Filmmaker and San Francisco in a Graffiti Gridlock

Life imitates art in the city's war on graffiti

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Players:  Max Good, director of Vigilante Vigilante: The Battle For Expression--a documentary about Bay-area vigilante "buffers" who clean up graffiti with more graffiti; The San Francisco Department of Public Works and two "buffers"

The Opening Serve:  On Friday, the San Francisco's Department of Public Works put out a call asking the public to report sightings of Good's illegally posted graffiti-style movie posters. "We've given out a lot of promotional materials -- posters and stickers," said Good in SF Weekly. "Whenever we do, we asked people not to post these these things illegally, but it's happened." The city has since slapped the filmmakers with a cease and desist letter. "It's the law, this is part of making San Francisco clean," said Gloria Chan, a DPW spokesperson. In a CBS report, officials claim that they are having to clean up more than 40 posters and stickers--which, The Examiner claims, could cost as much as $500 for each documented case--all of which may come from taxpayer pockets.

The Return Volley:  Life imitating art?  The irony is not lost on Good, since his documentary questions the "buffers" who blot out graffiti hoping to protect their city from violence and crime. "We're being singled out because [the movie] is about the kind of people involved in this very work," said Good in his SF Weekly interview. "Thousands of other posters and stickers are posted up throughout the city, many for movies and commercial ventures," he wrote in an e-mail to The Examiner. "But we have been singled out because we are challenging the arguments of these very same people who break laws and threaten people in order to enforce a sterile city environment." On the film's Facebook and Twitter accounts, Good tabbed Rick Thruber and Gideon Kramer as two possible "buffers" or anti-graffiti vigilantes. SF Weekly reported Thruber e-mailed Good two weeks ago. "Fuck you for violating our neighborhood," Thruber wrote. Kramer threatened the Roxie Theater, where Good's film made its debut on Friday."We're definitely critical [of anti-graffiti vigilantes] but the documentary is all about tolerance and having a conversation," Good responded. "I think a lot of people on [Kramer and Thurber's] side think they're beyond the law and they're not interested in having a conversation."

Matt Dorsey, spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said they will take the DPW’s lead and may fine Good and his team. "Guerrilla marketing like this is illegal, and DPW and the city attorney both take it very seriously," Dorsey said in The Examiner. Over the past week, the film's Twitter and Facebook accounts have asked their fans not to post the movie's promotional items illegally.

What They Say They're Fighting About: Whether or not Good and the filmmakers should be held responsible for the posters and stickers appearing all over the city. Good obviously feels singled out. Officials claim that they are just following protocol.

What They're Really Fighting About: The reputation of San Francisco. The DPW and vigilantes like Kramer and Thruber believe that cleanliness adds to their city and is something to be preserved and revered. Good disagrees and sees artistic and political value in graffiti.

Who's Winning Now: San Francisco. Good has a valid point about the freedom of expression and perhaps many may share his conceptual values on what adds to the richness of the city. But in the Bay Area, where his movie is set and debuted, his argument is falling on deaf ears, judging by the meager amount of support of the film on Facebook and Twitter (1,294 fans and 156 followers, respectively). Unlike Good, the city does not equate "clean" with "sterile." San Francisco isn't known for its "grit"--it's been voted multiple times as one of the cleanest cities in America. By targeting the illegal postings, the city maintains its calling card while painting Good and his documentary as the villain--since the cleanup will reportedly use taxpayer's dollars.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.