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The Great Graffiti War

As a vigilante Berkeley citizen battles taggers and vandals, city officials are threatening to fine newsrack owners for graffiti. Two documentarians capture it all on film.



Jim Sharp views himself as a crusader against blight. On many mornings, the 62-year-old Berkeley Hills resident arises before dawn; grabs his bucket, scraper, and silver spray paint; and jumps into his Honda. He's off to battle graffiti, stickers, and tags in an escalating war over who owns the city's streets.

Opponents call him the "Silver Buff," "Buffman," or just "Buff" for short. In street lingo, "buff" refers to anyone who paints over or removes graffiti, tags, or stickers — as in, to "buff" them out. Sharp usually targets downtown Berkeley, Northside, and Telegraph Avenue, calling the area surrounding UC Berkeley "the institutional blight zone." His weapon of choice is a can of silver spray paint — silver because it's more opaque than other colors, he says, and does a better job in covering up blight. "There are other colors out there," he said, "but most of them are not as effective."

Increasingly, Berkeley's streetlight and utility poles, postal collection boxes, and newspaper racks around the campus are covered in silver paint, as Sharp furiously stamps out whatever he finds offensive. The Silver Buff views graffiti, tags, and stickers as "visual pollution" and assaults on Berkeley's quality of life. He says they lead to increased crime.

Sharp is a liberal political activist, and a longtime member of Berkeley's preservationist movement. He's well-known at Berkeley City Hall for pulling illegally posted fliers and posters off utility poles. In fact, more than a decade ago, one member of the city council suggested that Berkeley put him on its payroll. Sharp turned up the volume of his battle against blight a few years ago. Recently, his war has gotten out of control.

The Silver Buff's enemies now taunt him back, pasting stickers or drawing tags and graffiti atop his silver paint. He returns fire with more paint, which in turn prompts his opponents to respond again. Taggers have taken to writing the Buffman public messages on top of his silver paint, egging him on with: "Buff Here," "Fuck the Buff," or "Don't You Have Anything Better To Do?" Sharp even knows his more prolific opponents by their tags: "Pigface" and "Torso."

Just like the taggers and graffiti vandals he combats, Sharp is breaking the law. In fact, his incessant spray-painting has become more destructive of public and private property than the graffiti and tags he first set out to eradicate. Yet as Sharp's battle with Pigface, Torso, and dozens of other taggers worsens, the City of Berkeley is talking about penalizing the victims of this war. The city's code enforcement supervisor recently decided to launch his own offensive — but not against Buffman and the taggers. Instead, he's threatening to target newsrack owners.

City officials are talking about enforcing a Kafkaesque ordinance that makes the victims of graffiti and vandalism responsible for abating the problem. Berkeley is threatening to fine newspapers $250 per day for each newsrack that isn't immediately cleaned up. And the abatement division views Sharp's silver paint as just as egregious as graffiti, tags, and stickers. Meanwhile, the police department appears totally disinterested in combating graffiti of any kind, regarding it as only slightly more important than busting people for small amounts of pot.

The economically struggling newspaper industry can't afford to keep pace with Berkeley's graffiti vigilante and his enemies. And with literally thousands of newspaper racks throughout the city, the cost of the fines could be astronomical. If implemented, the fines could drive most newspapers — including this one — off the streets of Berkeley, or threaten their very existence at a time when the newspaper industry is already in steep decline.

In short, the City of Berkeley, home of the Free Speech Movement, may end up threatening one of the country's traditional purveyors of free speech — and it's all because city officials won't police the illegal speech of others. Specifically, that of Buffman, Pigface, and Torso.

Berkeley's Great Graffiti War was discovered by two Bay Area documentary filmmakers, Max Good and Nate Wollman. Good, who is currently working on a PBS documentary about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, first noticed the street battle between the Silver Buff and graffiti vandals last year. He then teamed up with his friend Wollman, and the two decided to solve the mystery of Buffman's identity and capture him on camera.

At first, Good and Wollman staked out the campus and its immediate surrounding streets, but had no luck. Then they convinced the owner of Analog Books on Euclid Avenue to allow them to install a surveillance camera in the store's window. The documentarians were convinced that the Silver Buff struck at night or in the early morning hours. In mid-February, they staked out the Northside area all night long, hoping to catch him in the act. At about 6:30 in the morning, they gave up. Fifteen minutes later, their surveillance camera caught him on tape.

The tape showed Buffman spray-painting over stickers and tags just outside the Seven Palms market at the corner of Euclid and Ridge Road. The tape also revealed that he was driving a Honda. But they couldn't read the license plate, so they decided to drive around and see if they could spot the car. Wollman works at a Honda dealership in San Francisco and he recognized the model. In the Berkeley Hills, they saw what looked like Buffman's car, so they staked it out. Sure enough, they spotted him getting into the car, and then followed him on his morning rounds of spray-painting.

But they still didn't know who he was, so they looked up the Honda's license plate number. It came back as being owned by a woman named Daniella Thompson. After searching county property records, they discovered that Thompson owns a house close to where they had found the Honda. Then they Googled Thompson's address and found the minutes of a city Public Works Commission meeting in which Thompson and a man named Jim Sharp spoke during public comment and gave the same address.

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