Graffiti can range from a simple paint marker tag to an intricately painted mural and, depending on your location, be quite prevalent.
An act of vandalism, graffiti "art" has its own lexicon — check out the Wikipedia entry for glossary of graffiti — and rules that govern its application, the supplies used and its location.
It is a fascinating cultural subset that dates back to prehistory but often carries negative connotations — especially today, considering that it is predominately practiced in urban areas.
While any unsolicited graffiti can be an eyesore and a pain in the pocket, politically-motivated or gang-related variations can pose a safety risk, too.
"Graffiti can impact the value of the property that is tagged, as well as the surrounding community," says Patty Ducey-Brooks, marketing manager for Motsenbocker''s Lift Off Inc. "Additionally, graffiti gives the appearance that other criminal activity may be occurring."
Quickly and thoroughly removing tags, "throw-ups," scribbles, pieces and myriad other forms of defacement can keep a property safe and in good repair.
According to Tim Winesburg, president of Multi-Seal Corporation, if graffiti is removed, the vandals are denied the attention they are seeking.
"Failure to promptly remove the marks only encourages others to also use the location," asserts Winesburg. "Fast removal stops them in their tracks and sends them elsewhere. Additionally, fresh graffiti is easier to remove."
But, the process should not be haphazardly performed; environmental and personal safety precautions must be heeded to avoid potential damage to structures, the ecosystem and, of course, yourself and your workers.
Safety As A Forethought
The shift away from petroleum-based solvents to more environmentally friendly cleaners is making graffiti removal safer without sacrificing performance.
While not applicable in every instance — sometimes, you need to break out the big guns — water-based formulations are able to remove markings without damaging surfaces or harming users and the environment.
"Some products are now going for the green," notes Winesburg. "While the industry is trying to make products safer, graffiti removers will likely remain stronger than general cleaners, as effectiveness is still the bottom line requirement."
In accordance with the least harmful mentality, the formulation administered should be the mildest product available that sufficiently removes markings without damaging the surface, the surrounding ecosystem or the user.
Environmental precautions notwithstanding, users need to ensure that they are protected from dermal contact with a graffiti remover.
Our skin is the largest organ in our body, and it is quite adept at absorbing potentially toxic chemicals.
Not uncommon to other tasks performed by custodial and maintenance professionals, personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used when attempting to remove any graffiti.
At a minimum, goggles and rubber gloves should be worn to protect against splashes and unwanted contact.
If high-pressure rinsing is utilized, a face shield and a rubber apron can be supplemental PPE to provide an added layer of protection.
While the goal is to always completely and quickly remove any graffiti, safety — both personal and environmental — should never be an afterthought.
Grouping Graffiti Removal
According to Ducey-Brooks, for each application of graffiti, there is a means to remove it.
Removing unwanted matter is achieved by one or a combination of two processes: Chemical and physical.
A third method, though not an actual removal process, is to apply a surface protectant that makes it difficult for paint, ink or dye to adhere to a surface.
Here is a breakdown of the graffiti removal methods and how they work:
• Chemical removers
Relying on a reaction between the product and the graffiti, chemical removers emulsify the marking and allow it to be removed from the surface.
Chemical removers come in several forms, including concentrated liquids and gels that are applied directly onto a surface and wipes impregnated with any number of chemicals, each formulated to remove markings on specific surfaces.
As with any cleaning chemicals, you should read the product label and follow directions accordingly to get the most out of a product without exacerbating an existing problem.
After the graffiti is no longer adhered to the surface, it can be wiped away, rinsed with water or power washed to ensure complete removal.
• Physical removers
Rather than chemical means, physical graffiti removal relies on agitation to force a marking from the surface on which it was painted, sprayed or otherwise applied.
This technique is employed with things such as sandblasting, dry ice blasting or even using high-pressure water to agitate a surface after a chemical remover has been used.
According to Winesburg, some are moving away from sandblasting and other similar physical processes because of the potential for damage to surfaces.
Aside from potential damage, alternative blasting media like walnut shells and sodium bicarbonate are limited in their efficacy, largely relegated for use in only the most environmentally sensitive areas or in instances where the price of removal is not a concern.
Physical agitation is often employed in conjunction with a chemical remover to speed up the process and to ensure more thorough removal without the need for repeating the process multiple times.
• Preventive coatings
By creating a barrier between a surface and any potential markings, preventive coatings help protect surfaces from graffiti.
Applied at the factory during manufacturing, during final construction of a structure or after graffiti removal has been performed, preventive coatings help protect your investment.
Preventive coatings are generally classified as one of two types: Permanent and sacrificial.
A permanent protective coating is one that is designed to withstand a series of cleanings, providing extended protection of a surface.
But, warns Winesburg, a permanent coating will not protect infinitely and may require reapplication over time, especially if harsh chemical removers or abrasive techniques are employed.
Sacrificial coatings are designed to deteriorate during cleanings, providing protection only one time before they require reapplication.
While selecting a graffiti removal process or protective coating is a maintenance expenditure, it should not be done on upfront price alone.
Other factors to consider are cost in use, ease of cleaning, durability and appearance — even a clear coating can alter the appearance of a surface.
Also, because labor accounts for 90 percent of a cleaning and maintenance operating budget, selecting a low-cost graffiti removal method that requires a significant investment in time can prove rather costly.
"Anyone involved in graffiti removal needs to understand the importance of using products that work, won''t damage property and aren''t dangerous to the user," recommends Ducey-Brooks.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not all graffiti can be fully removed, even after multiple cleanings using various removal processes.
Sometimes, a shadow will remain where the prominent marking once was.
In such a case, specific chemicals are made to delve deeply into pores and finish the removal.
However, some markings could be permanent, and the only solution may be replacement, painting, staining or otherwise refinishing the surface.
As Winesburg points out, taggers use graffiti as a way to call attention to themselves or the group with whom they are affiliated.
And, because they hold no regard for defacement or damage to property, it is wise to invest in a graffiti removal program that minimizes potential damage from the onset and discourages taggers altogether.