Launch Slideshow

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Common Cause

Common Cause

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    Utility boxes and street signs are the most popular targets of graffitists in Georgia's' Gwinnett County. Source: Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful

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    Graffiti is best controlled when residents are encouraged to report it and volunteers help public works remove it. Though highly effective at removing just about any type of paint, pressure-washing should be limited to tough surfaces such as concrete and hard woods.

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    To keep taggers from making public surfaces such as viaducts (above) into a canvas, former St. Alberta, Canada, city engineer Dwayne Kalynchuk championed efforts both there and in Victoria, British Columbia (below), to create skate board parks that encourage graffiti. Photo below: Dwayne Kalynchuk

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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.