Graffiti - are we winning?

21st of May 2013
Graffiti - are we winning?

Companies are constantly coming up with new, more sophisticated products designed to remove graffiti or deter the culprits from offending in the first place. But are the latest graffiti-removal products on the market actually deterring the offenders? Or is Europe’s graffiti problem still as bad as ever? Ann Laffeaty finds out.

Most tasks in the cleaning industry address problems such as dirt, dust and grime – substances that are an inevitable part of our everyday lives.

But graffiti is a different issue since it is not a natural phenomenon. It depends entirely on the mindset of specific vandals who feel compelled to leave their mark on public property.

Companies are constantly coming up with new, more sophisticated products designed to remove graffiti or deter the culprits from offending in the first place. But are these having the desired effect, that of limiting – or even solving - the problem?

Europe still has a huge issue with graffiti according to 3M floor and surface care market manager Richard Jones. “Germany, Italy, Spain and many other European countries have a major problem due to the sheer scale of the graffiti there,” he said. “It is almost an accepted part of the culture in some cities such as in Berlin, for example.”

However, he believes it is possible to stay one step ahead of the vandals. “You need to use efficient products that will dissuade the artists from returning, along with ample CCTV and the use of coatings that work on porous surfaces,” he says. “Speed is also key since if a tag can be removed quickly – preferably within a day – the artist will move on. From an artist’s perspective there is a level of risk involved, and what is the point of taking that risk if the tag will be removed within hours?

“Many companies and authorities are building infrastructures with graffiti attack in mind, too, in order to avoid the creation of large canvas areas. For example, Finsbury Park station in North London was built with this in mind.”

However while local authorities, town planners and product manufacturers unite to combat the problem, graffiti artists themselves are becoming more sophisticated in the methods they use to secure a permanent tag. “They are finding new ways of making their graffiti last longer such as by adding acids or brake dust to leather dyes,” said Jones. “These methods allow the graffiti to penetrate the surface and make any staining difficult to remove.

“We are also seeing the increasing use of silver nitrate or UV graffiti. This reacts with sunlight to leave a level of staining that is almost impossible to remove without the use of harsh abrasives. For this reason an increasing number of local authorities and transport companies are turning to anti-graffiti coatings.”

According to Jones, contract cleaners are under constant pressure to remove graffiti quickly and thoroughly – particularly when it is racist or offensive by nature.

“However, this need for speed often forces them to make a trade-off between performance and safety,” he says. “Traditional chemical removers are corrosive and flammable and pose a serious risk to health, while greener alternatives are perceived as being less effective.”

Little change

3M has recently launched two new anti-graffiti products: GR1500 graffiti stain remover for use on plastic, painted or varnished surfaces and GR3000 for use on brickwork and concrete. Both products are said to be both effective and safe to use.

According to managing director of Graffiti Magic John Townsend little has changed in the graffiti market over the past few years. “We are considering developing some new products within a year or so, but the markets need to recover first so that we can receive a return on our investment,” he said.

Graffiti Magic makes a clear coating in either a gloss or matt finish designed to protect surfaces against attacks. But according to Townsend the graffiti problem will never be solved. “In countries such as Greece where there is no money around, graffiti is rife because no-one has the means to remove it,” he said. “People aren’t prepared to invest in solving the problem of graffiti – they are simply coping with it afterwards.”

However Urban Hygiene sales director Mark Johnson disagrees, claiming that today’s corporations and housing associations are doing whatever it takes to stay one step ahead of the graffiti vandals.

“The message is getting through and corporations and housing associations are becoming more concerned with protection rather than removal,” he said. “They realise that if you are redecorating a facility, it makes good sense to spend that little extra on protecting the paintwork from graffiti.”

However, he feels that there are still as many perpetrators as ever. “Graffiti has even gained something of a cult following due to the emergence of artists such as Banksy,” he said. Johnson cites a case earlier this year when a Banksy mural went missing from the wall of a discount store in North London - only to turn up for sale on a fine arts website priced at more than 350,000 euros.

“Events such as this have created an aspirational group of graffiti perpetrators who are arguably more artists than vandals and who have discovered there might be real money in it,” he said.

However, like Jones he believes it to be perfectly possible to stay one step ahead of the vandals. “Ten years ago people were not interested in graffiti coatings, but today’s products are much more effective and we have seen a rise in business as a result,” he said. “People used to apply anti-graffiti coatings to hotspots such as subways, shopping precincts and bridge parapets, but increasingly we are seeing customers applying them as a preventative measure on large-scale areas in schools and stairwells.”

Urban Hygiene’s Easy-on permanent coating is said to resist all known types of graffiti media while also being effective against handprints, scuff marks and stickers. “Sticker tags are becoming more prevalent and graffiti vandals are putting them on facilities around the word and then uploading the photos to Facebook,” said Johnson.

He adds that Poland, Spain, Italy and France are all countries that have a particular problem with graffiti. “However, each of these countries has a very different culture,” he said. “In Spain, for instance, a graffiti artist is more likely to find someone standing next to him and admiring his work than asking him to stop. And in Poland, graffiti is everywhere – even on government structures – and it is almost an accepted part of life.”

One step ahead

Chairman of the board of directors for Trion Tensid Thorbjörn Bengtsson says remaining one step ahead of the graffiti vandals is a constant challenge – mainly because those vandals are determined to stay one step ahead of the anti-graffiti manufacturers.

“Graffiti culprits share information via chat forums which means the spread effect is just one keystroke away,” he said. “We react by coming up with new graffiti removers and protective coatings to combat their materials.

But the only technical system that enables us to be one step ahead of the culprits is by applying protective coatings on vulnerable surfaces.”

He says Trion Tensid’s latest product - graffiti remover AGS 8 SK – has been developed to combat silver nitrate-based graffiti. “Modifications of existing products are also being made on an ongoing basis,” he said.

However, he adds that products alone cannot solve the graffiti problem. “Quick removal is the cornerstone to the solution. Graffiti should be removed within 24 hours and other measures need to be taken such as anti-social behaviour crackdowns, CCTV surveillance and better policing.”

Unlike Johnson, Bengtsson believes that anti-graffiti investment remains an issue within Europe. “Authorities claim they are willing to spend the money required for good graffiti removal - but in practice they tend to go for the lowest cost option which is not the same as best removal practice,” he said. “This lack of funding combined with customers demanding low prices and turning a blind eye to bad practices has created a market for opportunists.”

Graffiti rates falling

So, do graffiti product manufacturers have the problem under control? In fact Bengtsson claims that rates of new graffiti are falling of their own accord, at least in Scandinavia and the UK. “This is probably the case in large parts of Europe as well,” he adds.

Bengtsson puts this phenomenon down to a paradigm shift. “Smart phones, tablets and lap tops are increasingly accessible and this along with social media, new apps and games has created a world in which youngsters are becoming more and more introverted,” he said. “They would rather meet their friends on the internet than hang out on the streets, which means that the recruitment base of 10-13 year-old teenagers is being drastically reduced."

Vandalism figures in the UK seem to bear out this theory. Since March 2007 there has been a 37 per cent reduction in incidents of vandalism per 1,000 households according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales. Although the reasons are unclear, vandalism rates began to fall at around the same time that smart phone sales began to take off in the UK.

“Though local graffiti hotspots will continue to appear for some time to come, over a 10-15 year perspective incidences of tagging will be a shadow of what they were in their peak days,“ predicts Bengtsson.


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