It's art, they say.

For four decades, graffitists (also called taggers, depending on what they're creating and the motive behind it) have used infrastructure as the canvas for showcasing their talents. It's art, they say; but the public calls it vandalism, and charges public works with managing the cycle of removal and reoccurrence.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates that graffiti accounts for 35% of vandalism cases, and in some cities abatement costs taxpayers more than $3 million annually.

“No one knows nationally what the trend is, but public works departments and police understand the need to bring together a host of public and private entities to deal with it,” says Conni Kunzler, a consultant for the Graffiti Hurts program of Keep America Beautiful. “It's not just about removal but also prevention, education, and enforcement.”

Kunzler urges local officials to adopt a multifaceted approach that includes all affected parties, from public works and police to school districts and residents themselves. The program should include an efficient system for reporting “tags,” tracking removal, and empowering residents to fight graffiti in their neighborhoods.

“People think that if you just pick one of those you have a good program,” says Connie Wiggins, executive director of the nonprofit Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful (GCB) in suburban Gwinnett County, 15 miles northeast of Atlanta. “But an effective program includes education, eradication, enforcement, and evaluation.

“We coordinate anti-graffiti efforts with the public works departments, police, and community volunteers in 15 municipalities, the county government, school districts, and state highway department,” she says. At about $250/incident, abatement isn't cheap. And it's one reason Wiggins says a hotline should be the first step in a plan of attack.

CHAIN OF COMMUNICATION

In Dallas, city departments must remove graffiti from public property under their jurisdiction within 48 hours. The streets department treats streets, sidewalks, guardrails, and bridges; the public works department oversees street signs, traffic control devices, and light poles. But crews repairing a sidewalk or replacing a street sign often don't spot graffiti nearby.

So residents are encouraged to call the city's 311 non-emergency hotline or to visit the city's Web site to report graffiti. The police department encourages residents to photograph graffiti for evaluation by the gang unit. Appropriate departments are notified immediately—the quicker the response, the less likely graffitists will repeat their actions at a site.

San Francisco's public works crews—which are dispatched within 48 hours of a complaint to the city's 311 hotline—work seven days a week to clean up streets and sidewalks. Last year, the city spent an estimated $3.2 million to remove graffiti from 30,000 locations and 800,000 square feet of surfaces.

Although paint choice and type vary by city, the bottom line is price. Because it's less expensive, easier to clean up, and dries quickly, latex paint is the choice of most graffiti-abatement programs, which rely on basic colors such as gray for concrete and brown for fences. Even so, some departments use oil-based paints, which are more durable and withstand solvents better than latex paints.

In July, a graffiti removal van began patrolling five areas in Edmonton, Alberta, identified as “graffiti-free” zones, including downtown, as part of a program that uses the comprehensive approach advocated by Wiggins. Two employees remediate 1,000 square feet of public property each week, painting over graffiti on sidewalks and benches and using solvents to remove paint on metal poles, non-painted utility boxes, and the backs of street signs.

Because solvent-based paint remover destroys signs' reflective coatings, many departments spend the extra $2.35/square foot on protective films when ordering signs, says Joline Bogdan, a marketing specialist with 3M. Like a license plate sticker, the film adheres to the sign's reflective coating, cannot be removed, and can be cleaned with a mild cleaner or rubbing alcohol/water mixture.

“The film is an added expense, but it's a lot less than having to replace the entire sign,” Bogdan says.

THE NEW GIS

Abatement is one thing, enforcement is another. The successful cities, Wiggins says, “have recognized a way to monitor progress and look at trends.”

Arrests in New York jumped 28% from 2006 to 2007, thanks to an intense coordinated effort. Police logged all 311 and 911 graffiti complaints in a database maintained by the Mayor's Community Affairs Unit, and officers began documenting the identities and work of graffitists.

Eight years ago, a retired AT&T engineer helped Gwinnett County develop a monitoring and tracking system using handheld GPS tools. Since then, three Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful employees spend three weeks every year driving all major roads and graffiti-prone residential neighborhoods. Noting the graffiti's visibility, size, and type in addition to the surface on which it appears, they upload the data to the county's mapping software and compare it to calls to the county's hotline.

The survey costs about $5,000 for labor (GCB uses private engineers) and identifies the top 10 hotspots, which GCB uses to prioritize abatement and prevention efforts. Wiggins says it's not as difficult as it sounds—as long as public works departments approach the issue with a comprehensive plan.

“Graffiti isn't a traditional public works issue, so it falls behind, and with tight budgets it's hard to justify the costs associated with it,” she says.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Launched in February, San Francisco's Graffiti Rewards Fund offers residents $250 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of graffiti vandals. Residents must be willing to testify in court as witnesses, and are notified that their information might be made available to the defense attorney. Claim forms are available at the public works department, police stations, and the District Attorney's office.

Some residents don't need financial incentives.

In 1997, Rick Stanton, community services supervisor for the city of San Jose, Calif., was hired to administer the anti-graffiti and litter program operated by the parks and recreation department. “After a year or two I didn't see the graffiti problem getting better,” says Stanton, now retired.

An annual anti-graffiti conference designed to attract regional participants from public works, law enforcement, and schools made little impact, volunteer paint-outs didn't curb the problem, and an elementary school outreach program was failing. So Stanton decided to survey every tag in the city. Using $450,000 of general funds, he and his crew identified almost 72,000 tags: $100,000 for removal materials, $100,000 for a truck dedicated for graffiti removal, $150,000 for two full-time positions charged with graffiti removal, and $100,000 for a contract with a youth group for graffiti abatement.

“We wanted people to do graffiti prevention and abatement on a regular, frequent basis, not just a one-day feel-good thing,” he explains. “You're not going to change the minds of elementary students when you're in the classroom for just 40 minutes. They see their peers all day every day, and their peers might be doing graffiti.”

Stanton attended neighborhood meetings to recruit volunteers and hand out graffiti removal kits of solvent, sponges, mask, goggles, rags, and paint.

“We made it simple for them to sign up and gave them free materials,” he says. “If they could remove graffiti in front of their house and that's all they did, that's one less light pole we'd have to deal with. There was no reporting they had to do, no commitment, and they could do it whenever they wanted and wherever they wanted.”

The 124 volunteers Stanton recruited in the program's first year nearly halved the number of tags citywide, to about 35,000. The program now has 6,500 volunteers, and just a hundred or so incidents of graffiti remain. The city also increased its full-time abatement staff to seven.

Stanton commends the volunteers for keeping costs down. “Supplies are a fraction of the cost of labor. That's where the savings come in,” he says.

Edmonton also gives residents removal kits, available on a first-come, first-served basis, that include a 25% discount certificate that may be used to buy paint.

But not everyone labels graffiti as vandalism.

“When it's not gang-related, it can be a form of art,” says Dwayne Kalynchuk, general manager of environmental services for the Capital Region District in Victoria, British Columbia.

A former city engineer in the Edmonton, Alberta, suburb of St. Albert, Kalynchuk helped create a program in the mid-1990s that encourages taggers to paint at a concrete skate-board park. At the time, two-person public works crews were being pulled from other projects to remediate graffiti, taxing department resources. “We couldn't dedicate part of our work-force to graffiti removal, so we pulled crews from elsewhere, and those projects suffered,” he says.

The city reported a 45% reduction in graffiti just one year later. “You have to have an outlet that's an expression of that creativity,” Kalynchuk says.

But for the most part, graffiti remains a crime, and only persistence breaks the cycle.

“You have to be relentless,” says Wiggins, whose efforts have paid off: Since 2000 she claims a 90% reduction in graffiti countywide. “When government continues to remove it, there's no sense of ownership. City departments need to work with property owners to take steps to keep it from reoccurring. Governments need to give the general public a sense of ownership for common areas.”