Graffiti: Why, where and how to stop it
Graffiti rapidly is becoming a major national problem. Once considered only an “urban dilemma,” in the past decade, graffiti has spread to the suburbs and small towns of America. Reports estimate that U.S. municipalities spend a total of approximately $15 billion per year responding to graffiti-type vandalism.

Graffiti types
There are three basic types of graffiti. Many people associate all graffiti with street gangs, but “gang” graffiti only constitutes about 5 percent to 10 percent of the total. Gang graffiti is used to mark territory, intimidate or recruit, and usually includes gang symbols. This classification also tends to be confined to urban areas inside gang territory.

“Masterpiece” or “piece” graffiti also constitutes a small percentage of graffiti. Masterpiece graffiti is the only type of graffiti related to artistic expression, and often contains a theme and a message, such as in a mural. Because masterpiece graffiti takes more time to create, it tends to occur in remote areas and is not considered to be much of a facility maintenance problem.

The vast majority of graffiti (by some estimates, as much as 90 percent) is called “tagging.” Tagging is done to gain fame or recognition from the peer group, and each individual tagger uses a personalized tagging style, such as stylized initials. Because fame is the goal, taggers apply graffiti continuously and in highly-visible places, such as subway cars, light poles, sidewalks, buildings and fences. Taggers often target highly inaccessible places (high atop a water tower) or locations where there is a high risk of getting caught (outside a popular building) because more recognition from the peer group results.

“The majority of taggers are young males, but not necessarily juveniles — many are in their late teens or early 20s,” says Robert Hill, executive director of the National Council to Prevent Delinquency in Annapolis, Maryland. “Graffiti often is associated with the hip-hop movement, which became popular in the mid-1990s. However, the graffiti subculture depends more on a value system rather than ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”

Graffiti is most commonly applied with spray paint from aerosol cans. However, other media can include glow-in-the-dark paint, indelible markers, magic markers or paint sticks (felt-tip markers containing a waxy paint).

In areas that have banned access to spray paint, taggers have begun to etch into glass surfaces using sharp objects such as rocks or spark plugs. Unfortunately, etching is much more difficult to remove than spray paint.

“Once I saw graffiti etched into the stainless steel walls of an elevator cab,” Michael Lang, vice president of Skyline Building Services in Chicago, reports. “A metal maintenance company had to be called to re-ground the metal.”

Graffiti removal
To be effective, graffiti-removal efforts must be quick and thorough. Studies show the faster graffiti is removed, the less likely it is to return to that same location.

“New York City instituted a policy whereby no subway car left the station without having its graffiti completely removed,” says David Lloyd, vice president of government affairs for the National Paint and Coatings Association, located in Washington, D.C. “It discouraged the heck out of the kids, because after they risked getting caught and even being electrocuted, they returned in the morning only to discover that no one saw the results of their efforts.”

If a contractor covers an area that tends to receive a lot graffiti, someone or a crew might need to be assigned to routine graffiti removal for the fastest results. This also avoids pulling cleaners from regular duties.

And thorough removal means no blotches can be left when the job is completed, says Walt Graner, owner of Off The Wall Graffiti, an Austin, Texas-based company specifically dedicated to graffiti removal. This might seem like an obvious rule, but by leaving any marks, you are simply encouraging the tagger to strike again, he says.

Removal efforts vary according to the medium used. Middle schools or high schools where magic-marker graffiti often occurs can use specially formulated solvents. For smooth, unpainted surfaces such as glass and plexiglass, “squirt-and-wipe” chemicals have been formulated to combat specific combinations of substances and surfaces.

For painted surfaces, the removal method of choice is re-painting. In heavy graffiti areas, Ron Bruneck, vice president of Superior Pressure Washing, Inc., in Santa Ana, California, recommends re-painting using one color. “We have three or four basic colors we use for re-painting,” he says. “If we tried to block out graffiti using different colors, soon alleyways or buildings would look like a checkerboard with colors that are impossible to match. So we try to get the owners’ permission to paint the whole alley or building in the same color.”

If the surface is porous (for example, brick or block walls), the most common abatement method is pressure washing by using a baking soda mixture rather than sand. Repeated cleanings using sand can damage the facing, but baking soda does not.

Sometimes a sacrificial coating, or a clear waxy substance that comes off with hot-water pressure washing, can make abatement easier. “It’s a clear coating like a sealer, and you can’t tell it’s there,” Bruneck explains. “But if graffiti is applied you can use a solvent to wipe the graffiti (and the coating) off rather than having to re-paint the surface.”

Community efforts
Although some perpetrators consider masterpiece graffiti to be “art,” it is defined as a property crime because the property owner didn’t give permission. Communities have begun massive intervention efforts to reduce this crime.

“The incidence of graffiti goes down as the commitment of the community to remove it goes up,” Lloyd says.

Paint companies also have joined the effort, and have begun to donate recycled paint to municipalities, who are able to use it for graffiti re-painting efforts.

The National Paint and Coatings Association has also endorsed “responsible retailing efforts,” in which retail establishments are encouraged to post signs reminding customers that graffiti is a crime. In addition, to reduce shoplifting, spray paint products often are placed on store shelves within sight of cashiers.

“Graffiti removal is an important part of property management,” Graner concludes. “It keeps buildings clean, improves neighborhood safety and ultimately provides a better community for everyone.”

Lynne Knobloch is a business writer based in Mishiwaka, Ind.