Recently the Herald broke the story about a plan to create a women's chapter of the Mongrel Mob. For an organisation that was defined for decades by its ill treatment of women, it is a hell of a development. Feminism, it seems, has got a hook in the gangs.
But as is the case with any significant change to the existing order, there was a backlash. Many members – and some gang women – railed against the move with spitting anger. Much of this focused on the idea that women shouldn't wear the patch. The gang has since come out to say the new chapter will exist without one.
So why the fuss about the patch?
The first patches were worn by US servicemen returning from WWII who enjoyed the thrill of riding motorcycles, but by the 1960s they were associated with the rowdy biker clubs in California who considered themselves outlaws.
Patches emerged in New Zealand in the early 1960s with the formation of the Hells Angels, the Auckland chapter of which was just the fourth Hells Angels chapter anywhere in the world and the first outside of California. Other groups followed and soon enough patched motorcycle clubs were peppered up and down the country, and indeed throughout the western world.
One thing that only happened here was that our street gangs – such as Black Power and the Mongrel Mob – also followed suit and begun to don patches. This makes New Zealand unique, and our gang presence more obvious than elsewhere.
Back patches created rebellious brands that could be enhanced by fighting. These in turn led to pitched battles between the gangs. Patches became the ultimate spoils of war. Many gangs displayed stolen patches on clubhouse walls like trophies. The predominantly Maori gangs stitched them on their backsides – further humiliation to the vanquished.
In rhetoric, at least, the patch became the most important thing to gang members, above family, above work. Earning one became harder and harder, and often following long recruiting periods where prospects were at the beck and call of the patched members. Sometimes that meant committing crimes, but not as commonly as the public imagines. Mostly it meant cleaning the club houses, running members around, doing duty nights, and earning respect and the right to be called 'brother'.
There were no women, who were largely viewed as chattels for sexual and domestic purposes. Their treatment often brutal.
Gaining the patch meant a unanimous vote and in the old days more often than not a hazing ritual; the final trial before acceptance into the gang. In the street gangs this meant having to fight other members or walk a gauntlet. The Tribal Huk still do that. I witnessed it a while back. A four-on-one fight in what was the longest 60 seconds I've ever observed.
Many groups threw buckets of urine, faeces, vomit and whatever other nastiness over the new member. Nobody appears too concerned those days are over.
But the patches given to members were only ever on loan, and they remain the property of the gang. If you have one taken from you, it's your job to get it back, but if there's any difficulty then retrieving it becomes the job of the whole gang. Sometimes by force, sometimes by negotiation.
If you leave the gang in good standing, you hand your patch back. If you leave in bad standing it'll be ripped from your body. If you die it's draped over your coffin.
There are also rules around wearing them. It's compulsory to wear them while riding a motorcycle, but most of the outlaw clubs ban their members from wearing them in cars.
The earliest Hells Angels patches were made in an Auckland department store, but a public furore put a stop to that and it was largely the women in the scene took up the task. But a while back I watched one Mongrel Mob member – now a president – toil for hours stitching the leather together making a number of patches for an induction ceremony. His meaty hands were deft on his tools. A hobnail boot pulsing on and off the sewing machine peddle. He was proud of his efforts. It meant more to the members when he made them. It meant just as much to him.
The patch, after all, is everything.
• Dr Jarrod Gilbert is the Director of Criminal Justice at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is an award-winning writer who specialises in research with practical applications.