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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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.

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