The film posits the vigilante buffer with a motivation of repression and the graffiti writer with a motivation of filling a creative urge and finding a creative outlet. How did your understanding of these two character types and their many variations change over the course of the project?
I went into the project with a very antagonistic attitude towards the vigilante buffers. As I say in the film, my initial goal was to expose the Silver Buff and stop him. But as the filming progressed and I actually spent some time with these guys, I started to see them in a more nuanced way. I was very much aware that they shared a lot of the same qualities as the graffiti writers–obsessiveness, persistence, and a desire to change their environment. I think that if they were born a couple decades later, Joe Connolly and Jim Sharp might have become graffiti writers.Some people say there is no difference between the vigilante buffers and the writers.
For me, it comes down to a question of motivation, but the fact is that anyone out on the street expressing themselves may have any number of motivations. In the most general sense, I think the buffers want to uphold society and the status quo by blotting out expression and the writers usually have some urge to challenge the system. I respect both sides’ willingness to go outside the accepted legal channels to express themselves, but the buffers seem to think they have societal support behind them. They remind me of government officials who are willing to break the law supposedly “for the good of the country” while calling for harsh sentences for petty criminals.
As far as graffiti writers go, I have mixed feelings about them. I was one of them for about 15 years and many of my circle of friends were defined by the common thread of graffiti. There are some amazingly unique and inspiring people involved with graffiti and street art, but there is also tons of ego, insecurity, posturing, elitism, and bitterness. In VIGILANTE VIGILANTE, I didn’t go too much into those critiques because I think it’s important to see the ideals in graffiti separate from the flaws of the people and the social scene.
You speak from personal experience as a writer with a clear stance towards allowing unsanctioned and non-commercial messages onto the walls and streets of our communities. What is the line for you as a graffiti writer, citizen observer, and now filmmaker on where and how the “freedom to tell people what they do not want to hear” can be conveyed?
This is a difficult question that should always be asked. I’m a fairly subversive person, so when I look at society and the environment around me (at least in the US), I generally don’t see at it as something positive or something that I relate to. That may give me a somewhat extreme idea of what is valid, in terms of challenging the institutions or the built environment. Part of the power of graffiti is that you are operating outside the bounds of a particular legal and moral code. It becomes your responsibility as an individual to decide what you think is justified or necessary.
One of the most common responses from anti-graffiti zealots is, “How would you like it if I came and wrote on your house, your car, or your face?” This was the point one particular guy was making in the film when he scratched our lens. I wouldn’t tag on any of those things because that seems more like a personal attack than an act of expression. To equate tagging on the back of a stop sign with tagging someone’s face is very disingenuous. I also make a distinction between the property of normal citizens and commercial/public property. The fact is that our society/economy is the most destructive force the planet has ever seen and to get really worked up about some scrawl on a wall is essentially delusional and hypocritical. People who relate to the system see graffiti as an attack on them. Having said all that, I’ll admit that there’s a lot of destructive and uncalled for graffiti out there.
As far as being a filmmaker goes, I bring a lot of the same thinking to my new chosen form of expression. I like to provoke and cross the lines of acceptability to challenge people’s assumptions.
The hypocritical/paradoxical nature of the buffer is fascinating. Joe Connelly, Jim Sharp, and Fred Radtke are lively characters stepping in messy situations daily. Watching Joe Connelly kick a homeless man out of his camp is really powerful. What was it like gaining their trust and endearing them to the camera?
Joe Connolly just loves attention, so it wasn’t hard to get him on board. He knew we were coming from the pro-graffiti side, but that didn’t matter. He sees himself as part of the graffiti scene. I’m really glad he was so open with us because Jim Sharp remained a bit of a mystery even though we spent so much time with him. We weren’t exactly honest with Jim when we first confronted him, but even after he found out our true intentions, he continued to engage in a civil dialog. As we escalated our “battle” against him, I was always gratified that we could continue to have a conversation and recognize the humor in the situation. Jim was also happy that someone was finally recognizing the amount of work he had put in, even if they were questioning his tactics. It’s a lonely job out there on the streets every morning and most people just ignored him.
There are moments in the film where it feel like you set up a pressure cooker scenario to see how the powers at play would react. How did your expectations for these scenes prove or disprove your predictions? For instance, tell me about the day that Joe and Jim meet. Did you arrange the meeting? Tell me about the police being called on you as you followed Jim and his perception that your actions could have been entrapment.
I am a proponent of instigating situations for your documentary, as long as it is fairly transparent and/or it invokes genuine reactions. The entire premise of VIGILANTE is built on this. Joe Connolly was visiting SF and we thought it would be a great opportunity to have two of these lone wolf buffers meet each other. The scene is humorous and shows the contrast between the two characters in a way that really helped advance the film.
We had a lot discussion about what kind of scene we could create for the climax of the film. My producer partner, Nathan Wollman, had wanted to catch Jim in the act and call the police and finally have him charged. That never appealed to me because I didn’t want to just rat him out. In the spirit of vigilantism, that didn’t seem right. I felt that our earlier efforts to confront or expose him were more in line with citizen engagement and to call the police would be especially hypocritical. We had a few other ideas for the final confrontation, some of which would have been much more antagonistic (and illegal). For the idea we settled on, the original goal was to have us taken away in a police car after buffing out his buff marks. It didn’t quite work out that way, but I still think it was an effective scene to end the film.
Because Jim wasn’t carrying spray paint that morning, we were caught red-handed and there was no evidence implicating him. I’ve never been sure what he meant by the entrapment comment, but I think he was implying that he may have ditched his paint after figuring out what we were doing, in order to entrap us.
A major overarching question in the film seems to be “Is Graffiti good for our communities?” Many of the academics you interview disagree on this. Some believe that it undermines the perspective of young people and ignores greater social ills while taking funding from public health care/education/housing. On the other hand, some argue a pretty looking community is a healthy community. Do you think it’s one or the other – how are we getting this right or wrong?
There is no simple answer to this. Whether graffiti is good or bad for a community depends on the specifics and the perspectives involved. I just wanted the film to show a unapologetic alternative to the mainstream view, especially when it comes to tagging and the “uglier” forms of graffiti. People often tell me they like the pretty, colorful stuff but not the tags. They are missing the point.
I would say that you could take a look at Oakland over the last 5 years and correlate a rise in graffiti with a drop in violent crime and a more vibrant cultural landscape. But it also probably correlates to rising gentrification as well. These are complex issues and other cities have different dynamics. One thing I’m sure of is that “attractive” or clean communities are not necessarily healthy. Some of the most destructive people in the world live in some of the most spotless and well-groomed areas.
Tell me about your newest film, GOODBYE OLDSCHOOL. It is a personal film about your crew and a falling out with our mutual friend fine artist Ben Peterson. It gets to the psychology of kids who are attracted to writing and the shared bond they feel. How do you feel that camaraderie around writing has paved a way for a life as an artist/documentary filmmaker?
GOODBYE OLDSCHOOL is a painfully personal film for me. I could barely force myself to look at the screen when it showed at Stanford. But it is a story that I felt compelled to tell. As someone who has always felt like an outsider, the memories of my teenage skateboard/graffiti crew have inspired a lot of nostalgia. The outlaw mentality of graffiti appeals to a certain kind of character and you do find a sense of solidarity among people with that shared experience. The falling out with Ben is a major part of the film and I think it speaks to idealism, judgment, ego, and the undercurrents below social etiquette.
For me, graffiti writing was a way to transcend my own fears, to develop a voice, and to challenge codes of propriety. Those are all dynamics that will continue to be central to my filmmaking.
What do you have planned for the future?
I’m in the midst of my second year in the Stanford documentary program. I’m not quite ready to talk about my thesis film publicly, but it does continue in the same controversial vein. Other than that, I’m just hoping to screen my films at some festivals, graduate, and find a way to make a living while continuing to make films.