Graffiti can appear virtually anywhere, especially schools, arenas, parks and other areas where people congregate. But even Class A offices, medical facilities and manufacturing plants aren’t immune.

“Anything that’s standing still is a target,” says Scott Williams, president of Williams Graffiti Removal, a specialty distributor in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Before tackling a graffiti-removal project, make sure it’s part of your job. Sometimes, especially for outdoor painted or etched vandalism, abatement falls into the facility maintenance department — and sometimes, removal has to wait until the building is renovated or until the construction department has a lull, says Phil Thornton, area supervisor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On the other hand, removing ink from restroom stall doors is more likely your responsibility, since you’re already in the restroom to clean it. Conversely, if the partitions need repainting rather than cleaning, it’s probably a job for the maintenance crew.

Governmental units often have their own graffiti-removal programs, and the contractor’s role in those varies by jurisdiction. Some schools and other facilities will call in police to photograph the graffiti for evidence prior to cleanup, so you may need to wait.

But whether it’s your responsibility or not, knowing the proper way to get rid of graffiti can be a way to increase a company’s visibility and value to a customer. Whether it’s written inside a stall door, or painted across an exterior wall, using the proper products and technique is key to removing the unsightly scrawls, and preventing more from appearing.

On the inside
There are some major differences between indoor and outdoor graffiti, and different techniques in their removal.

“Indoors, graffiti problems occur in many places, but nearly always show up on desk or classroom table tops, study carrels, rest room stall doors and walls, and elevator walls,” says Thornton.

Common media include ballpoint and felt-tip pens, pencils and knife blades. White correction fluid also can be painted onto surfaces.

Different products should be used to clean different surfaces. Here are some suggestions:

• Ordinary cleaners and disinfectants will remove much pencil and some pen graffiti.

• Citrus-based cleaners often will work on inks on wood surfaces.

To remove ink, Williams suggests spraying product on the surface, dabbing lightly and then neutralizing with water. Don’t rub. You may need to repeat the procedure a few times.

• Some foam and some paste cleaners, which remain in place until wiped off, work well on vertical surfaces.

• Abrasive cleansers can sometimes fade scratched-in graffiti, Thornton says. However, custodians often bear down too hard with abrasive cleansers or pads, and they damage the surface, he adds. On a wood or Formica surface, this can make the spot more vulnerable if more graffiti is applied in the future, because the porous, unprotected surfaces will be exposed. Instead, use non-abrasive cleaners and soft cloths.

• Paint softeners also sometimes can be used on painted surfaces to fill in scratches, Williams adds. However, they must be wiped in softly, instead of rubbed hard, or they will take paint off.

“Washroom partitions usually are factory-painted metal, which is a sensitive surface,” explains Williams. “Because it’s painted, you can’t go gung-ho with removal techniques.”

If these steps don’t work, or if the graffiti is deeply etched in, the entire surface may need to be re-painted. (Don’t simply paint over the spot, because the colors and texture won’t match.) However, painting should be a last resort, because it’s even harder to remove ink from a re-painted surface.

“Once you paint, you might as well keep painting,” says Williams.

Outdoor challenges
Indoor graffiti tends to be confined to desks, stall doors and other small areas, but outside, graffiti murals literally can cover an entire wall.

“The horizontal surfaces often marked here are sidewalks and steps, but any vertical surface of buildings, walls or even equipment like stop signs and stop light housings are vulnerable,” Thornton says. Smooth masonry or painted surfaces are most vulnerable, he adds. Spray paint is the most common medium, but chalk and etching also occur.

If you’re not responsible for exterior maintenance, be sure to tell the facility manager if you spot some graffiti outdoors. If your company is charged with removing scrawl from buildings, signs and other objects, here are some tips:

• For exterior glass surfaces, try a graffiti-removing gel, suggests Williams.

“You need a product that won’t attack glass,” he says.

• Williams recommends using a high-pressure washer (1,000 to 2,000 psi) to remove most graffiti from brick.

Chalk is particularly responsive to pressure washing, Thornton adds.

• Baking-soda-based products can help restore large areas of masonry, brick, concrete and other surfaces.

• When removing spray paint, regardless of method, work from the outside to the center, rather than across the stain. That way, the spot doesn’t spread to clean areas, Thornton points out.

• On any surface, using abrasive materials too aggressively can leave the graffiti’s pattern scratched or shadowed into the surface.

“There are shadow removers available, but a lot of the time, the person [removing the graffiti] just followed the outline of the graffiti, so the surface is uneven,” says Williams.

To prevent this, treat large areas instead of just the graffiti.

“No one should be able to tell you were there after the surface dries,” Williams points out.

If you have too much trouble with shadowing, poor product performance or stubborn stains, you may need to call in a specialist. One good resource is your sanitary-supply distributor, suggests Williams. Distributors can show you how to use a graffiti-removal product, or even hold training sessions for your employees.

Another alternative is a graffiti-removal specialty company. Consider subcontracting the job to the specialist; or, if graffiti removal is not specifically in your contract, have a reference on hand for the facility manager to call.

Got gum problems? Try this...
More than 50 million sticks of gum are chewed in the United States every day, and many of the chewed-up wads end up stuck to sidewalks, lockers and other surfaces. And it’s up to the contractor to remove them.

Traditional methods include scraping, freeze-drying and pressure washing. But a franchise program from Gumbusters North America Inc. has made this line of work a specialty service complete with its own machine to do the dirty work. Licensed service providers use a special machine to produces steam at high temperatures and low pressure, combined with a chemical that disintegrates the gum. Many of the users are business improvement districts, museums and government buildings, but BSCs are beginning to sign up as well, says Dennis Fuller, executive vice president of the Falls Church, Va.-based company.

by Stacie H. Whitacre, Managing Editor