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.

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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.

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