They call him the Silver Buff. In the dewy, early morning hours of Berkeley, he rises, comes down from the hills of North Berkeley and descends to Telegraph Avenue. He picks up litter, tears down posters and covers the streetscape in silver spray-paint. He thinks he’s doing the right thing by effacing graffiti, but what he’s really doing is defacing Berkeley’s historically free-spirited, colorful derring-do, according to a documentary opening today in San Francisco.
The buff-man in question is Jim Sharp, the subject of Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle For Expression, a documentary directed by Max Good and co-produced with Nathan Wollman.
Sharp is a buffer — anyone who eliminates a piece of graffiti — on a personal crusade. This trend began in 1989 when New York City nearly eradicated all graffiti on subway trains. Graffiti exploded into a cohesive movement in the 1970s, so it didn’t take long for the bureaucratic battle to begin.
“Since the first humans etched images onto cave walls,” the film’s narration begins, “others have been there to erase their work. Whether because of annoyance, fastidiousness or simply duty, one man’s mark has always been another’s blight to eradicate.”
Some of these buffers are employed by the city or private property owners, but it’s people like Sharp who step outside the law to take action. Whether they believe that graffiti, a minor quality of life crime, fosters further kinds of lawlessness has become unclear, suggests “Vigilante,” saying that the obsession of these buffers to maintain the visual status quo has become something pathological. Buffers think they are bolstering community morale, but according to Good and Wollman this is a fiction.
Wollman and Good have been friends since they were about 15. Good began writing graffiti around that time, but says he has since retired (with the exception of some political stickering and larger messages of public interest). His chutzpah and enthusiasm for the graffiti community, however, continues unabated.
“Documentaries are … intriguing to me because they don’t take so many resources to make and because there so many amazing stories in the real world that need to be told,” Good says.
Wollman studied Industrial Design at San Francisco State, so he brought his interest in “the way things appear,” as he says, to the table for Good’s film. Both are Bay Area residents.
“Berkeley was the genesis of the project,” Good says. “It started as an attempt to expose the local vigilante in Berkeley.” And that local is none other than Jim Sharp, the sixty-something community curmudgeon who they say is doing more harm than good by expunging alternative voices in Berkeley.
Good and Wollman profile a number of vigilante personalities throughout the country. In addition to Sharp, there’s Ronald Engman in New Orleans, and Joe Connolly in LA. Connolly is a particularly fascinating guy who says he’s more “vigilant” than “vigilante.”
“Even Joe himself wouldn’t be upset at me saying he has some personality disorder going on in the subtext of his thoughts,” Wollman says.
“He’s kind of an entertainment personality but there is definitely some defective thinking in the way he works.”
Connolly claims to be a proponent of graffiti culture, but that only applies to what he deems to be aesthetically beautiful or more ambitious mural projects. Tagging, or bombing as it’s also known, doesn’t fall into that category in his eyes. So like Sharp, he seeks to cover up what he perceives to be blight.
By contrast, Sharp sets out to abate anything he interprets as a blemish on the community. Early in the film, Good and Wollman began plumbing the depths of the vigilante underworld by doing some reconnaissance in the late night hours in Berkeley. As we see in the film, they waited, and waited, and waited in their car. And once they met Sharp who “didn’t exactly tell us to get out of his face and stop filming,” Good says, he proved to be even more of, they say, an obsessive personality than they imagined.
“His vision of Berkeley is clean hills, perfect parks and manicured properties,” Good explains. “He doesn’t appreciate the funky free-speech movement side of Berkeley.”
While tagging has some of its roots in gang culture, other kinds of graffiti have entered the art world as a more publicly respected form. The Silver Buff doesn’t seem to care. The man will, the film suggests, spray anything that isn’t part of the community’s officially sanctioned message.
Good believes that we shouldn’t be discriminating between tagging and more ostensibly “sophisticated” projects like murals. As the film posits, tagging is really a kind of beautiful calligraphy and not as simplistic as it seems.
“It’s actually a very sophisticated form of communication and art,” Good says. “There’s this whole spatial experience where you go through the city … and imagine the person who did it. You can see it in different cities … and just appreciate how that person is getting around and leaving a mark and being heard.”
Vigilante itself is very much about “being heard” and generating a dialogue, as Good explains.
“I hope people see the movie and understand how misguided and tragic these buffers are, and how what they’re doing doesn’t contribute to the environment or social sphere. It’s all about negativity and eliminating, and it’s not about having a conversation.” The act of graffiti writing, too, is about restoring that element of conversation, he says. As the film asserts, graffiti democratizes the public space, and makes it public in a very real way.
“The film is about human personality flaws, and tolerance, and understanding things you might not be comfortable with,” Wollman adds. “Any argument needs two sides to be heard.”
A 90-minute aperture into an issue generations in the making, Vigilante wields an impressively well-balanced array of multiple perspectives, ranging from buffer personalities to scholars to graffiti artists, so Good and Wollman are no doubt doing their part to initiate this conversation.
And in turn, the film restores a much-needed sense of humor to this heated affair. Good employs irreverent animated segues as well amusing testimonies from the vagrant community in Berkeley.
Yet in the end, the filmmakers’ message is a serious one. While they don’t expect the film to vanquish the vigilantes, they do hope that it won’t foster more generations of buffers.
“Buffing is a hateful expression in a way,” says Good. In its incisive indictment of institutional failure and societal conformism at large, Vigilante Vigilante won’t change the world, but it invites us to do so ourselves.
Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle For Expression opens this Friday at the Roxie.