How do you combat that graffiti?

Jim Ralston
Tags: maintenance and reliability

No matter where you are, you can't escape the problem. Small towns, large cities, urban centers, rural areas - by now, most all have seen their share of graffiti. With your painting skills and the right industrial coatings products, however, you can take control of the situation and help your plant combat this destructive crime.

The word graffiti comes from the Latin word "graffito", meaning "to write." Today, the term is used to denote any drawing, scribbling or writing on a public surface. Though this kind of vandalism is not new, a graffiti culture emerged with the hip-hop scene late last century in New York City. Graffiti artists like Keith Haring and "Taki 183" drew media attention and spawned imitators known as "taggers," who use spray paint and other materials to illegally mark public walls, including the outside of industrial facilities. Once mostly an inner-city, lower-income protest, tagging has branched out in the 21st century. For instance, Philadelphia police recently apprehended a 27-year-old stockbroker who drove to tagging sites in his BMW.


Exterior walls of manufacturing plants can serve as billboards for graffiti taggers.

In response, several city and county governments have initiated anti-graffiti programs. They know that graffiti is as costly as it is unsightly. Business owners and plant managers know first-hand how it drives business away and negatively impacts their neighborhood. But there are good strategies for tackling the problem - techniques that plant and facilities maintenance professionals can use to cleanse and beautify their structures' exteriors.

The most effective weapon against graffiti is quick removal. The longer it stays up, the better the chances the tagger will return. Getting the graffiti off as quickly as it is painted on sends a powerful message: "This building is not your canvas."

Graffiti is also easier to remove when fresh. In some cases, detergent and water will do the job adequately. However, once "cured" - allowed to penetrate the surface - graffiti is often difficult and time-consuming to remove without damaging the underlying finish or substrate. Solutions and degree of effectiveness depend on many factors. Pressure washing can be effective, depending on the surface and the age of the graffiti. For tougher cases, sandblasting or other blasting techniques may be needed, but take care to make sure you don't damage the substrate.

Stubborn stains may require paint removers. Ask your plant's paints and coatings supplier for recommendations on the best removal method for your situation.

The best way to prevent future graffiti problems is to apply a "barrier coating." Barrier coatings can be divided into two categories: sacrificial and non-sacrificial. With both types of barrier coatings, the coating prevents graffiti from reaching the substrate, making the graffiti easy to remove. The difference between the two: In a sacrificial barrier coating, as the name implies, a portion of the barrier coating is "sacrificed" during cleanup, which usually requires no more than a high-pressure hot-water rinse. When dry, another coat of the sacrificial coating is reapplied.

The best sacrificial barrier coatings are clear, water-based, volatile organic compound-compliant products that provide generous coverage rates (upward of 500 square feet per gallon on painted surfaces). Sacrificial barrier coatings are generally cost-effective and safe on most surfaces (though patch testing is always a good idea).

Non-sacrificial barrier coatings, by contrast, do not require recoating after new graffiti is washed off. There are three types: aliphatic urethane compounds, rubber silicone-based products and waterborne polyurethanes.

Aliphatic urethane compounds are two-part systems that require mixing before application. Though often used in the past, these products completely seal the surface, which hinders breathability and often leaves a recognizably "sticky" look. They are not recommended for application on substrates that must "breathe" to retain their integrity.

Rubber silicone-based non-sacrificial coatings, on the other hand, are a good choice for wood and porous masonry surfaces that tend to trap moisture vapor. The best of these coatings, such as Dumond Anti Graffitiant, have a high perm rate that allows moisture to escape while keeping graffiti and other compounds away from the substrate. These single-component products do not need mixing and provide waterproofing. High performers in this category provide coverage upward of 100 square feet per gallon.

Waterborne polyurethanes are a third and increasingly popular option. The best versions comply with volatile organic compound (VOC) recommendations. This type of product is resistant to embrittlement and other environmental and weather-related exposures. It will extend the life of the surface and is easily maintained.

Waterborne polyurethanes can be used on virtually any painted or unpainted surface, from brick, concrete and stucco to wood, plastic and metals such as copper and brass. You can get them either in a clear formula or tinted to match any color preference. Good coverage in this category is approximately 400 square feet per gallon.

With today's technology and the right technique, you can keep your plant free of graffiti and its negative effects.

Jim Ralston is an applications professional with the Sherwin-Williams Company. To learn more, visit

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