The writing is on the wall. Yesterday when I went for a drive around my city I saw graffiti everywhere – along the main highway and roads, on fences, garage doors, gates, public utilities and even tree trunks. I know it’s only paint, but ugly and (to most) meaningless tags all over your front garden walls, street signs, power poles is somehow really depressing.
The post-apocalyptic feel of a suburb covered with tags is very distressing to its residents who fear increased crime and gang-violence. Although this very rarely happens, if people no longer feel safe in their community, many things start to suffer, such as patronage of local businesses, enrolments at local schools and participation in community events and programs.
Graffiti is not a new phenomenom. Through history, where there’s been a wall, there’s been writing on it, sometimes political, occasionally comical or even spiritual, but most often just personal. We humans seem to have an overwhelming urge to mark all territory as ours, just like so many tomcats.
Aerosol spray paint had been around for several decades, but it was the rise of hip hop music and its significant ‘tagging’ subculture that has brought graffiti into the quiet tree-lined streets of our middle-class suburbs. Prominent vertical surfaces are repeatedly hit with tags, usually a three letter representation of the ‘writer’s’ nickname within the crew, or ‘throwups’, which describe the larger, fat-lettered and elaborately infilled style of tag writing. A big wall might attract a ‘piece’, short for masterpiece, which is detailed, colourful and often quite decorative – if you like graffiti art.
Taggers are over 80% male and mostly in their early teens, and in pursuit of the usual rebellion, recognition and belonging. The lack of appreciation by the community heightens the tagger’s feeling of being part of a select group, and acts of increasing graffiti bravado make him look active and courageous to his crew. Tagging usually happens in the early hours of the morning and mostly on weekends. An active crew can tag hundreds of surfaces in one night.
In response, Australian state governments have introduced tough anti-graffiti laws; if Arthur Stace dared to chalk his famous ‘Eternity‘ in Sydney today, he’d be up for a $440 fine, and if he spray-painted it, a maximum of 5 years gaol. Local governments in some states can use provisions in environmental protection acts to require both the use of anti-graffiti coatings and a 72-hour cleanup turnaround for medium and high density developments. Many local governments now have graffiti hotlines, residents kits containing removal chemicals and instructions, as well as a zero tolerance policy, requiring removal of graffiti within 48 hours.
These anti-graffiti laws, and banning the sale of spray paint cans to under 16s has not yet made any dent in graffiti damage, although any law is only as good as how often it’s enforced. Quick removal is the most commonly used fix and deterrent, but the obvious ‘patches’ left by fresh repainting or washing are often enjoyed by taggers as a freshly prepared canvas for another go. Graffiti removal has been estimated to cost over $25 million a year in Australia, with the City of Sydney alone cleaning up half a million graffiti markings a year.
The graffiti removal business is big, with a multitude of services available, from sand or soda or dry ice blasting, pressure washing, detergents, chemical washes and wipes, paint-overs or even lasers. Although a fix is always needed, prevention is even better.
If you live on a main road, near a railway line or a school, your external walls are likely targets. Here are a few ideas to prevent graffiti attack.
1. Materials matter
Some surfaces are very difficult to remove graffiti from without permanent damage to the wall, like fences of single-colour natural brick, unpainted timber, or porous sedimentary stone such as sandstone. They can be sealed with anti-graffiti coatings which are either sacrificial, meaning they lift off with the graffiti during cleaning and are then recoated, or permanent coatings. Many coatings change the appearance of the surface in unacceptable ways, yellowing with age or giving it a waxy or glossy look and they are expensive to buy, apply and replace. Materials that are more easily cleaned are tiles, metal, igneous or metamorphic stone (such as polished granite) and glass.
2. Rough it up, open it up, plant it up
Smooth walls in prominent places are the first choice a tagger. The current fashion for smooth rendered and painted walls may look clean and contemporary but you’re providing a prime canvas. Single colour metal side fences are also a target. Rough textures such as bamboo or brush are much harder to spray paint effectively (although brush fencing on an accessible side boundary can attract fire bugs instead), as are decorative patterns. Rather than using solid walls, think about perforated screens, or metal railing or picket fences with a privacy hedge. Reduce ‘piecing’ wall opportunities by lowering wall height, stepping them in and out, inserting grills, breeze blocks or brickwork patterns, or adding external planting.
3. Darken the door (and the walls)
It takes a lot more spray paint or marker pen to show up on a dark surface than a light one, and it’s also easier to paint out. Choose standard paint colours so they’re readily available for paint-over repairs, and make sure you keep some spare paint handy. If your wall is regularly hit, a small electric paint spray gun costs under $100.
4. Commission good quality street art
In you have a long side brick wall in a graffiti area, commissioning some permanent street art lets you choose your own style and many experienced street artists offer high-quality work that you’ll be proud to display. In Sydney’s Stanmore, the walls around the railway tunnel are covered by ugly tags but, in contrast, nearby buildings decorated with colourful street art are rarely hit, as they provide too busy a backdrop for displaying tags, and taggers don’t like to disrespect a fellow artist’s work.
You don’t have to go for large and loud – this cute cat is one of my favourites.
5. Plant it out
Restrict access to desirable walls with plants at least one metre high, preferably with dense and prickly foliage. Vines such as creeping fig will quickly cover a brick wall that would otherwise be tagger’s dream. You can see the difference it makes in my photo of two front walls, side by side, one bare and one vine-covered. Trees are also a big weapon against graffiti. Tree-lined streets and parks have lower numbers of graffiti incidents, and trees will cover up very high walls. Footpath plantings also reduce graffiti visibility from passing cars, making the site less useful to a tagger.
6. Restrict access and remove obvious ‘ladders’
Keep paths and other access points away from attractive walls with wide, thickly planted garden beds. Avoid creating natural ‘ladders’, such as lower walls, collections of wheelie bins or parked cars which give climbing access to higher areas where graffiti is then more visible and difficult to remove.
7. Light up your life
Night lighting both for ambience and security keeps taggers away. Use movement detection lighting along vulnerable boundaries.
8. Maintainance matters, and report all graffiti
Neglected gardens filled with left-out garbage bins, dying plants, un-mown lawns areas or with already tagged walls are an open invitation that says ‘this home owner doesn’t care’. So why wouldn’t a tagger think it’s fair game? Your local government will have an anti-graffiti policy and some supply free removal kits. Quickly remove or paint out graffiti and report all graffiti attacks to the police. By compiling information, police are better able to identify taggers, who are often caught because they’ve very cleverly covered everything they use with the same tag – like their bags, their pencil cases and every school desk.