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The Graffiti Writer’s Biggest Nemesis Isn’t the Cops

It’s the buffer.

Editor’s Note
: This is one of many stories San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the June 2018 East Bay Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.

Read more about Oakland's street art explosion here.

As surely as cities
have alleyways, fire escapes, and brick walls, they have graffiti writers ducking down, scaling, and painting them. Another sure thing? Graffiti abatement workers—or, if you ask the ones doing the ducking and scaling, “the buff.” And just like the writers, buffers have crews of their own. There are the city employees, impassioned volunteers like the East Oakland Beautification Council, and entrepreneurs such as the Graffiti Removal Guys.

In this war over walls (and just about every other surface imaginable), the thin blue line is thinner than it seems. After all, the steady flow of new stickers and tags provides the buff’s raison d’être, or at the very least, his paycheck. On the flip side, without fresh surfaces to paint, writers would run out of space to get up. The City of Oakland spends more than $1 million per year on graffiti abatement, and from April 2017 to April 2018, it fielded more than 2,000 service requests relating to graffiti on public spaces.

“I think buffers are a necessary evil that has added to the voice of the city,” says Mike, an Oakland-based writer who notoriously made his mark on the top of San Francisco’s Hibernia Bank in 2013. “It’s the silencer. When you’re protesting, it’s the person who yells back.”

And sometimes those people like the sound of their own voices just as much as the people they are silencing do, observes Max Good, whose 2011 film, Vigilante Vigilante, documents a group of renegade, unsanctioned buffers—like Berkeley’s Silver Buff—whose passion for graffiti removal turns them into “the very menace they set out to eliminate.”

“The mentalities are pretty similar,” Good says. “If the buffers had grown up in a different era or different environment, they could have easily been graffiti writers.” While Good says the Silver Buff’s distinctive drippy silver sprays have vanished from the streets, there’s a new buffer leaving a mark in Oakland. “It’s very sloppily buffed over,” Good says. “They just try to make it illegible. Put a few lines here and there. It’s really ugly. I think it’s probably partly to save paint and partly to antagonize the writers.”

The worker’s conspicuous crisscross technique has earned him the title “buff king” and, naturally, a nickname: X Man. “One day when I was painting, I saw one of the dudes who works with X Man,” Oakland writer Phresh says. “[The buffers] know all the writers. We started talking about X Man, and [the buffer] was like, ‘In a way, it’s an egotistical thing that X Man does, because he knows he’s up. And he’s making a statement for himself.’ The same way we make our statement.”


Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco 

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