The Oxford dictionary describes graffiti as “writing or drawings scribbled, scratched, or sprayed illicitly on a wall or other surface in a public place.” The key word is illicitly; usually, the tagger does not have permission to do the graffiti and therefore it is an act of vandalism. The tagger is damaging private property, and the owner is doubly victimized by having to pay for the graffiti to be removed.
Graffiti can be traced back centuries though history. In early times, it was used for political activism and speaking out about imperial injustice; now it is mostly part of the skateboard sub-culture. Many believe graffiti is the work of gangs, but gang graffiti is very rare and typically very threatening. Gang graffiti may read something like “187 Moss” (the 187 is an American criminal code for homicide; the name beside it is usually the street handle of the person being targeted). The police should be contacted whenever such graffiti is observed or if graffiti is unusual.
However, most graffiti is usually a tagger’s street handle and is hard to read or interpret. Taggers are often teens from middle-class families. Many carry backpacks with their spray cans, tips and markers and travel by skateboard. They increase their status among their peers by the number and location of their tags. High-risk tags, which carry the most currency, include those in hard-to-access locations on tall buildings.
The good news is there are ways to deter taggers from vandalizing a building with graffiti.
Many believe that cameras help deter taggers but cameras are often ineffective for this purpose. Cases in point: incidences of graffiti on police stations and embassies, facilities that usually have many cameras.
Lighting and vegetation tend to be more effective deterrents. Taggers like to work in the dark, so increased lighting and bright, motion-sensor lighting are very helpful in prevention. Bushes and thorny plants against walls also keep taggers away.
Removing escape routes contributes to deterrence. Taggers like two points of egress to get away from a location, so adding a fence to limit them to one point of egress creates an unwelcome environment.
Protective coatings, chemical barriers formulated to prevent ink or paint from penetrating porous surfaces, are highly recommended. These coatings allow for easier graffiti removal, jobs on-site staff can handle.
Avoid sacrificial coatings, such as a wax-based coating. These one-time use coatings have varying results. Sacrificial coatings also don’t allow for owner removal and almost always requires the building owner to pay for re-coating after every graffiti incident.
If a building has no porous surfaces, the do-it-yourself approach is most effective. Keep primer and extra paint available to quickly cover up graffiti sprayed on painted surfaces. Do not just paint over the tag. Feather out the paint over a larger area. Also keep a store-bought graffiti remover on hand for non-porous surfaces. In most cases, graffiti can be removed with a Home Depot or paint-store graffiti-removal product.
When graffiti cannot be removed from glass, the tagger is most likely using an acid on the glass to create a white tag. (Graffiti on glass has become a new form of expression for taggers.) The run lines (the acid is liquid and runs down the glass, whereas paint and ink do not run) confirm that it is acid-burned and must be buffed out. Scratching a tag with a key or a drill bit is common but can also be buffed out now. In the past, glass would have to be replaced, a costly procedure.
If a proper permanent coating is applied to the building, removal can be as easy as applying soap and water or rubbing alcohol to the affected surface. Or, use professionals for these surfaces. Bear in mind that the damage that could be done to a building from inexperience could far exceed any estimated savings. Most graffiti removal companies have monthly maintenance programs that include all graffiti removal on inspection and call-ins.
The best prevention strategy is to make sure graffiti is removed as soon as possible, the reasoning for this being that tags are placed on a tagger’s daily route. A tagger will hit a property with graffiti before they will a property without graffiti. The tagger wants the tag to be observed and will avoid places that remove graffiti quickly. The graffiti returns less frequently if the graffiti does not remain on the building for an extended period of time.
John Kalimeris owns Graffiti Buffer and has been removing graffiti across Canada, from Victoria to Montreal to Toronto, and throughout Ontario, since 2001. He is certified in CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) and has spoken to property management, rental property owners and several conferences throughout Ontario on the cause and effects of graffiti.