Estevan Oriol walks into Pa Ord in Thai Town looking like he stepped out of one of his gritty black- and-white photographs. With a head that’s more bald than shaved and a graying goatee, the 50-year-old is built like a Buick and moves like one—slow and steady—when his gout kicks in. The forearm tattoos that read GOOD TIMES and BAD TIMES are faded, but the intense eyes that size you up make you choose your words carefully.
Known for images of gang culture, the lowrider scene, even the occasional Ryan Gosling, he’s been called the Ansel Adams of Los Angeles by CNN. But the picture that Oriol has built his name on is at the center of his T-shirt: a pair of ring-clad hands forming the letters L.A.
The “L.A. Fingers” shot has been both a gift and a curse for Oriol since he took it in 1995. A native Angeleno, he remembers flashing the sign with Cypress Hill in the mid-’90s, when he was the band’s tour manager. “We wanted to show where we were from,” Oriol says. Still, he doesn’t claim to be its creator. “I wasn’t the first one to throw up the sign, but I can confidently say that I was the first one to capture it in a photo.”
So when clothing retailers H&M and Brandy Melville began selling a T-shirt with a “recreated” “L.A. Fingers” photo, he sued them in 2013. The judge ruled that, like a peace sign, the gesture couldn’t be trademarked, Oriol says. Now he’s in the midst of a suit against L.A.-based Toska Clothing, an apparel wholesaler that, he says, used his actual photo.
“I let it get away from me,” Oriol says. “Everybody copies it, makes money off of it. They think it’s cool and gangster. It’s gotten watered down.” Beyond the money, there’s sentimental value to the image. Taken early in his career, it was rejected by magazines for being too “gang affiliated.” The irony can be galling.
“When I get introduced as ‘Estevan Oriol, the famous photographer,’ some people will have this blank look,” he says. “Then they’ll say, ‘He’s the one who took the “L.A. Fingers” photo,’ and the person will go ‘Oh yeah’ and do the sign backwards, upside down, sideways.” With his beefy hands, he forms an A with the index and middle fingers of his left hand, crossing it over an L made with the index and thumb of his right hand. For Oriol, there’s only one way to make the gesture, just like there’s only one “L.A. Fingers” photo.