Max Good has been making graffiti for more than 15 years. He’s been aware of the “buffers” – self-appointed protectors of walls and posts who come by after the artist has gone and covers up his work, often with splashes of gray or black paint that creates a kind of graffiti of its own – from the start. When he lived in New York, he had a buffer of his own , a kind of stalker who specifically targeted Good’s stickers. He tried to stake him out, but never caught him. Then three years ago, Good moved back to Berkeley and became aware of a buffer known as the Silver Buff.
“I decided I was going to stake him out and find him, no longer how long it took,” says Good.
This time, though, to relieve the boredom of the stake out, Good who has several shorts to his credit, decided to make a film. Like his other work, it would be a short. Producing it would be Nathan Wollman, with whom he’d previously collaborated on a 2006 short Ungonquieños. But as their investigation grew, so did the film, evolving into a full-fledged feature Vigilante Vigilante.
“The process of trying to discover the identity of the Silver Buff was actually a pretty mystical process,” says Wollman. “Our imaginations got carried away so much. There were all these things we thought might have been going on or could be happening. It almost reminded me of being a little kid and playing with toys and imagining what the characters were.”
The film grew to encompass commentators on graffiti, both pro and con, graffiti artists, and other vigilantes, including Joe Connelly, a motor-mouth Los Angeleno who claims that he actually like graffiti even as he works assiduously to remove it, and Fred Radtke, an intense former Marine who patrols New Orleans and is so offended by street art that he’s actually gotten in trouble for covering up sanctioned work. But the focus remains on the Silver Buff with Good and Wollman becoming characters in the film as they hunt for and eventually confront the vigilante, a man named Jim Sharp who turns out to live in the Berkeley hills, nowhere near the area he patrols daily with his can of silver spray paint.
“He’s taken ownership over the central part of Berkeley. He sees this as his territory and he is going to police it,” says Good. “Telegraph, which is home to the Free Speech Movement and which is supposed to be a funky, populist area where people are communicating – there’s events and there’s liveliness. He comes down every morning and strips every single pole of every poster and stops the flow of communication. It’s actually pretty damaging.”
“What’s going on there is his own fantasy vision of what it is that his city should look like and it’s not a very fair vision,” adds Wollman.
To Good, Sharp and his fellow buffers are control freaks, who – while claiming that what they are doing is enforcing law and order — essentially place themselves above the law. While decrying graffiti artists for their temerity in leaving their tags on walls, they essentially behave the same way. They, too, stock up on cans of illegal spray paint. They, too, write on walls, their “erasures” of what was there forming another kind of tag.
“It’s the expression that bugs them, not the law breaking, that somebody thought they could express themselves and break the rules,” observes Good. “Yet they can do the same thing to eliminate it. It’s really confused. It’s really paradoxical and insane in a way.
“They don’t want any sign that people are questioning things or in fact are expressing themselves freely. I hate to get too out there and talk about Zen state of mind, but part of living in a society of any kind at any time in history, I believe, is dealing with the fact that you can’t control all the things that are going on in your environment.”
Wollman sees a bigger picture behind the graffiti wars, one he and Good have done their best to capture in Vigilante Vigilante. The film is a kind of discussion about class warfare, individual expression, and that need some people have to somehow master their domain.
“It’s about control,” he says. “Erasing someone’s tag off a wall is one small accomplishment for these people where they could say, ‘That was me. I did something. That’s gone now. I got rid of that. That was me.’
“I think the taggers are saying the same thing. They put up that mark and they say, ‘That was me. I did one small thing today.’ If that’s what it take to stay sane, then more power to you on either side. If that’s what your passion is, then you’re going to have to live with the consequences that those passions involve law-breaking activity. Then so be it.” – Pam Grady
Vigilante Vigilante plays the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St, San Francisco, Friday, August 12-Thursday, August 18. Max Good and Nathan Wollman will be in attendance on Friday and Saturday evening. For showtimes, tickets, or other information, visit http://www.roxie.com.