Graffiti - prevention or cure?

2nd of May 2012
Graffiti - prevention or cure?

Ann Laffeaty looks at the latest anti-graffiti coatings on the market and finds out whether local authorities are prepared to pay for them - or whether they are more inclined to simply remove the graffiti after the vandals have struck.

Local authorities wishing to tackle the problem of graffiti have two main options. They can wait for the vandals to strike and then figure out how best to remove the graffiti. Or they can invest in a coating that can be applied to walls and surfaces and that allows the graffiti to be removed more easily afterwards.

Both these methods have their advantages and drawbacks. Using a coating calls for some initial investment and one that conversely only pays off if the graffiti artist does strike. However it is much quicker and easier to remove graffiti from a surface that has been pre-coated.

Treating the graffiti problem only as it arises avoids any initial outlay on a coating, but cleaning away graffiti from an untreated wall can be expensive and time-consuming.

So which is best, prevention or cure? And which approach is being favoured by customers – and by local authorities in particular?

According to chairman of the board of Trion Thorbjörn Bengtsson it is a moot point whether municipalities are buying into the idea of graffiti-proof coatings or not. The company, which has been manufacturing anti-graffiti products since 1978, specialises in permeable sacrificial coatings.

“I can’t say that we’ve seen any major growth but we are certainly trying to turn the market towards anti-graffiti coatings,” he said. “Removing a coating after a graffiti artist has offended is a much quicker process as well as being more environmentally-friendly, since the graffiti on a coated wall can be removed using only hot water. It also reduces the cost of graffiti removal considerably since there is a significant reduction in the number of man hours required.”

Clear barrier

Sacrificial coatings are usually made from polymers such as acrylates, biopolymers and waxes. These form a clear barrier over the wall or surface and if this is then vandalised, the graffiti can be removed together with the coating using a high-pressure washer. The coating can then be reapplied.

According to Bengtsson, sacrificial coatings tend to be preferred to permanent coatings in northern Europe due to the climate. “There is a defined spring and autumn in these areas and the walls need to be able to breathe throughout the repeated cycle of frost and thaw,” he explained.

Despite their obvious benefits, some councils are unwilling to invest in anti-graffiti coatings according to Bengtsson – partly due to the structure of their budgets.

“Graffiti removal products tend to come out of a council’s maintenance and repair budget, whereas graffiti-proof coatings come under the heading of ‘investments’,” he said. “It can be more difficult to gain approval for an investment than a repair cost.”

He says some countries are much less tolerant towards graffiti than others. “Councils that have a historic problem with graffiti are more likely to invest in coatings,” he said. “For example, in Stockholm and Helsinki there is a political policy in place to combat the graffiti problem and protective coatings tend to be used.”

Decision to invest

In other European countries such as Germany, France, Holland and the UK, graffiti removal products tend to be used in place of protective coatings, according to Bengtsson.

According to managing director of Hydron Joe Meanley, permanent anti-graffiti coatings are a more cost-effective option than sacrificial coatings. “When using sacrificial coatings you are lining the pockets of the contractor who is applying the coating and then removing it after the wall has been painted with graffiti,” he said. “It is not very beneficial to the client.”

Permanent coatings tend to be based on polyurethanes and work by creating a protective surface to which spray paint cannot bond. After the surface has been vandalised the paint can usually be removed using a solvent, leaving the underlying surface and the protective coating undamaged.
He says the decision on whether to invest in coatings depends on the individual local authority.

“People are looking after the pennies and in the case of a new-build property, a council will think twice about spending money on a protective coating,” he said. “But some local authorities are more proactive than others and when refurbishing properties they might consider a graffiti-proof coating.”

He says the coatings market has remained surprisingly steady over the years. “We have been around since the early 1980s and we originally thought that the graffiti artists would have become bored by the 1990s,” he said. “But I don’t think the market has changed. People have always had the desire to protect their properties.”

According to Meanley, technology is moving forward quite rapidly and although relatively few new products are emerging, existing products are constantly being improved. “Our Nu-Cryl product has been around for a while and we are continually improving its performance and life expectancy,” he said. “One application will last about 10-15 years.”

Managing director of Graffiti Magic John Townsend concurs that the market has remained steady, although he adds that some markets have suffered more than others. “We sell our coatings all over Europe and the Greek market is certainly suffering because of its economic problems,” he said. “But in general the market has never slowed down and local authorities are happy to invest in coatings if they have the budget.”

According to Townsend there has been little significant change in anti-graffiti coating technology over recent years. “There was a big buzz about nano coatings a few years ago but that died away,” he said.

Nano-particle coatings use silica particles on to which ligands are chemically grafted. The effect is a coating that is claimed to repel both water- and oil-based paints.

However Anti-Graffiti Association chairman Derek McGovern also feels that nano-coatings have not taken off. “It may be a question of cost-effectiveness, but most coatings on the market still have a polyurethane or epoxy base,” he said.

The Anti-Graffiti Association, whose annual conference is attended by delegates from all over Europe, aims to promote Best Practice in the management of graffiti-related crime. According to McGovern, cost is a major factor for councils when it comes to adopting an anti-graffiti policy.

“We do generally recommend coatings but I’m not sure whether they are a growing trend,” he said. "In fact there is a tendency to simply paint over graffiti using a brown paint, and this may be a way forward.”

He says a council’s decision on whether or not to invest will depend on the type of building or surface in question. “If it is a prestigious building, the cost of a coating will be irrelevant but it will provide a guarantee that the building will not be permanently marked,” he said. “However, in the case of a brick wall in a playground, the council may prefer to paint over the graffiti. It is all a question of speed and costs.”

Cheaper alternative

According to Gratch International's Jean-Paul Kremers most local authorities are still choosing to treat rather than pre-empt a graffiti problem. “People are still not investing in coatings because there is insufficient budget,” he said. “Graffiti removal products are a cheaper alternative because they mean you only have to treat the affected area and not the complete surface.”

Gratch manufactures a range of anti-graffiti products including the Gratch SRA Shadow Remover for obstinate graffiti soiling and the Gratch universal permanent Anti-Graffiti-Coating. According to Kremers, most anti-graffiti coatings have traditionally been unable to cope with graffiti soiling from permanent markers. However he claims that this is about to change.

“We have now launched a hybrid coating that can protect a surface against the most aggressive markers,” he said.

But for councils reluctant to use chemical graffiti removers or to invest in anti-graffiti coatings, there is another alternative. The relatively new method of dry-ice blasting is said to effectively remove paint or varnish from walls and sensitive surfaces.

Kärcher offers dry-ice blasting equipment which has been gaining ground over recent years, according to the company’s David Wickel. “Dry-ice blasting produces a notable cleaning effect and the pellets will not damage the surface to be cleaned,” he said. “The system also has the advantage of generating no waste water or other blasting medium residues. This means that only
the dirt falls to the ground and this can be vacuumed or swept up after cleaning has been completed.”


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