paint over
I love graffiti. My eye is always drawn to it. It leaps out at me from train cars, overpass shadows, and from walls that are usually the drab colors of forgetting. Graffiti is the art of remembering, of claiming space, of an artist’s colorful signature on a dreary world. I look for the impossible to decipher letters, the elegant cartooning, the bold color. I’m enamored with the graphic black; the way the paint splatters or fades.

I love graffiti. But I love buff even more. When graffiti is removed, it is “buffed.” It gets painted over. As in, “Man! That tag I did last night was buffed this morning.” Before I knew the correct term, I called a buff “paint over,” and in 2009 I started taking and collecting photographs of graffiti that had been painted over. Over the last three years I’ve amassed almost two hundred pictures of beautiful buffed pieces.

Graffiti artists and property owners have an unspoken agreement to be in dialogue with each other. The artist starts a conversation with a tag, a mural, a phrase, an image. The property owner replies with a buff, a paint-over designed to erase the graffiti and discourage a repeat performance.

Graffiti is an art of remembering. It often is a statement of identity, of place, or of connecting to an idea or image that is important enough to be revisited and repeated over and over. And if graffiti is an art of remembering, then a buff is meant to be an art of forgetting. It is intended to erase not only the graffiti, but the idea that it was ever there.

There’s one problem. In most cases, the paint used to cover the graffiti doesn’t match the original wall or surface paint. When people want to cover graffiti fast, they use what they have on hand – a leftover can or bucket of color, rarely even a distant cousin of the current palette. So instead of erasing the art, the buff becomes art itself… a wonderful, sometimes clumsy, sometimes precise, statement of color – an unintentional ode to what once was. This contrast, this visual band-aid, is what becomes so beautiful. The tag isn’t forgotten, it is unwittingly translated, transformed. It becomes simple, striking, an abstract skin.

Shapes emerge, sometimes vague, amorphous blobs or awkward angles, but more often geometric wonders created by paint rollers as they glide over a graffiti artist’s organic, snakelike scrawls. Corners contain expanses of color, sometimes in a neat rectangle or square. These are often the most striking buffs, but I also love the captivating, irregular shapes, the number of sides dictated by the highs and lows of the graffiti tag, the buffer’s paint roller guided by the spray can strokes of the original artist.

Some graffiti artists have appropriated the buff for themselves. I guess you could say they’ve taken the buff back! Instead of a traditional graffiti piece, characterized by oversized letters and symbols, crazy colors, and detail, these artists will create simple pseudo-buffs. These appear to be ordinary paint-over spots, but if you look closely you’ll find graceful curves or unusual repetition. They aren’t your ordinary buffs. In these purposeful paint-overs, the layers of contentious conversation between artists and erasers don’t exist- or do they? Maybe the layers are invisible. Unspoken layers. Thought layers. But in the world of graffiti, it is always the now - the present - that has the voice.
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