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Mr. Clean Blasts Flatly

Bill Reynolds
Graffiti Guy Bill Reynolds stakes out his turf with commitment and fresh paint.

Playing tag with graffiti artists is like a war

By Richard Sine

"GRIP SOFTLY, broken fingers," The Graffiti Guy says as he shakes a visitor's hand. The Graffiti Guy tripped on a curb on his daily rounds through South San Jose. He has no medical insurance. He wears an orange reflective vest over a 49ers jersey, shirt and belt buckle. The back of the vest reads "Say Hi to Graffiti Guy." His paint-splattered slacks are black, his scrub-brush beard tinged with copper. The front yard of his lemon-yellow house has a flagpole, manicured lawn and bench with sign reading, "Hi Neighbor. If you're tired and need to rest, come on in and be my guest."

The Graffiti Guy starts his day at 6am because there's no traffic and the paint dries too fast on his roller in the midday sun. He walks across the street to show a visitor three Cushman scooters for his volunteer force, which does not yet exist. (The only thing Graffiti Guy needs more than volunteers is money.) Then he climbs into his 1957 Ford fire truck, in which he spends six to eight hours a day painting over graffiti. It is Sunkist orange and says "Graffiti Grabbers" on the side. He purchased and fixed it up with his final $10,000 disability settlement.

The truck complains at a steady 15 mph. Bill Reynolds drives a few minutes before he spots a bench and mailbox sporting ugly tags. The tags read WBF. "This has two possible meanings," Reynolds says as he dips a roller in a bucket to paint it over. "Either White Boys Federation or We Blast Flatly. Blast is their term for tag." He treats the mailbox with a citrus-based spray and Brillo pad. The bench gets a roller of brown paint. After the bench is done, he opens up a hatch in the truck and pulls out yellow tape reading "Wet Paint." As he is about to leave, a lady holding out a checkbook runs up to his truck. "This is for the paint," she says, signing the check. Reynolds has been painting over her graffiti-cursed fence for three years.

Reynolds has five kinds of paint in the back of his truck: City Slick (gray for mailboxes), San Jose Brown (fences), Navajo White (soundwalls), Soundwall Light Brown, and Brick Red (stop signs). He has fought the taggers in these neighborhoods one fence, one cable box, one lightpole at a time--a task Sisyphus would not begrudge. But Reynolds claims some success. It used to take him six days to clean up his route just once. Now it takes him six to eight hours to clean up on a greatly expanded route.

"It's halfway between a game and a war," he says, turning serious. "It's a challenge to say who's going to win, who's going to have the courage and fortitude to persist."

Like all good generals, he's on intimate terms with the enemy--knows them personally or their friends. As Reynolds drives through his neighborhood he points out the house of a boy he caught one night last month. He staked out the boy's favorite tagging spot, waiting in his orange truck. Not exactly a stealth tactic, but stealth is not his goal. He gears down past high schools on his route. "I roll by real slow so the kids can see me."

Locals who know his number call him to point out graffiti. But there are some places he's learned he can't go. "People call to say, 'My school is covered with graffiti.' I ask to clean it up, but the school districts say get the hell out of here. They have their own crews."

Reynolds figures that stopping graffiti is the key to neighborhood pride. Tags show that no one cares, and if no one cares, it's the first slip on a slippery slope toward crime, drugs and homelessness.

There's social research to support his claim. But Bill Reynolds seems a little too introverted to lead a social movement. He was a bus driver for Greyhound before his injury, and his living room overflows with Greyhound hats, ties, badges, patches, watches, playing cards, clocks and rings. During football season, he festoons his house with 49ers banners and a flag. He's growing out his beard so he can go to games dressed as a "49er Miner." And he paints over graffiti on most every mailbox in town, and occasionally sweeps a curb.

If you would like to contribute to Bill Reynolds or volunteer, call (408) 267-8202.

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From the October 10-16, 1996 issue of Metro

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