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.
At that point, they had a good idea that Sharp was Buffman, but they didn't know for sure. So on the morning of March 11, they confronted him. Once again they staked out Thompson's house, using two cars to make sure they didn't lose him. Buffman left Thompson's home before sunlight, jumped in his Honda, and headed up Oxford Street toward North Berkeley. He pulled fliers and posters off poles and spray-painted over graffiti and stickers, before driving downtown and starting his ritual all over again.
Finally, as dawn approached, he headed toward Telegraph. The documentarians decided to confront him at People's Park. They were in luck; he had no problem being filmed as he went about his work. They chose not to tell him about the prior two months of stalking him or that they were out to expose him. Good and Wollman, you see, grew up in the East Bay and view graffiti and stickers as political speech. As a result, they believe Buffman suppresses the rights of others. The working title of their documentary is Vigilante, Vigilante.
They also quickly discovered that Buffman was not entirely comfortable with his own actions. For example, he wouldn't admit on camera that he was responsible for all of Berkeley's silver paint, but then talked openly about why he was battling graffiti with his paint can. "He would just launch into a tirade," Good explained, as he showed a clip of the on-camera interview. "He started pulling fliers off telephone poles and then he went right to a newspaper box and spray-painted it on camera."
In the taped interview, the Silver Buff described what drives him. Politically, he may be just as liberal as the two documentarians — only in a different way. He views utility poles, light poles, building walls, Post Office boxes, and newspaper racks as "public space," and he says the taggers and graffiti vandals such as Pigface and Torso are illegally "privatizing" it. In effect, they're turning the public square into their own personal playground. "As you walk the street, you have all this information bombarding you," he told Good and Wollman. "To me, this is just more noise. I'd rather have less noise. Less visual noise."
In a phone interview with this newspaper, Sharp seemed just as uneasy talking about his actions as he had been with Good and Wollman. "I'm not admitting to anything — other than what these guys photographed," he said tersely, referring to the documentarians. But then when pressed, he openly talked about why he exclusively uses silver paint. He also explained that he first tries to remove stickers before painting over them. And he discussed his main nemesis, "Pigface," whose name refers to a drawing of a police badge with a pig's face in it. He said he believes Pigface and others are in effect using the public square as their own personal "MySpace" pages. "I call it a kind of culture of MySpacing," he said. As for the silver paint, he said he gets no personal satisfaction from spraying it around. "I've never believed in spraying for the pleasure of spraying," he said. "I have no interest in covering the city in silver."
Sharp's live-in girlfriend, Daniella Thompson, was no less strident. When Good called her for an interview, she said she was totally aware of what Sharp was doing, and was proud. "What he does is a great service to the city," she said. "He's one of the unsung heroes of Berkeley."
Jim Sharp and Daniella Thompson have been active in left-wing Berkeley politics and the city's preservationist movement for years. Most of Sharp's public battles have been with the university over its expansion proposals. In 2005, he and a group of activists sued the city over a settlement agreement it had reached with the University of California, concerning the university's long-range construction plans. Sharp felt the city had abrogated its responsibility to oversee downtown development. Last year, however, an appellate court dismissed his suit.
Thompson, meanwhile, sits on the board of directors of the politically influential Berkeley Architectural Heritage Alliance and is a regular columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet, which is well-known for its preservationist views. In a phone interview with the East Bay Express, Thompson, 63, strongly defended her boyfriend. "I'll tell you what I told the documentarian; Jim Sharp is providing a public service by cleaning up graffiti," she said. "Graffiti is a horrible blight." But when asked about Sharp's habit of covering newspaper boxes with silver paint, including the Daily Planet's own newsracks, Thompson responded: "You should talk to him about that."
Sharp and Thompson also are no strangers to Berkeley City Hall. When contacted for this story, several city officials laughed when told that Sharp was the Silver Buff. Councilman Kriss Worthington, who represents the Telegraph Avenue area just south of campus, said he has known Sharp since the mid-1990s, but didn't know he was now painting telephone polls and newspaper boxes. He said he first met Sharp after the vigilante ripped down all of his campaign fliers when he first ran for council in 1996.
Worthington said Sharp came to him at the time and told him that the fliers had been put up illegally. Worthington said he then researched the issue, and discovered that there were legal spots for the fliers. Sharp, however, appeared to be removing fliers indiscriminately. "To the extent that he's taking down fliers that are illegally posted, then I think he's doing the people's work," Worthington said. "But if he's taking down legally posted materials, then he's suppressing free speech." Worthington said he later suggested to other city officials that the city should hire and train Sharp to remove fliers posted unlawfully. He said the response he got was: "Why pay him, when he does it for free?"
As for the graffiti war, Worthington, who is a hero among many preservationists and anti-development activists, said he believes Sharp is breaking the law. "Graffiti can be problematic, especially if it's gang-related," he said. "People don't like to admit it, but we do have gangs in Berkeley. But I don't condone what Jim Sharp is doing. It's clearly illegal. He's painting over people's private property."
And what about the vandals and taggers, the people who blanket the city with black spray paint and stickers? There is no doubt that they have caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to public and private property, and if it weren't for them, the Silver Buff would be relegated to ripping fliers off light poles and filing lawsuits against the city. But finding and identifying the taggers is tricky. As of last week, Good and Wollman had yet to interview any of them.
However, after some online sleuthing, Good discovered a page on the photo-sharing web site Flickr that appears to be run by Pigface and documents the ongoing war between Buffman and the city's graffiti taggers. The photos are identified as the property of NMG Productions, which Pigface apparently operates. NMG stands for Not My Government, and Pigface seems to be an anarchist, or at the very least he or she absolutely hates the police.
On NMG's Flickr page, Pigface describes his or her emblem: "The message of the star pig is supposed to be how cops are dirty and shouldn't be trusted." It then goes on: "Police murder and rape while they say they are protecting. And it is not a case of a few bad apples; the whole system is rotten to the core. The most brutal cops are the ones who stay on the job the longest and are the ones promoted to highest ranks of authority and training. The star pig is supposed to be a way of saying FUCK THE POLICE without saying it."
Berkeley police seem nonplussed about the war between Buffman and the taggers. "We don't encourage that sort of behavior," police spokesman Andrew Frankel said in an interview. "If he paints over something before we get a look at it, then he hurts our ability to do our jobs." But clearly, pursuing graffiti vandals isn't much of a priority in the department.
Frankel also wasn't gung ho about arresting Sharp. When told that the documentarians had videotaped Sharp in the act and that there's ample evidence that his efforts have worsened the graffiti problem in Berkeley, Frankel responded: "I suppose somebody could write up that case." He then glibly suggested that newspapers hire Sharp and give him different colored paints to match their newspaper boxes.
In some ways, the police department's apathy is understandable. After all, it may not make a lot of sense to spend precious police resources during a steep recession going after taggers and a vigilante preservationist when violent crime is on the rise. Still, that doesn't mean the graffiti war, and the police department's antipathy toward it, has no victims. It has been costly for newspaper owners, including the owners of the Express.
According to Express co-owner and editor Stephen Buel, this newspaper has been forced to replace hundreds of Berkeley newsrack windows in the past couple years because of taggers and the Silver Buff. When a vandal makes a mark or places a sticker on the window of a newspaper box, Sharp often paints over it indiscriminately, completely covering the window and making it impossible for anyone to see the newspapers inside the box. "Including materials and installation, he's cost us more than $2,000 simply in window replacement," Buel said of Sharp alone. "That doesn't count any of the rack replacement we've had to do."
The damage that taggers and Sharp have caused makes the city's response all the more bewildering. Instead of targeting the vandals and their sworn foe, the office's code enforcement division is threatening to hold the newspaper owners responsible. Earlier this month, Code Enforcement Supervisor Gregory Daniel sent a letter to all newspaper publishers with racks in Berkeley, telling them that in early April the city plans to start issuing citations of $250 — per day — for every newsrack with graffiti on it. In an interview, Daniel said the department considers silver paint to be graffiti.
If the city goes through with its plans, the effects would be devastating. The Express, for example, has 241 outdoor racks in Berkeley, and at any given time, most of them are covered in graffiti and/or silver paint. Newspaper owners simply can't keep up with the constant tagging and spray-painting in Berkeley, Buel said. Abating graffiti is time intensive, although it doesn't compare with the sanding and repainting needed to restore a box to its original color after Sharp has painted it silver. "Given the current state of the newspaper industry, it's impossible for us or any other newspaper to keep up with the price of newsrack vandalism in Berkeley," Buel said. Even newly painted racks are quickly covered with graffiti and stickers.
As result, the Express could be slapped with fines of up to $60,000 a day, which works out to about $22 million a year. "Suffice it to say that that far surpasses our annual revenues," Buel said. If the city follows through with its threat, the paper would have no choice but to remove all of its newsracks from Berkeley streets.
At a meeting Monday between city officials and newspaper representatives, Becky O'Malley, co-owner and editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet, said she was distressed that code enforcement officers apparently think newspaper owners aren't interested in maintaining their racks. She said that city officials didn't seem to understand that many newspapers, including hers, are barely hanging on, and don't have the resources to cope with constant vandalism. "You can't get blood from a stone," she said. "We're doing the best we can already. You need to understand that." However, O'Malley declined to comment on the fact that the boyfriend of one of her columnists is Sharp.
The city's proposed fines stem from a 1999 law that has never been enforced. The pertinent section of the law states that "every newsrack shall be maintained in a clean, graffiti-free, neatly finished condition and in good repair at all times." Daniel said that the city is most concerned with newsracks that have broken plastic or glass or are hazardous to the public. That worry appears to be completely reasonable. During a recent city survey of 614 newsracks, a relatively small number had damaged doors (40) or broken glass or plastic (31). By contrast, more than half of the newsracks surveyed had graffiti (324). Daniel had nothing but scorn for Sharp, calling him a "vigilante vandal," but when asked why newspaper rack owners are to be fined and not the actual culprits, he said it was the police department's responsibility to deal with them — not his.
Councilman Worthington said last week that the city is overreacting. "The city is being very unreasonable in how strictly it's blaming newspapers," he said. He added that he plans to try to convince City Manager Phil Kamlarz to back off. He also said he believes the city is cracking down in response to complaints from people with political influence who are upset about the condition of newspaper boxes in the downtown area.
When reached by phone late last week, Kamlarz's spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross struck a more conciliatory tone than Daniel. "We're not talking about a crack-down just yet," she said. She added that the city's main desire is to have "clean and safe newsracks." She also said the city has received many complaints about the condition of newsracks, and that officials are merely looking for solutions to the problem. Still, she didn't rule out fining newspapers owners whose racks have graffiti or silver paint.
Similarly, at the Monday meeting with newspaper representatives, Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel (no relation to Gregory Daniel) indicated that fining newspaper owners for graffiti was a low priority. She said it was more important to deal with abandoned and hazardous racks, and said she was open to a more informal way of notifying newspaper owners about problems than with citations and fines. But when pressed, she wouldn't rule out fining newspapers for graffiti. In fact, Gregory Daniel said at the meeting that his office still plans to send out more than 100 citation warnings on April 7. His division started putting notices on problem racks last week. When asked after the meeting how many of the 104 warnings involved graffiti, he said he didn't know.
As for Sharp, at the end of the interview with the Express, he made a surprising offer. He said would leave this newspaper's boxes alone if that's what the owners desired. This reporter quickly responded: "Yes."
If only Pigface and the other taggers would do the same thing.
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