Director Max Good (left) and producer Nate Wollman offer a few new ideas about the graffiti debate on opening night at the Roxie.

'Vigilante, Vigilante' Opens Can of Worms

Michael Fox August 18, 2011

[Editor's note: Vigilante, Vigilante: The Battle for Expression, a Bay Area-made film on graffiti "abatement," opened with a clamor last weekend at the Roxie, as San Francisco's Department of Public Works made an issue of cleaning up the film's street-art advertising campaign. The filmmakers responded that they've asked that their materials not be posted illegally, but that hasn't stopped DPW requesting them to cease and desist attracting audiences via wheatpaste. What follows is's interview for Michael Fox's In Production column when the film was in-progress earlier this year.]

A “buffer” is someone who blots out graffiti, stickers, drawings and other examples of public communication. Every city has a few on the payroll, but Max Good and Nathan Wollman were more interested in individual citizens on self-appointed missions.
“They’ve dedicated themselves to fighting this phenomenon that they see as dangerous and ugly,” Good explains. “On a certain level I have a great deal of respect for these people because they’ve taken it on themselves; they’ve gone outside the normal channels. [So] there’s a common thread between graffiti writers and buffers. If the buffers had grown up in a different era or a different location [i.e., an urban area with graffiti] or a different generation, they could easily have been graffiti writers. They have the same drive. It’s the flip side.”

Good and Wollman’s feature-length documentary, Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle For Expression, began as an attempt to identify an uncommonly diligent Berkeley buffer whose silver splotches were arguably more unsightly—and indiscriminate—than whatever he was covering. It’s a next-generation film; instead of making the case that graffiti is an art form deserving respect (which several docs have already done), they’re advancing the question of who the commons belongs to.

“We need to take stock of how we use the public space, what we allow to be done in it and who controls it,” Good declares. “What’s so wrong about a kid being able to write a tag in comparison to a corporation being able to define the whole visual landscape with advertising?”

Good was born in Los Angeles and raised in Berkeley, and perhaps you guessed that he—and Wollman, an East Bay pal since adolescence—had more than a passing acquaintance with tagging.

“Our group of friends were all into skateboarding and writing graffiti,” Good says. “ I sort of stayed with it. It’s something I believe in; it wasn’t just a childhood fad. I developed a political outlook along with it. I think there’s not many opportunities for regular people to be heard in the media or in the political system and graffiti offers an opportunity to speak your mind directly, uncensored and unsanctioned.”

Good returned to the East Bay a couple years ago, after a decade on the East Coast, in part to work on Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated doc, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. He and Wollman embarked on what they thought would be a short film about stalking the aforementioned Berkeley buffer that they’d show to their friends. But the project just kept growing.

“It is a very personal film,” Good allows, “and if you wanted to ask what ‘vigilante’ means it could easily refer to me and Nate, who are going after these vigilante buffers. It’s my perspective, and sort of a weird, obscure story that I picked out of the ether that most people would not have noticed—these buffing marks—and thought about doing anything about.”

The repetition of “vigilante” in the title is the filmmakers’ clever, and candid, way of acknowledging that there are two sides to the spray-paint debate—and that they are on a particular side.

“We’ve taken a lot of care to be fair, and we know we’re representing people we cannot agree with,” Good says. “In a way, we’re set up as an opposing force. These people are kind of our archenemies in a way, but we’re fascinated by them, we respect them on some level and we want to have a conversation. To be honest, most of them are not interested in conversation. People who do or appreciate graffiti are more interested in a democratic conversation than the people who are solely interested in eliminating it.”

When I point out to Good that his description of graffiti—“It’s about having the personal choice to decide what you do and not be restricted by any kind of authority”—is not entirely compatible with a filmmaker’s bottom-line prerogative to dictate what goes in and what’s left out of his film, he responds with a self-aware laugh.

“I do relate the film itself to the spirit of graffiti, and I think graffiti is democratic in a way,” he says. “It’s also autocratic You decide what you’re going to put out there. There’s something powerful to that, but it’s not saying I’m the only one who can say something. I’m one of many people who can say something. The movie itself is going to be controversial; we’ve been through this already with people who dislike graffiti. I’m hoping they will at least go see it because their perspective is represented fairly.”

In a mildly contrarian mood myself, I ask Good if the Internet hadn’t emerged as the preferred forum for many people to express their opinions. Come to think of it, shouldn’t he be slicing Vigilante Vigilante into bite-size pieces and posting them online? What’s up with the dinosaur long-form?

“I’m right on the cusp of the Internet generation,” the 32-year-old Good replies. “I remember typewriters, and things being a bit slower and more focused, and I think a lot of where this technology is headed is not good. It’s a hyperactive, frenetic and unfocused disposable cultural experience. To me, films have always been the most powerful forms of media and communication. A feature film forces you to sit down and focus on one story and one topic for an hour and a half. That might be becoming more rare, but I like to do my share to challenge people to focus and go in-depth into something, and think more deeply about certain topics. I don’t see myself making little two-minute Web videos.”

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