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Graffiti guerrilla Joe Connolly's counter spray paint campaign

Joe Connolly, known as the Graffiti Guerilla, is obsessed with knocking down graffiti. But he spares large-scale art pieces that he says beautify the neighborhood.
Joe Connolly, known as the Graffiti Guerilla, is obsessed with knocking down graffiti. But he spares large-scale art pieces that he says beautify the neighborhood.
Meghan McCarty

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Joe Connolly is serious about graffiti. For the past 20 years he's waged a campaign to wipe out tags, scrawls and pieces of graffiti of all kind, earning him the nickname the Graffiti Guerilla. He's the subject of a new documentary, "Vigilante, Vigilante," which premiered in San Francisco Friday.

Connolly prowls the streets of his mid-city Los Angeles neighborhood like a bloodhound, chasing down every last tag, scribble and signature he can find and painting, or "buffing" it out. He travels in a mini-van, packed with an arsenal of tools: paints, solvents, step ladders, saws and shovels.

So single-minded is he in his devotion to wiping out graffiti, he quit his job selling rugs 15 years ago to devote himself full-time to graffiti abatement. He works mostly as a volunteer, though he does pick up some work as a consultant for local governments. He says he's now painted over a million feet of graffiti.

"What enrages you about graffiti once you know the language of it is the violent message," he said, pointing to a series of tags and cross outs in which a gang had written over a local tagger. He decodes the hieroglyphics like an anthropologist reading the rosetta stone.

"He's telling him he's looking for him so this is becoming a very unfriendly conversation."

That conversation can escalate to real violence on the street. Connolly believes if you can shut down that conversation, you can shut down the violence. Gang crime has gone down in Connolly's neighborhood, though it's difficult to quantify how big of an impact he's had.

Connolly's campaign has also put him in some tough situations. He's been known to confront armed gang members and criminals, though he says he never loses his cool.

"There's just a way I can ferret how people talk to me and how the results will be. I'm not afraid of anyone or anything."

It doesn't hurt that he also carries a machete, ostensibly to cut down stray branches and foliage. But he's clearly undeterred by safety concerns. He regularly pulls over on the side of the freeway, climbs on top of buildings and scales billboards in pursuit of his graffiti targets.

However, Connolly does draw a distinction between simple tagging and street art. He knows all of the major graffiti artists working in his neighborhood and even admires their work.

"I don't paint out artwork and murals because it's really pretty to look at," he explained.

Basic tagging, on the other hand, he considers a blight that leads to trashing of neighborhoods, and eventually to violence.

"If it's just tagging it has to go because there are 75,000 - 100,000 gang members that also traffic the same streets," he said.

Recently, Connolly moved his family and his operation a few miles south from the Carthay Circle neighborhood he patrolled for years. He's expanding his turf and hopes to control the whole area bounded by the Interstate 10 freeway, Pico Avenue, Fairfax Avenue and La Brea Avenue.

"I have dramatically altered the lives of thousands of people," he boasts with characteristic brio. "If you fix graffiti, then you can fix homelessness, you can fix drug problems and pretty soon you've got it all under control."

Watch the trailer for "Vigilante, Vigilante":