In Max Good’s documentary feature, Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression, a lesser-known aspect of graffiti culture gets center stage: the vigilante buffer. These are the people who, feeling that graffiti is a blight on society and that the powers-that-be aren’t doing enough to stop it, elect to go a more renegade route. As active as any graffiti artist, these buffers head out into the days and nights de-stickering and painting over any signs of graffiti or vandalism they can find. The result is often as visually disjointed and aesthetically disturbing as the worst graffiti out there, but the vigilante buffer thinks they’re doing it for the good of society.
Specifically, this film takes a look at New Orleans resident Fred Radtke, known as the “Grey Ghost,” whose anti-graffiti actions, borderline insanity and moments of violence make him the seemingly most dangerous of the vigilante buffers. Los Angeles’s Joe Connolly gets a healthy dose of screentime too, though his buffer style seems to be one of the more obsessive and intriguing of all; for the most part, he enjoys some graffiti art, dislikes others but overall thinks it has its right and wrong place. Finally, the film’s main buffer antagonist, and the focus of over 30 days of stakeouts and eventual confrontations from the film crew, is Berkeley’s “Silver Buff,” Jim Sharp.
Not quite as overtly nutso as Radtke seems, or as obsessively cleanly as Connolly, Sharp goes about his business in an almost haphazard way. If other buffers at least attempt to match somewhat with the aesthetics of the overall wall or signs they’re “rescuing” from graffiti, Sharp seems committed to turning Berkeley into something resembling a redacted document, only using silver instead of black.
While the film calls itself a battle for expression, it often feels like a war of last-laughs. The graffiti artist gets the first shot in, the buffer gets their licks in, and then the two go back in forth covering up each other’s work. Suddenly there’s no expression going on for either of them, and it’s a case of each doing their best to instead oppress the other. While I may find some instances of beautiful and colorful graffiti more aesthetically pleasing than the grey or silver paint used to blot it out, the eventual aftermath of the conflict between the two is never good-looking.
Suddenly walls and buildings are grounds for battle, and the end result is a non-artistic, non-cohesive mish-mash of paint. I’m sure some would argue that that’s what graffiti is to begin with, but I see it differently. It’s, again, the combination of graffiti artist and buffer, actively obsessing with and battling, where things truly break down.
And where, in all of this, are the property owners, and to what value their rights and freedoms? If they own a building, don’t they have a right to not have to clean up their walls of graffiti that they never asked for? When is graffiti an act of artistic expression and when is it a case of infringement on someone else’s expression? It’s hard to hear graffiti artists gripe about a buffer coming along and covering their work when they seem to have no sympathies for the property owners who gripe about having their buildings covered.
And lest you think I’m piling on the graffiti artists here, the buffer really isn’t any better, because those blotches of mis-colored grey paint, in an effort to clean up the look of a neighborhood, end up looking just as horrendous as the worst graffiti out there. And again, in the end, what about the property owner? Now instead of a colorful tag that they never asked for on their wall, they’ve got an ugly blotch of silver on the wall and some buffer saying, “you’re welcome.” No matter how you look at it, someone’s getting screwed here.
You also, obviously, have to take into account the graffiti-friendly nature of the documentary crew, as they are all artists themselves. In many ways, their focus on Sharp goes from being a documentary to being something even more oppressive. While I don’t agree with Sharp covering up graffiti the way he does, I also don’t agree with documentary crews effectively stalking and then hounding their subjects. Sure you could argue that they’re not doing anything any different than what he is doing with his obsessive hounding of graffiti around town, but since when is “well he did it so it’s okay if I do it” the way we determine right or wrong?
And is Sharp really all that bad? He also goes around the neighborhoods, picking weeds and picking up litter, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about those actions. Where’s the pro-litter and anti-weeding arguments? It would seem absurd, right, but, in Sharp’s mind, graffiti, litter and weeds are all similar. I’m not saying he’s right, but society may be sending him a mixed message too.
So I’m conflicted here. While Vigilante Vigilante does a great job of focusing on an aspect of graffiti culture normally not touched on (most docs seem to focus on the clandestine act of the art, or the art and artists themselves), the vigilante graffiti buffer, the film itself becomes a vigilante too. How are the actions of the documentary crew, which Jim Sharp not-so-jokingly refers to as “stalkumentarians,” any different than the actions of Jim? They both are messing with each other’s expressions, both think they’re absolutely right in what they’re doing and seem to have no guilt about their actions. It’s a neverending reaction loop that, ultimately, seems to eventually go to the people willing to be crazy and obsessive enough to never stop. In that case, the buffers seem to have the crazy leg up, but the graffiti artists have the numbers.
In the end, Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle for Expression, regardless of how you feel about how it does it, manages to bring up a conversation and point out a battle that most don’t even know is going on. At the same time, it challenges the audience to really think, and as you can see, it definitely got my mind spinning (but I like that). The documentary is also put together incredibly well, with a number of artistic and stylistic choices that make the film fun and exciting beyond just a bunch of talking heads. It’s a quality film all around, no matter what side or sides you come out on.
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