Many people would prefer a world without graffiti. In Atlanta, the police department has created a specific task force to fight it, a pair of local homeowners has filed a $1 million lawsuit against individuals they believe are writing it, and more than a few community groups have organized efforts to erase it. For a select few, though, going through official channels to wage war against graffiti isn't enough. Take the 2008 case of Rodney Bowman: The Cabbagetown resident hid in a tree during the small hours of the night waiting for graffiti artists to begin their work. When a couple of kids with spray paint finally appeared, he jumped out of the tree and assaulted them. There are individuals around the country whose passion against graffiti drives them to similar lengths, to break the law in their crusade to stop the lawbreakers. These anti-graffiti vigilantes are the subjects of the new documentary Vigilante Vigilante.
The film focuses on a handful of individuals. Through news clips and interviews with artists, we see the story of Ron Engman, a Portland, Ore., vigilante, whose preferred method of buffing tags was to draw a spiraling, shaky circle over them in silver spray paint. (A fan of Cy Twombly's drawings might recognize a resemblance.) Some of the graffiti artists interviewed speak of him with a sort of flabbergasted awe, recounting how graffiti could last scarcely a day or night before Engman's silver circles would appear atop it. He became known as a tagger himself, "The Silver Circle." Police eventually arrested him and charged him with hundreds of counts of criminal mischief at the age of 63.
More interesting, though, are the vigilantes the filmmakers are able to track down. Joe Connolly, a grandstanding, fast-talking, middle-aged guy who tirelessly buffs graffiti in his Los Angeles neighborhood, cooperates the most with the filmmakers. He takes them along on his typical rounds — before work in the morning and after dinner at night — manically scrubbing and painting and covering and peeling all manner of tags and graffiti.
Fascinatingly, Connolly has no patience for the police and no interest in proper procedure. He talks about puncturing the tires of looters during the L.A. riots because the cops wouldn't respond. He ends anecdotes with phrases like "Fuck the system." He talks about knowing graffiti artists and says, "Maybe by associating with [graffiti], it's me vicariously living through them."
The most enigmatic character of the film, though, is a Berkeley, Calif.-based vigilante known as the Silver Buff. The filmmakers stake out for a number of evenings, using surveillance cameras and planting stickers to try to lure him in. After some bumbling failures, they succeed and meet a thin, quiet man named Jim Sharp, who walks Telegraph Avenue in the foggy morning hours to pull weeds from the sidewalks, posters from the telephone poles, and occasionally cover graffiti in silver paint. He has neither the grandstanding bombast of Connolly nor any of the wing-nut violence and anger exhibited by Bowman. He talks softly about his work being part of the public conversation while the filmmakers tirelessly argue with him, telling him that he's repressing speech.
Unfortunately, Sharp never comes into full focus. So much of Vigilante Vigilante is spent on digressions making a case for graffiti (Graffiti is part of a grand human tradition dating back to cave painting; graffiti is expression for those who have no other voice in public discourse; graffiti is a response to rampant advertising; graffiti once saved a baby and a puppy from a burning building that was lit on fire by bad corporate bad people, etc.) that we're often distracted from being able to understand what makes guys like Connolly and Sharp tick. The filmmakers want us to know that these vigilantes are just like graffiti artists, drawing on the walls without permission. It seems true, but they don't get close enough to them to let us find out for ourselves.