Graffiti Primer

Dec 31, 2008
May 1, 2024

In general, tackling graffiti problems requires multi-faceted security approaches that focus not only on removal, but on addressing design issues that allow or enable graffiti to appear in the first place. This brief from the Urban Parks Institute provides an overview of issues, including answers to basic questions on the how and whys associated with graffiti, as well as strategies for prevention and removal.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What motivates graffitists?

Contrary to popular belief, graffitists generally are not motivated by vindictiveness; instead, most graffiti artists are looking for fame. They "tag" visible surfaces where they think it will stay up for a long time. Less frequently, graffitists have reacted vengefully toward park authorities.

Why are public spaces abused?

Public spaces such as parks, are especially prone to graffiti because in addition to having ideal surfaces and few capable guardians, there is no apparent victim. Park authorities are thought of as an unidentifiable entity and the cost of removal thought to be shouldered by the system, rather than one person. Efforts to personalize public park property are needed to counter this perception.

Can the presence of park management reduce the prevalence of graffiti?

Studies examining the effectiveness of verbal appeals delivered by uniformed park staff - such as greeters or volunteer park hosts located at entrances - reduced daytime abuse of park facilities. However, this tactic alone will not prevent all graffiti.

What types of surfaces are graffitied?

Blank, smooth surfaces are the most frequently targeted by graffitists: walls, signs, restrooms, and boulders. The smoother and lighter in color, the better as the graffitists will be able to use a greater variety of colors. Surfaces that are highly visible are also preferred. Graffitists, like artists, want to show off their work.

Preventing Graffiti

Graffiti is a multifaceted problem requiring, in turn, a range of responses. Park managers have two possible courses of action: Direct approaches involve overtly regulating visitor behavior through enforcement of park rules, guided visits and activity restrictions. Indirect approaches employ design strategies that minimize opportunity and facilitate a sense of community ownership.

Both approaches involve altering visitor behavior to protect park facilities; however, given the financial restrictions facing many urban parks, it is impractical to recommend that additional staff be hired to guard against graffiti. Overall, it is best to think of prevention as a layering process: Each additional preventive strategy increases the security of facilities and resources. The more layers of prevention - then the less likely it is that a graffitist will damage your park.

I. Design Strategies to Minimize Opportunity

Layout and physical design, including buiding and amenities location, is important in discouraging graffiti. Secluded areas with few people and large blank surfaces invite graffiti. For example, sculptures located in highly visible and well-used areas can discourage abuse. Placing this type of item near the busiest areas provides greater protection and will broaden appreciation. Also, signs that are favored targets should be in highly visible, yet hard-to-reach locations.

Outdoor furniture or other amenities should not be placed in such a way that they can be maneuvered to gain access to light fixtures, signs, etc. that are intended to be out of reach. Take note of where the graffiti in your park is written. If it is higher than six feet, look around for movable objects such as benches. Bolting or relocating such amenities will drastically reduce the amount of surface that can be defaced.

When designing a park, natural activity combinations are important. For example, it is best to locate the restrooms and other key targets near a security booth. Locating desks at key windows will improve natural surveillance. A further, very inexpensive measure is to strategically mount dummy cameras or motion detectors in highly visible places.

Surveillability and Lighting - Graffitists desire high visibility after they've left the scene - not while they are committing the crime. To ward against graffiti, vulnerable areas such as signs, blank walls and structures should be illuminated sufficiently to allow for nighttime visibility that rivals day light. (Lights must be situated in hard-to-reach places and constructed from vandal-resistant materials.) Formal surveillance by park rangers, police, security personnel and the like is only possible if areas are lit. Generally more important, though, is the informal surveillance by staff, patrons and passers by that occurs naturally in active places. To save resources, consider implementing some motion-sensitive lights. These lights signal to the authorities if someone is present but also turn themselves off, there by impeding the work of graffitist in the absence of guardians. But lighting alone is an insufficient preventive; sight lines must also be clear. If trees and such obstruct surveillance, any positive effects of improved lighting will be negated.

Restricting access can mean strategically using the environment to raise barriers. Plantings can be used to block opportunities to damage surfaces. Densely planted shrubbery is often used to prevent access to vulnerable surfaces. If the graffitist encounters difficulty in reaching a surface, he is unlikely to make excessive effort to deface it. Another creative use of plantings is to place a "beware of poison ivy" sign amongst the foliage. Most people are unable to correctly identify poison ivy and will stay out of the area.

Plants are also useful for covering up walls and other surfaces so that graffiti is less noticeable. For example, local teens were tormenting a medical center, spray painting walls, loitering after hours, and damaging light fixtures. To combat the destructive behavior, the center altered the lighting and planted blackberry bushes against the wall. These fast-growing, thorny bushes stopped the youths in their tracks and covered up earlier graffiti. The key to success with this method is finding something that fits into the environment, for youth may react vengefully if they feel that the action was taken against them. In this case, two strategies were implemented, where a single preventative tactic may not have worked.

II. Vandal Proofing

In addition to minimizing opportunities for graffitists through the design of a public space, vulnerable surfaces may be fortified to resist damage: This is known as "target hardening." Besides building structures out of vandal proof-materials, a number of coatings can be applied after construction to protect sensitive surfaces - signs, restroom walls, picnic tables, etc. The two most common categories are "Barrier" and "Sacrificial" coatings.

Barrier coatings are the most prevalent form of preventive maintenance. These are permanent coatings painted on clean surfaces to make future graffiti removal easier. Non-stick, non-mark paints and coatings based on polyurethanes such as fluorocarbonates can be used on many interior and exterior surfaces. A more expensive option for surfaces like signs and outdoor furniture (if finances permit), is fiberglass or porcelain coating. Enamel paints also provide durable surfaces amenable to scrubbing.

Tables made of aluminum or any enamel-coated metal are very hard to deface permanently. Wooden picnic tables are sometimes coated with hard, vandal-resistant plastics. In fact, most invaluable objects (illuminated boards, outdoor furniture, and the like) can be glazed in vandal-resistant plastic laminates. Some recreational facilities have used rough surfaces (paint with sand mixed in) or very smooth polished surfaces to make it harder to paint graffiti in places such as restrooms). Remember that these coatings will permanently alter the surface, so think carefully before using this tactic. For example, wood needs to breathe, yet barrier coatings such as polyurethanes are not breathable and facilitate the rotting of wood and other surfaces.

Sacrificial coatings have the advantage of being removable (hence "sacrificial"), and are therefore less controversial. The clean wall is treated so that future graffiti will come off easily when the coating itself is removed. At that point, a new coating would be applied. Wax-based protective coatings are much more sensitive to valuable surfaces than previous types of coatings or barrier methods. These coatings melt off with the use of high-powered sprays or hot water, taking the offensive graffiti with them.

Wax-based coatings are unlikely to destroy nearby plant or wild life, as well. In addition, they allow the materials underneath to breathe, preventing decay of their surfaces. Finally, to save money, it is possible to use a mild cleaning detergent and cold water to remove graffiti. In this situation, the wax coating would not have to be reapplied, though the cleaning process would take at least twice the amount of time as it would with a coating.

When deciding on these issues, note the potential damage these coatings may cause. There are many new procedures and long-term effects are often unknown. Listen closely and ask questions about the risks. Exceptional care must be taken when considering various protective strategies involving valuable surfaces - i.e., historic structures, sculptures, masonry, and surfaces near delicate plants or people. For example, it is never advisable to paint masonry, especially on historic houses. You will be responsible for changing the building's appearance, while the building may may also develop a leaky basement or incur other problems.

III. Other Preventive Tactics

Weatherproofing sheet plastic - Available in hardware stores, this is a cheap resistant surface with which to cover bulletin boards, temporary signs, and posters. There are also sticky tape-like films that can be applied to signs and peeled off if graffiti appears.

Murals - Research suggests that painting multi-colored designs or murals on surfaces will discourage graffiti, since tagging is more difficult. Such mural projects, especially when they involve local artists and high school students, have solved many graffiti problems. Furthermore, changing the mural a few times a year draws more community involvement. Park managers might even solicit the local high school to paint a graduating class mural each year.

Graffiti Boards - In particularly problematic settings, or when dealing with sensitive surfaces, large wooden paneling that blends into the environment can be used to cover walls. Once written on, these boards can be removed and replaced.

IV. Creating a Sense of Community Ownership

Spaces designed for people are undesirable to graffitists and other vandals, because they signal positive activity and community "ownership." Diversity of user groups and programming can be harnessed to maximize the effectiveness of the physical design of the area. Programming that draws diverse user groups increases the natural surveillance of sites enough to inhibit detrimental behavior. Some users - older adults, for example - naturally keep an eye on the activities of youths and are more apt to report depreciative behavior to park authorities.

Programming such as volunteer park rangers etc., can also foster increased community responsibility for maintaining "ideal" park conditions. Programs for at-risk youth, such as park horticulture and maintenance or volunteer rangers, can both encourage and educate youth to take responsibility for and pride in their park. Also, using a local youth work corps to clean the graffiti enhances the image of community ownership of the property and helps to identify a victim.

Graffiti Removal

Before removing the graffiti... Take a few moments to photograph the graffiti and make notes as to the approximate time it was written and other conditions (such as a special event the night before, etc.). This information is vital to apprehending and prosecuting the perpetrators.

Notify the police, as well. Law-enforcement agencies are genuinely interested in halting graffiti problems, as graffiti is a crime that can create an environment that leads to other more serious crimes. Numerous police departments established anti-graffiti programs throughout the '90s, with hotlines, funds to reward citizens who tip arrests, and even websites to facilitate requests to remove graffiti. Many of them also coordinate surveillance with neighborhood groups to aid arrests. Check with your local police precinct to see if such a program is operating in your city.

Research shows that graffiti attracts more graffiti. A well-maintained building or site attracts less graffiti, by contrast, simply because a clean appearance says to the graffitist that his creation will not last. Prompt removal of any graffiti sends the message that vandalism will not be tolerated and that management is in control.

When graffiti is not removed it affects public perceptions of safety. The presence of graffiti tells the public that no one is caring for the facility, adding to the perception that the authorities are disorganized and lack social control. Disorganized areas evoke fear and eventually avoidance, because people feel the area is unsafe. Then, with a lack of legitimate users in an area, a cycle of decline begins as unpopulated areas become sites for illegitimate activities. Thus it is essential that park managers maintain clean and orderly parks to facilitate perceptions of community stability and control.

Another reason for prompt graffiti removal is that it is easier to remove fresh paint. Waiting a few weeks, or even days, may render removal impossible. An efficient information system is thus needed to quickly identify damage and begin clean-up.

For example, the Battery Park City Parks Corporation in New York City has developed an excellent graffiti removal system that involves early detection, a formal reporting process, and immediate removal. Each morning, park attendants inspect their assigned areas. Once spotted, the location and a detailed description of the graffiti is radioed to maintenance headquarters. Park management immediately fill out a maintenance work order. With this information, the maintenance staff sends out the appropriate cleaning equipment (detergent, paint, sandblaster, etc.) and quickly repairs the damage.

Options for Graffiti Removal - While a plethora of cleaning products are available to remove graffiti, some industrial cleaners are highly toxic and may cause irreparable damage; always get a non-toxic citrus-based cleaner. Always test an inconspicuous patch first and wait several hours to see the result when dry. Many products come with a neutralizer which is applied at the end of the treatment.

Professional graffiti removal is suggested for valuable or sensitive surfaces, since professionals have expertise enabling them to diagnose and recommend the best remover for the situation. When asking for help from professionals, always ask for references and check them. Many so-called professionals have done irreversible damage to building facades. Make sure the estimate includes the necessary testing procedures needed to diagnose the problem. Also check their understanding of environmental problems: You don't want them spilling the wrong chemicals in your vegetable patch, or leaving the site unattended and accessible to children or pets. For help on finding a reputable graffiti removal company, consult your local Landmarks Commission, Parks Department, historic preservation society, architectural conservator, or police department.

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