Good and Wollman shooting for the film. Photos: Vigilante Vigilante

By Robert Mills

Max Good and Nathan Wollman’s new documentary, Vigilante Vigilante, focuses on a little known aspect of the street-art scene. Rather than exploring the work of street artists like Banksy or Richard Hambleton, and the many artists who have followed in their wake, the new film shines a light instead on taggers’ most outspoken adversaries.

“It’s not a graffiti movie in the traditional sense,” Wollman said. “It’s not stereotypical. It’s more about human behavior.”

The documentary chronicles the lives of “buffers” – impassioned vigilantes who combat graffiti with more graffiti.

Good and Wollman fell into the turf war when they noticed recurring silver blotches on Berkeley buildings and street signs. The dripping silver paint markings were not city-regulated, yet they appeared with some regularity.

Curiosity turned into obsession once the two men began pointing hidden cameras at fresh Berkeley tags, waiting to capture the elusive “Silver Buff” on camera.

Max Good and Nathan Wollman shooting for the film, “Vigilante Vigilante”. Photos: Vigilante Vigilante

The documentary chronicles Good and Wollman’s entire adventure, from bumbling stakeouts at 4 a.m. on the streets of Berkeley, to discovering the true identity of the Silver Buff – a resident of the Berkeley Hills named Jim Sharp.

Berkeleyan Jim Sharp is the inadvertent cover model for the official poster of the documentary

“The backstory there is really amazing,” Wollman said. “Instead of removing the graffiti, or scrubbing it off, Jim Sharp started spraying silver as a way of saying, ‘Hey, this is me not being satisfied with what’s going on here in regards to stickers, street art or postering or anything like that.’ It wasn’t just taggers he was after.”

For Wollman, the most intriguing aspect of Sharp is not his opposition to taggers in general, but the way he chooses to express his opposition.

“He’s not out there cleaning stuff up at all,” Wollman said. “He’s going balls out on the silver paint and the other vigilantes are on the same page.

“Right now some anti-graffiti activists don’t want our movie to be shown. They want us to be taken down for putting up flyers for the film.”

Director Max Good recently worked as assistant producer and distribution manager on the Academy Award®-­‐nominated documentary feature, “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers” (2009). He’s also directed several short films in collaboration with Co-Producer Nathan Wollman, a Bay Area Native who is an active member of The San Francisco Film Society and a graduate of San Francisco State University.

Though they take no official stance in the film, the filmmakers are not innocent spectators in the turf war – many Vigilante Vigilante stencils, stickers and fliers can be found plastered on walls and boxes throughout the Bay Area.

The documentarians appear unbiased in the documentary, however, examining both sides of the battle over public property.

“I really don’t have judgment towards people who follow their passion,” Wollman said. “Sometimes your passion can get you in trouble, but that’s why it’s a passion. I’m inspired by both sides. It’s the dedication and persistence that inspires me, not necessarily the act.”

Vigilante Vigilante will debut August 12 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Wollman said the documentary will play nationwide in select theaters following the debut. Find out more about the film on the documentary’s website.

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  1. “….They take no official stance in the film…” Have you seen this poor excuse for a documentary? It’s pure one-sided propaganda! The only redeeming part is when someone tries to scratch the filmmaker’s lens with a key, insisting on his right to leave his mark on whatever surface he pleases. The cameraman recoils in sheer horror! Priceless.

  2. There is a world of difference between tagging and graffiti street art.  Tagging is marking territory.  Gang tagging is just a part of tagging.  If tagging is so “artistic” and subversive, why don’t the little darlings write their names or do it in broad daylight?  Maybe then I can come to their house and tag the walls of their living rooms.  I am also really tired of “the white male elite” excuse.  There are a lot of taggers who are white, male and middle-to-upper class; it isn’t just brown kids.  It’s a way of getting their cool street “cred,” even if they are recipients of the benefits of their class or ethnicity that some of the other taggers would love to have. It would actually be a lot cooler if they tutored some elementary school kids to help them get a better education.  It would be a lot cooler if they worked to help under-served (yet tax-paying, by the way) communities to become pleasant and safe places for the residents of these communities, who suffer because of neglect and lawlessness. An example of lawlessness is what is known as “black on black” crime that is not often reported by the media and affects the victims and their families just as much as it does on the minority of Asian or European Americans who are victims and make the news.
         Murals and other graffiti art has real value and adds a lot of beauty and interest to an area.  It can act as a statement about life in general or life specific event or point of view.  It is very, very valuable and should be treated with respect.  For example, a mural artist and her class at Berkeley City College got some high school kids and they all executed a great mural on the side of Mi Tierra.  This contains historic and mythological figures and the self portraits of the people who painted the mural.  Another example of graffiti art–one that isn’t an organized effort–can now be found on the back of the old Bacheeso’s on Dwight and San Pablo…very high level art, and something that deserves respect.  And a world away from the blotches and defacement of a tag.
         We need more art and less tagging.

  3. Here is one example of graffiti that I see frequently: 

    There are murals by a native American artist in Ohlone Park near where I live, and the one that faces away from the street is frequently defaced with graffiti.  When the city cleans off the graffiti, it also rubs off part of the painting.  The city paid to have the artist come back and touch up the murals that were defaced, but the mural facing away from the street was vandalized soon afterward, and now it is missing much of its paint once again.

    To those who think that graffiti are a wonderful, anti-authoritarian gesture: Do you approve of this vandalism of art commemorating the Ohlone Indians? 

    If so, would you approve of a graffiti vandal going into the Louvre and defacing the paintings there?

  4. “The medium is the message.”  — Marshall McLuhan.

    “Straight” society (not straight vs. gay, straight vs.street) interprets tagging and other forms of graffiti as property damage and other offenses against rights of ownership or authority.

    The “street” on the other hand often sees art and/or meaningful messaging.

    That these forms of expression can not be suppressed demonstrates the impotence of the state in at least this one area.

    Therefore, the tagging and other forms of graffiti serve as a boundary marker that delimits the borders of the power of the state.   “Authority stops here,” the medium says.

    It’s a kind of powerful boundary marker of the limts of authority in that, when the state sometimes does try to heavily crack down, the state winds up taking one step “forward” and two steps “back” — vengeance against the crackdowns make the “cure” worse than the “disease”.

    In that sense, the extent of involvement of the “sons of the elites” is not really central to it.   Those sons are just as capable as any mother’s son of marking the boundaries of civic order — in fact, their privilege makes it *easier* for them to do so because they tend to have a few get out of jail free cards up their sleeves.    The main message of the medium is:  “Can’t touch this!  Catch me if you can!”.

    It goes further because the point of contention here — graffiti — is a medium of rich signification.  Graffiti can be used to (locally) broadcast complex signals, often encrypted signals.   (This where the straight media tends to prattle about gang tagging, but they oversimplify terribly.).   This medium of communication is extremely potent during any breakdown of civil order generally.   Therefore, the fact that the anti-statist forces tend to dominate this medium makes it all the more interesting (e.g., after “the big one”, if we were all to be cut off for more than a few days — “tags” would take on a whole level of meaning that is latent now but would be pretty profound then).

    Tagging and graffiti, in short, is part of how the street polices the police, and preserves its own innate capacity to politically organize.

    Cities crack down on it partly for reasons not unrelated to why Tom Bates got caught stealing newspapers he didn’t like.

  5. The sheer hypocrisy of those who deface property in the name of art/expression being angered by those who deface their work in the name of art/expression is hysterical.
    I guess lawlessness is ok unless you’re on the receiving end.   

  6. By the same reasoning, robberies are related to class, and the sons of the elite are not likely to be robbers.  Does it follow that it is shortsighted to condemn robbery, because we are tired of a world run by entitled white males?    

  7. For years, Jim Sharp has been doing daily battle against litter on Northside.  You can spot him picking up trash early in the morning.  He deserves credit for that even if his buffing seems not to be universally appreciated.

  8. Sweet!  I can’t wait to see the film.  The Silver Buff and people like him are worse than taggers and especially worse than people who go out and do real art.  To me a silver splotch is way uglier than a tag.  And what about the owners of the newspaper boxes or other property being “buffed?”  Do they get a say as to which they prefer?  Shouldn’t abatement be left to them?

  9. Property owners might not like tagging and some folks might see tagging as blight and maybe it is blight . . . . . but ever since Basquiat rose to fame as an artist/tagger, I think it is shortsighted to condemn tagging. Tagging happens for a reason. I don’t purport to understand that reason   . . I have some hunches. One hunch is that it is related to class. Something tells me the sons of the elites in a community are not likely to be taggers. It is the rising classes that tag. That matters. It is part of who we are. I’m tired of a world run by entitled mostly white mostly male elites like Tom Bates. How about you? Tag on.

  10. I have noticed the silver buffing and been disappointed that I didn’t get to see the tagging.  I guess the buffers have the same ‘rights’ as the taggers. I kinda like tagging. It seems like an interesting stream of life, esp. in Berkeley — I can’t speak for the city so much but here in Berkeley the taggging seems closely connected to the pulse of things.  When I come along and see the silver paint, I have been vaguely aware that I missed something that I would have liked to have seen. I thought it was the city.

    I like how this story points out that the filmmakers engage in a big of tagging/urban pollution of their own by pasting flyers to promote their film. Just so they don’t go as far as Zynga did when it had publicity stunt of painting sidewalks all over SF to promote a new game . . . where does free speech, passion and art end and the rights of the commons begin? Interesting. I want to see the movie.

  11. ““Instead of removing the graffiti, or scrubbing it off, Jim Sharp started spraying silver”

    I don’t know if they still do it, but for a long time the city hired homeless people to paint over graffiti with brown paint – which is a big improvement and which is not much different from what Jim Sharp is doing. 

    Maybe the city should create a volunteer program for people who want to paint over graffiti, so they can do it openly.  The city would just have to set basic standards for the colors of paint that can be used, how completely graffiti must be covered, and so on.

  12. ““Instead of removing the graffiti, or scrubbing it off, Jim Sharp started spraying silver”

    I don’t know if they still do it, but for a long time the city hired homeless people to paint over graffiti with brown paint – which is a big improvement and which is not much different from what Jim Sharp is doing. 

    Maybe the city should create a volunteer program for people who want to paint over graffiti, so they can do it openly.  The city would just have to set basic standards for the colors of paint that can be used, how completely graffiti must be covered, and so on.