How to Remove Graffiti from Your Building

Graffiti is pretty much everywhere. Sometimes it’s artistic, sometimes it’s drug/crime-related, and sometimes it’s just petty vandalism; but if you live in a city long enough, it often just becomes visual white noise – part of the texture of our urban landscape.

NOZNOZNOZ - Graffiti before stairs

Graffiti on the inside wall of my building’s front stoop. Does anyone know if this is code for something?

… Until it shows up on my building. Then I’m pissed. I live on a “gentrifying” block of Hayes Valley in San Francisco where I’m surrounded on all sides by housing projects and a halfway house for ex-convicts. It’s usually a very quiet part of town, where everyone’s respectful of each other, quiet after 10pm, and fellow neighbors watch out for the block. But occasionally, you’ll wake up and someone has tagged “GIVE” twice on your building.

The problem with tagging is that it needs to be removed as soon as you discover it – not just because it’s easier to get spray paint / marker off the sooner you get at it, but also because if the tag is drug-related, leaving the tag there is a territorial signal to other drug traffickers in the area – and it could encourage additional tags to be graffiti’d over the original one (see also: the broken windows theory). In fact, some cities require building owners to remove graffiti within 3 days, or they’ll face a fine.

So, removing graffiti isn’t really one of those “I’ll get to it eventually” chores. The good news is the first removal step (which is the most critical – getting the graffiti off) takes like 5 minutes.

STEP 1: REMOVE THE TAG ITSELF

REMOVING PAINT ON WALLS: Usually, an ordinary paint thinner or paint remover does the trick in removing spray paint or regular-paint tags. Load up a rag with paint thinner, and if needed, bring in some steel wool or an abrasive sponge to help get stubborn paint off. There’s a good chance, though, that after you’re done, that area will still just look like there was graffiti recently removed (as opposed to looking like the graffiti had never been there).

REMOVING PAINT ON METAL SURFACES / POWDER-COATED METAL: Just like on painted walls, spray paint on metal / powder-coated metal usually comes out with paint thinner or paint remover. But if it is being stubborn, there is actually a product specifically intended to remove graffiti. We have it for our building (literally, simply, called “Graffiti Off”), and whatever’s in it, it works.

NOZNOZNOZ - Graffiti Off

Online, you can only buy a 6-pack case of Graffiti Off. We got our bottle at the local hardware store.

REMOVING PERMANENT MARKER: If someone has graffitied your building with a Sharpie or other permanent marker, 1) they need to be slapped – it’s much harder than spray paint to remove; and 2) skip the paint thinner and go straight for the “Graffiti Off.” On metals, spray the graffiti remover directly on the tag, and rub it off with a rag. That should do the trick. On a painted wall, remove as much of the marker as you can with Graffiti Off, and then just skip to Step 2.

STEP 2: PAINT THE WALL OVER AGAIN

Because paint thinner / graffiti remover takes off spray paint, it will probably remove part of your actual building paint along with it (which is partially why, after Step 1, the area that was graffitied still won’t look right). And so hopefully, you, your building, or your landlord has leftover exterior paint. If not, grab a bunch of paint chips, color-match as best you can (don’t forget to note the finish – flat, eggshell, etc.), and get a high-quality exterior paint.

Then, wipe down the once-graffitied area w/ water and a little dish soap (to remove any residual paint thinner/remover), let it dry, and paint as you would normally with a roller.

Voila! The paint was still drying while I took this photo, so please pardon the splotchiness.

Voila! The paint was still drying while I took this photo, so please pardon the splotchiness. You can also see that the roller didn’t fit under the handrail, and I just left it because I didn’t have a brush at the time.

PRO TIP: Paint as much of the wall as you possibly can – not just where you took the graffiti off. Building exteriors fade really quickly because of weather and sunlight, so there’s a good chance that even if you have an exact paint match, it won’t look exact once applied. THAT is the great pain of graffiti removal – the only way to conceal the new paint and keep your wall from looking previously graffiti’d is to paint the whole wall over again.

NOZNOZNOZ - Graffiti After - garage and bannister

Here’s how different my building’s paint looks – the 2nd “GIVE” tag was to the right of the garage door. So I painted over that wall, the stoop bannister, and the wall with the mailboxes on it, up until I couldn’t reach anymore. There you can see the faded grayer older paint line.

On the bright side, taking care of this chore renewed my sense of pride in being a homeowner – and I broke a sweat before 10am on a Saturday! So there you have it: 2 steps to removing graffiti from your building and retain your sanity living in an urban setting.