Graffiti: Street Art or Vandalism? How to Assess it and How to Respond

Monday 24 October 2022 -

Numerous stories from the UK and worldwide speak of a spike in graffiti during the pandemic. It remains unclear whether this behaviour will bed in as a new norm or not. Either way, we look at the implications of graffiti, and suggest how to respond.

In 2020, Banksy’s mural Hula-Hooping Girl in Nottingham sold for £2.7 million, fifteen times the average, local property price. If Banksy tags your building, don’t wash it off. More generally, the elusive Mr B. is universally regarded as an artist, not a hooligan. He has an honorary professorship, a Webby person of the year award, and even won an ITV panel show for Greatest Living Briton (The Arts). Admittedly, that last honour had Robbie Williams on the shortlist for greatest living Briton overall, so it might not be the most highbrow of forums, but the Banksy reputation is settled, and is at the heart of debate about whether graffiti is contemporary art or common crime.

Perhaps the most comprehensive assessment of the public attitude to graffiti was conducted by YouGov, albeit some years ago now. The results were complex. Two thirds of respondents agreed that at least some graffiti can be considered art. However, the same survey found that only 2% of people found all graffiti acceptable, and, when asked the overall question Do you like or dislike graffiti? dislikes beat likes by 2.6 to 1. We like some specific street art, but mostly, we don’t.

Does graffiti cause crime?

One of the key reasons we don’t like graffiti is that it signals that you’re not in the best of neighbourhoods. A seminal study published in the journal Science found that graffiti, even quick, “fake” examples placed by researchers, doubled the chance of theft and littering. Among the findings:

·       When researchers added graffiti to a location with parked bicycles, the tendency to litter among cyclists rose from 33% to 69%

·       Passing pedestrians were twice as likely to steal an item from a graffiti-covered mailbox than from a clean one

·       Experiments not involving graffiti bore out the underlying principle: visible, unaddressed crime signals that such behaviour is a norm in this place

The most basic criminal issue is the graffiti itself, which costs the UK around £1 billion annually in clean-up.

Does graffiti affect property value?

A study by America’s National Association of Realtors found that, “property located within a community where there is graffiti will lose 15 percent of its value. If the graffiti is profane or hateful, the property owner can expect to lose up to 25 percent”.

The importance of a quick response

If you want to remove graffiti, be aware that the matter is more time-critical than might be thought. The longer graffiti’s been in place, the harder it is to remove, especially on porous surfaces, but in fact there’s a much more pressing reason to act quickly. Graffiti is a form of communication; if you remove it fast, you thwart the whole purpose of the tagger, telling him it’s pointless to revisit your site. Unaddressed graffiti, conversely, signals that this is a good spot to add new markings, since they will likely stay visible for a long time.

Does graffiti cause other damage?

Additional damage associated with graffiti is caused by unsuccessful attempts at removal. There is no one correct method or approved cleaning solution for graffiti removal, because it varies with the underlying material. The wrong removal product can lead to shadowing (a dark shadow around the removed graffiti) or edging (a permanent burn-like stain) or corrosion of the surface.

If you’re going to approach the task yourself, take extreme care with methods such as sand-blasting and pressure washing. These are effective and fast, but, depending on the material, you may be left with side-effects such as holes or pitting. New paint may fail to adhere to a damaged surface, or may react with residual graffiti paint that hasn’t been fully removed.

How is graffiti removed?

Professionals will use chemical paint strippers. Be aware that these substances can cause irritation to skin, eyes and airways, so use protective gear such as a filter mask and latex gloves. Different products may be appropriate for different surfaces, in particular because some of these strong chemicals can corrode or discolour some materials.

Generally, removal is harder with porous materials where the dye seeps into the surface. Brick is probably the toughest challenge, being both porous and uneven. With any porous surface, don’t expect to wipe or scrape it off quickly – removal will require a series of patient applications. Don’t damage your surface by scouring too vigorously.

Once the graffiti is gone, take steps to ensure more doesn’t reappear. Anti-graffiti coatings are paints that stop dyes and inks bonding to the material beneath. Also, motion detectors can help. The strongest deterrent is to connect them to CCTV cameras, but even a simple link from a motion sensor to a light works surprisingly well. Making it harder to get to the surface with fencing or planted bushes can help.

Wiktionary defines the phrase The writing is on the wall as “disaster is imminent”, but it needn’t be, provided you take appropriate steps. For further information, you may wish to consult a specialist.