pace, but the need of using them never changed. It
is because the art not only portrayed societies, but also influenced them, by
creating trends. As for this paper an example of pirates, one of the historical
and universal faces of organized crime, will serve as an explanation of
mechanisms used later on by mafias all over the world.
Pirates, objectively looking at the matter, can be judged as ruthless
thugs. Although their balancing on the edge of legality, when they had a letter
of agreement from home governments, made their existence essential at some
points in history, and for some countries. Their violent and criminal even by
standards contemporary to them actions were bringing fear and outcry of
their own countrymen. Then the art came in the form of music, literature, and
paintings, showing that pirates are quite romantic fellas, for whom freedom of
wide blue seas and adventures brought by every new dawn meant more then
bonds of society. As you can imagine that reshaped the way of looking at
pirates, especially among young boys, dreaming about running away from
home and gray reality. Sounds familiar?
Later on, in the XXth century, as noted at the beginning, four major
artistic tools were used to help building mafia's image, which not only had to
help with the whole local communities, but also served as an advertisement.
And a very successful one, as it attracted many lost souls, outcasts, not being
able to find a better place in rapidly changing societies (or, mainly after wars,
that were thrown away from society by experiencing unimaginable horrors on
the fronts of conflicts). The one medium, that had the biggest impact on the
global audience throughout the whole century was definitely cinema.
Good example on how film was able to influence societies and organized
crime in XXth century is the case of... sunglasses. One hundred years ago those
useful things were worn only by blind people. Then, during 30s, some
sportsmen e.g. drivers started to use them, but during the war they were
connected in general with stereotypical, masculine characters (mainly brave
pilots). Film industry used that connection, and to show that protagonists are
really serious and tough, the sunglasses were worn as an obligatory add-on to
the outfit of a gangster. According to Diego Gambetta before the movie Gun
Crazy (1949) there is no evidence that they were used by criminals, but after it
they became part of a style that every tough-guy needed and did follow.
That rule can be extended further to other things, not only gadgets, but
even to the core essence of behavioral patterns, codes of honor, etc.
Art can tell stories, that's obvious, but what stories could mean to
criminals? Basically, two things building and sustaining reputation. And that's
what mafioso sometimes creates out of blue, a gangster does not even have to
really be the bloodthirsty killer, it's enough if others see him as such.
Reputation lasts even, when it is not based on a solid ground, keeping on
surface those, who faced with a challenge would sink. And reputation can be
artificially sustained thanks to legends and stories, good image created for
public, by artists. Thus there is no need to argue that in the best interest of
various organized criminal groups it is sometimes crucial to support musicians,

filmmakers, writers, etc., sometimes describing to them the right image of

their enterprises.
One book serves as a universal example. Image created in Mario Puzo's
novel, and later on portrayed in movies, was so attractive that not only day to
day audience was drown to the ways of mafia. In 1986 father Luis Gigante,
respected catholic priest from Brooklyn, said that he
really loved Godfather. [] Liked the character of Don Vito Corleone. When a
guy was blackmailing him, trying to ruin him, he killed him to save wife and
kids. Showing his strength, he started to be someone. [emphasis .K.]
Moving back East, Japan again serves as a great example as it is a place
were borders between popular culture, built with artistic means, and reality is
very thin. Criminals from the Land of the Raising Sun needed examples and
lessons to gain their own gangster know-how. Italian-Americans served as a
great example all over the world, mainly thanks to stories spread across
borders. Unfortunately Western mafias were far away. Thus, since yakuza didnt
know any real American gangsters, they turned to the movies instead. They
went so far with that romance with Xth Muse that it finally lead to a beginning
of a new
cinematic tradition in Japan: the yakuza film. These films, descendants of
the old samurai epics, bear little resemblance to American or European
gangster movies; they are closer to the Western, in which cowboy and outlaw
clearly define a code of morality. From the samurai, the yakuza has inherited
the role of the last defender against the decadence and corruption ushered in
by modernization and contact with the West
There is probably no one, who could explain things better to all foreigners
then Jake Adelstein. An American Jew, who went to Japan to seek his place, and
he has found it as a reporter, that path had taken him close to the underground
world of crime and vice. In his bestselling book he has written, referring to
more modern Japanese gangsters:
The major gang bosses are well-known celebrities. Bosses from the
Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai grant interviews to print publications and
television. Politicians are seen having dinner with them. They own talent
agencies that the general public knows are yakuza front companies such as
Burning Productions but that does not stop major Japanese media outlets
from working with them. There are fan magazines, comic books, and movies
that glamorize the yakuza, who have metastasized into society and operate in
plain view in a way unthinkable to American or European observers.
What is more, when I have written above that American, and to some
extent also European, mafiosi look to films made in Hollywood, the same can
be applied to Japanese criminal organizations. But as far as Western mobster
can influence the production by manipulating labor unions or bribes, the
Eastern ones usually own the studios making movies about yakuza or triads.
Films made in Hong Kong, in a capital of Chinese organized crime,
couldn't be made without gangsters, who influence the production in various
ways, but mainly with mafia-style protection. They look after studios, actors,

directors, if they want a star to appear in their flick, and if the money is not
enough, they can even use threatening methods. What is more, since triads are
responsible for the black market, they influenced Hong Kong cinema also in a a
not-direct matter, causing films to be published on DVDs after two-three weeks
from the premier in theaters.
In general, the Triad film most closely resembles the Hollywood Gangster
film, but it can also be compared to the Japanese gangster genre () Thus we
often see the presence of Japanese gangsters. Although it has a much shorter
history around 30 years, compared to 80 year history of American gangster
film and the 70 years of yakuza film in Japan, it has promoted international
stars, like: Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, John Woo, and Jet Li. And the idea
standing behind making such cinema was the same as in other cases explained
above. They wanted to reach to the citizens of Hong Kong and teach them that
life as a Triad is better than life as a victim.
Connecting with people, through stories and art, become possible during
contemporary times, using other means too, especially comic books, or
manhua (the same Chinese character is used for the now-familiar Japanese
word manga), [which] are an important part of youth culture, and boy culture
in particular, in Asia and in the United States also. Mafiosi and gangsters were
always popular bad guys and enemies for various heroes, but there also some
titles portraying them in a more romantic light. E.g. Max Allan Collins' graphic
novel titled Road to Perdition, which was adapted into the 2002 movie of the
same name. The story is loosely based on the Japanese manga series Lone
Wolf and Cub created by Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki (illustrator). The main
character Michael O'Sullivan is a ruthless and coldblooded, but honorable,
enforcer for a criminal organization, who is betrayed by his employers and is
forced to run with his son, and starts a quest for revenge.
Also an honorable enforcer, assassin for hire, Hinomura is a protagonist in
manga series by Koike Kazuo and Ikegami Ryoichi (illustrator) titled Crying
Freeman, which shows the world of Japanese and Chinese organized crime.
Those graphic novels are only the tips of an ice berg, build for mainly
young people all over the world. And for them there is also one more medium
that consumes their time and imprint image in minds video games. They are
a huge topic, since action, crime and vice looks great on a screen. Games have
nowadays even more impact then movies, because of their interactivity,
allowing gamers to actually be part of a story, to pull a trigger, to chase in cars,
and so on. Few series deserve mentioning: Mafia, Yakuza, Grand Theft Auto,
and True Crime. Their titles are self-explanatory, and ideas behind them are
quite similar, from which the main is to give players the opportunity to become
a criminal, and live the story inside the world of organized crime.
Thanks to all that the image of organized crime in the minds of regular
citizens is quite solid and vivid, because no matter where are you from, when
you hear mafia, you exactly know what to think, but you need to remember
that in many cases it is what mafias want you to be thinking.
Non the less, creating an artificial image of a ruthless gangster was not
always paying off properly. All because there was no turning back. It is a true
vicious circle.
There is a simple example to those words. Imagine a mafia boss, who is
just a businessman, never killed a person, always used threats, and never had
to really appeal to violence, but he created his image with stories told by his
trusted men, and theatrical behavior, so that in a Machiavellianism fashion
he was able to rule with fear. Because of his illegal activities he is caught by

the police. He stands in front of a jury and is on trial, he cannot say the truth,
because he would loose his face, and if the word about his fictional brutality
spreads, his reputation, all his men and respect would be gone. The
disinformation used to threaten victims becomes also his only cover in prison,
because the reputation, even artificial, is the only thing left to him, that
separates him from the regular criminals.
It is, however, probably impossible separate crime from art, like it was
done by British censorship in Hong Kong. Simply because violence is a part of
life, and mafias is its one of the most sophisticated forms.
Japanese writer, Miyazaki Manabu, told Reuters: There's a joke about a
young man going to a gang office and asking what the salary was, and would
he get insurance. The attractiveness of joining to a criminal organization is
now part of the same race for the right employees as is in the case of legal
enterprises. But in the same time, staying with the Japanese example,
the widespread drug dealing, extortion, racketeering, and violence were
affecting more people than ever before. But just as the Japanese thought they
had seen it all, the corruption fostered by the yakuza spread to places even
they didnt expect.
And organized crime across the decades of existence has shown that it is ready
to change to survive. In the nearest future to do that it will also need to renew
its legend, and as history has shown for that there's no better way as to use
List of movies and TV series
Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson
Force of Evil
Abraham Polonsky
Gun Crazy
Joseph H. Lewis
The Racket
John Cromwell
On the Waterfront
Elia Kazan
Underworld U.S.A.
Samuel Fuller
Les tontons fingueurs
Georges Lautner
Le Samourai
Jean-Pierre Melville
The Brotherhood
Martin Ritt
Francis Ford Coppola
Gendai yakuza: hito-kiri yota
Fukasaku Kinji
Jingi naki tatakai
Fukasaku Kinji
Lucky Luciano
Francesco Rosi
Black Ceasar
Larry Cohen
The Yakuza
Sydney Pollack
Yakuza no hakaba: Kuchinashi...
Fukasaku Kinji
Brian De Palma
Once Upon a Time in America
Sergio Leone
Police story
Jackie Chan
The Untouchables
Brian De Palma

King of New York
Hard Boiled
Rising Sun
American Yakuza
Shanghai triad
Tokyo Mafia
Donnie Brasco
The Sopranos
Gangs of New York
Infernal Affairs
Road to Perdition
Gong wu
Miami Vice
The Departed
American gangster
Breaking Bad
Public Enemies
Boardwalk Empire
Kill the Irishman

Martin Scorsese
Abel Ferrara
Barry Levinson
John Woo
Philip Kaufman
Frank A. Cappello
Yimou Zhang
Shirai Seiichi
Bill Duke
Mike Newell
(TV series, 1999-2007)
created by David
Kitano Takeshi
Martin Scorsese
Wai-keung Lau, Alan Mak
Sam Mendes
Ching-Po Wong
Michael Mann
Martin Scorsese
Ridley Scott
(TV series, 2008-)
created by Vince
Michael Mann
(TV series, 2010-)
created by Terence

Nicolas Winding Refn

Jonathan Hensleigh

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Kronika Filmu, ed. Michalik M.B., KRONIKA, Warszawa 1995.
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culturaal production, in: Perspectives, vol 14, no. 4, Routledge, 2006, pp. 242247.
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Global Crime, vol. 7, no. 1, Routledge, 2006, pp. 105-124.
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