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The Buff Monster?
WYWS

Profile: Graff antagonist Joe Connolly loves attention, hates disorder,
talks as if has a taste for thuggery and oughta be an A.M. radio talk show
host. Jeremy Rosenberg takes a ride with Los Angeles' vigilante deleter.

Joe Connolly, self-proclaimed "Graffiti Guerrilla," is huffing, puffing and buffing.

"I've got to get this stuff down," he says.

Connolly is standing beneath an overpass on Fairfax Avenue, L.A.'s eastside-westside divider. He's hit the emergencies on his minivan, pulled over, popped the hatchback and pulled out a bucket loaded with Graffiti-B-Gone cleaning solution and a garbage bag filled with rags. He practically whistles while he works.

This is, after all, what the man devotes himself to. Ridding the city -- okay, that's a dream -- ridding his own mid-city neighborhood of any and all traces of graffiti.

"Who wants to get shot while waiting for the goddamn bus?" Connolly asks.

Not me, that's for sure. And that's why standing nearby, an accomplice with tape recorder, I get nervous while the cocky white man buffs. Particularly when a tough-looking vato halts his rig, ignoring the green light ahead. The gent's eyes are as dilated as an asshole receiving a rim job.

"Hey," the vato calls out.

Connolly turns to face the man. It's on right now, I figure. The driver hollers:

"'Bout time somebody takes that shit off the wall!" he says. He waves, smiles and drives away.  

Chalk up another grateful citizen; knock my own self for extreme prejudice. And most of all, marvel at the obsessive-compulsive megalomania of Connolly – removing black shoe polish, green pen, a rainbow of acrylic and spray from on top of the underpass mural. Forever adding to the 30,000 volunteer hours the man's already logged of vigilante deleting.

"It's time consuming," Connolly had said earlier. "But to me, it's like, what's the price of life?"

**

Joe Connolly, as he's want to point out, hails from the streets of Chicago.

He moved to the Bay Area in 1968, then down to the City of Angels in the mid-eighties. He's in his 40s. He lives in the center of the city in a second-story apartment on a quiet street with speed bumps and neighbors with a dog named "Checkers." The inside of his pad is meticulously clean. Near the doorway is a framed citation awarded by the city.

Connolly's eyes are blue, like flowers in the yard. The day I meet him, he's wearing a white T-shirt and blue shorts. He looks like a 1950s Irish cop, straight out of central casting. He has a tiny bit of gray hair over the ears, the rest stands tall and parted. He's got a wife and kids and a dog. He was active in the local P.T.A. He sells carpet for a living. He even ran for City Council last year, losing badly in the primaries.

And oh yeah, there's something else: the cat has something – I mean, he
really, truly has something – against graffiti.

"I'm going to be the one painting your shit down," he'll say. "Now I'm not going to hurt you. I'm not going to mess with your drug trafficking. Your prostitution, I don't give a shit about, I don't care, life's not perfect…. But I'm going to be the one painting out your graffiti."

And at least in his little neighborhood, his fiefdom, his turf, Connolly has won. Those speed bumps? Installed per his request. The street signs, front and rear? Entirely graff free. The nearby alleyways? Buffed, 100%, or else fenced and locked off.

Connolly would very much like to do the same for the entire city. To him, graf is a gateway crime, reefer madness redux. Connolly's beliefs echo sociology theories like James Q. Wilson's "Broken Windows;" or when put in practice, see then-Mayor Guilliani's demonizing of squeegee spare-changers.

Graf-wise, it works like this: Clean tags and pieces and gang work up and crime will plummet. Then business will come to neighborhoods. There will be more jobs. The economy will improve. Families will reunite, kids will play outdoors. Hell, flowers will sprout and birds will chirp. Cats will make love with dogs.

It worked on his block, after all.

So why is he just running his blocks, and not the whole city? Something about his attitude and style.

"The city and county of L.A. spend 260 million of our dollars on gang and graffiti enforcement," Connolly says. "So if somebody fixes that problem, see the people that have those contracts are a friend to politicians. A stupid guy like me comes along, figures that whole thing out, we're all safer. Crime goes down, a lot of innocent people get – there's no downside to my program. The big downside is you separate rich white people from their money."

That was a fairly tame tale. Connolly will never get a city job, unless diplomacy and protocol no longer matter, or unless the War on Terror turns us totally towards totalitarian

Meanwhile, Connolly talks. Talks non-stop and articulately. Sounds like he oughta be an A.M. radio talk show host, a Curtis Sliwa without the beret. Over the course of a couple of hours, Connolly mentions carrying a machete, mentions pinning a threat-making dude against a wall with his automobile. "I'm kind of psychotic," Connolly declared while answering a question during a City Council debate. Hmm. It ain't exactly "I Like Ike," but it's not such a bad campaign slogan.

Back to the talking, though. Some other Connolly anecdotes: There was this senior citizen who was littering, so Connolly pulled over to reeducate him. Then old man cursed at him. Connolly stuffed all the trash through the house's mail slot, into the foyer. Another time, a cop threw a cigarette out the window and Joe tracked him down made him go clean it up and apologize, pointing out that's how forest fires begin. There's a hated ex-boss, who did Connolly wrong and was going to get a jar of piss thrown upon his grave. And on a more intense tip, there was the time this trio of Carnales bangers who phoned him at 2:30 a.m., drunk, high and angry that somebody else was being "permitted" to tag on Connolly's turf, while they were not. The callers had the tagger spread-eagle, gun pointed to his dome.

"We caught this guy tagging, we want to fucking nine him," Connolly recalls the bangers saying. "I said, well I think that's a little drastic."

**

There are, lord knows, plenty of other anti-graffiti activists in this vast nation of ours. WYWS staff and readers have had plenty of interaction – generally unpleasant – with them. When we first conceived of this story, the plan was to profile a selection of vandal squaders from across the country. One of our correspondents interviewed David Fernandez, the Boston police veteran who had busted ALERT, SP1, NAJI, TOME, RELM, SBK kids down in the Back Bay tunnels, even EXACTO, publisher Roger Gastman's best friend. We also researched Tim Spencer, the infamous Philly guy who presided over the 215's scandal-plagued PAGN anti-graff office in the mid-'90s. Allegations there ranged from sexual harassment to unsafe working conditions to discriminatory hiring practices.

The more we looked around, though, the more we returned to L.A.'s J.C.

First let's own up to the initials. You don't have to be reading "Lord of the Flies" to recognize a cat with a martyr complex. Ask him about heroes, and it's all wronged ghosts: MLK, JFK, RFK. And Connolly's personal life has been filled with all sorts of family tragedy.

From out of all that, though, came a mission. And a battle. As obsessive compulsive as any tagger, as interested in notoriety, and surprisingly, ever bit against authority as the sprayers are.

**

"Joe Connolly is an interesting character to say the least," Bob Bryan says.

"He's a true believer and a passionate individual."


Bryan is the man behind "Graffiti Verite, a well-received documentary. He met Connolly at the motor yards, back when Bryan was videotaping pieces and Connolly, with photographer in tow, was buffing them.

Bryan's a thoughtful, well-connected and just observer. I ask him how the Graffiti Guerilla is perceived?

"There are no practicing graffiti artists that I know that have ever said

anything positive about what Joe Connolly represents," Bryan responds. "They see him as an anomaly, they see him as a freak. They see him as a hater. They see him as someone who, ultimately, is trying to destroy their art form as they see it, and they see him as a grandstander."

That said, Bryan tried to break the ice, inviting Connolly to judge an international graffiti art competition. Connolly accepted and attended, Bryan reports, but the artists weren't as open-minded. They didn't trust him, didn't want him to know anything about them, afraid he would give information to authorities. Meanwhile, Connolly has become a fan – an advocate, if you can believe it – of graf art done in safe and legal environments.

And he seems to know his stuff. Connolly leafs through a WYWS back issue and immediately identifies works by ZEPHYR. He knows the history of UTI. He worries that a certain talented, well-known piecer is depressed and drinking too much. Hell, he bought a Limp Bizkit CD so he could check out the cover artwork by MEAR1 – talk about commitment.

Connolly also speaks highly of a small local gallery showing graf-related works. He also mentions, numerous times, his desire to open graffiti art schools, where writers can ply their trade in safe, legal and daytime environment.

**

As we drive around, after Connolly has used the Graffiti-B-Gone spray under the underpass, and after the photographer has long since left, J.C. is still on. Pick any street, he says, any alley. And so I do, and so he identifies crew after crew after crew, gangs too. Tells their history, where they operate, when they were big. Knows the hieroglyphics like this was ancient Egypt and he, the Pharaoh.

At one point, we pass a wheat-pasted poster on a utility box. It's a

rectangle with a cute, silly little robot or space alien. The poster's text reads, "The Buff Monster."

Connolly brightens. He thinks that is a message, a sort of rival's tribute to his own bad self. J.C., The Buff Monster. Hear him roar.

Too bad Connolly's incorrect.

"I've heard of Joe," Random, the former graffiti and current gallery artist

behind the posters says when reached by e-mail. "I think he's insane. Some

of his perspectives are good -- like when he rationalizes to gang members that the mafia is so strong because they take your money, rather than just tagging on people's walls. But some of his beliefs regarding graffiti are so

ridiculously unfounded. The fact that he thinks he's the subject of the poster just points out the huge ego he must have."

Not unlike, of course, a legion of graf artists.

"Some people," Bob Bryan says, "believe that [Connolly's] entire reason for being is to get his name up, as other writers are trying to get their name up, he tries to get his name up in the media."

Which brings us to J.C.'s famous wall – his tag that's been up nine years now, a hell of a record. Only been messed with twice, and he conserved it quickly.

What does the wall say? "Graffiti No Longer Accepted Here! Please Find a Day Job. Thank you."

The words are spelled out in inelegant print handwriting. No bubble-ups, no wild-style. Not even multiple color. It's far less aesthetically pleasing than the average tag. But what does that matter? Graf's a game, everybody calls it that. And your enemy in L.A., he's here to play.

"To me," Connolly says, "It's like a cat-and-mouse game. It's just fun. And the thing that's cool about it, is that I always get the last word."