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.


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.


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.

DIY: Halloween! SF Giants! GOURDS.

In honor of today, which is both Halloween and the day my city of San Francisco shut half the streets down for the World Series parade (Go Giants!!), I finally gave into Decorative Gourd Season and decorated some mother fucking gourds!!!!NOZNOZNOZ - Halloween SF Giants Cover

Since it’s the last day of October, I avoided having more than 1 overtly “spooky / Halloweeny” gourd (the butternut squash) and went with a black/white/gold theme that will be fall-holiday (that totally portmanteaus into “falliday, btw) relevant for as long as these gourds keep – hopefully until it’s Christmas Tree time.

Total time spent: 45 minutes including driving to the grocery store (would have taken less but I screwed up the gold SF pumpkin the first time)

Total cost: about $6 for 2 little pumpkins, 1 butternut squash, and 1 wonky ass swan-gourd – I already had the nails and paint.

GOURD 1: Literally found this wonky bumpy twisty swan-neck-looking gourd in the “Decorative Gourds” basket. Pretty sure this isn’t meant to be eaten, but the bumps and porousness of the gourd skin make spray painting this one REALLY easy and efficient.

Spray painting pro tip: set the gourd down exactly as you want it on display and then spray paint from all angles without moving the gourd. This way the bottom doesn’t get painty and end up sticking to your table/mantle/wherever you display it. (More spray paint tips here)

NOZNOZNOZ - Halloween SF Giants 1

GOURD 2: Inspired by brass tack pumpkin DIYs, I went for a slightly more Edward Scissorhands/bondage-y butternut squash look. Also I decided to do this gourd DIY rather spontaneously and wanted to see what I could do just with the stuff I have at home – thusly, nails.

Pro tip: if you’re ever spray painting something that you’re going to then stab with nails/tacks/etc, spray paint the object FIRST, then add the nails, then spray paint again. NOZNOZNOZ - Halloween SF Giants 2

GOURDS 3 + 4: My beloved SF Giants pumpkins!! This year was the first year I 1. understood baseball strategy, 2. watched a decent amount of baseball, and 3. decided I like Pablo Sandoval, aka: The Panda. And so, these cutie pumpkins. The process on both of these was the same: spray paint, let dry, then use black acrylic paint to do the design. I’m especially proud of my kawaii Japanese Panda anime face.

Side note: the gold pumpkin was originally meant to be black with gold lettering. I made a stencil out of paper to spray paint a gold “SF” and realized that stenciling irregular round things doesn’t work. Also I definitely missed the bottom of the Panda pumpkin.

NOZNOZNOZ - Halloween SF Giants 3

ENJOY!!!!!!! There will definitely be more spray paint / DIY holiday posts as the winter season approaches, so let me know if you want to see anything done or if you’ve done a super sick gourd DIY this month!


Do you ever get the itch to DIY something? Ever browse through Pinterest and think, “What a great little weekend project idea” and then realize that the rest of your weekends until Thanksgiving are already committed to weddings, bachelor(ette) parties, baby showers, and dinners? Sad panda that you can’t fit in time for your project ideas?


Honestly, spray painting stuff is one of the most instantly gratifying, quick-to-finish, and easy DIY endeavors out there. And at $5-9 a can, you could forego your Oprah Chai Tea Latte for 2 days and basically break even on a project.

Spray painting projects are also great because you can have zero artistic / crafty skills and still do a perfect DIY job. But if what’s stopping you is that you’ve never spray painted before, here are a few tips to do it well:

1. SHAKE THE CAN A LOT: Before you pull the trigger, shake the spray can for at least 2 minutes. Shake the can up and down, and then in an “X” pattern by twisting the can at your wrist. Bartending skills? Do as you would a cocktail. VERY IMPORTANT: Every 10-15 seconds of spraying, shake the can vigorously again – just to make sure the paint stays evenly mixed.

NOZNOZNOZ - Spray Paint Pro Tips - shakin it

Semi-pro tip: bringing music may help you remember to shake the can often, and with vigor.

2. CHOOSE GOOD BRANDS: For most home applications, Krylon spray paint is just fine, and conveniently available at almost every hardware store and craft store. Krylon paints come in matte or glossy finish and are available in many basic colors.

But the absolute best brand I’ve ever worked with is Montana BLACK – created for artists (available in San Francisco at the beloved Flax). The brand comes in 187 colors, and you can change the spray tops for wider spray patterns. Montana BLACK “Goldchrome” is THE closest to a true gold / gilded / gilt look that I’ve used (on the other hand, Krylon’s gold/chrome/silver paints end up looking like you used a metallic-colored spray paint, vs. actually mimicking the look of real metal). You can also find some Montana BLACK colors online.

3. SHORT + QUICK SPRAYS: The instructions on the can will say this too, but make sure to spray at least 6 inches from your subject, and in short, quick motions – you’ll need a couple coats of paint no matter what, so don’t worry if your first coat doesn’t feel opaque enough. Do not hold the trigger down for too long in one place or get too close to your subject, or else the paint will start to streak and drip down your subject, which is a total giveaway that you spray painted it.

4. MIND THE WEATHER: Whenever possible, spray paint outside (city dwellers, find a rooftop and bring a drop cloth). If there’s any breeze, spray in its direction, and try to shield your subject from direct wind to keep debris from blowing onto the wet paint and stick). If there’s humidity in the air, consider that it will take considerably longer for your coats of paint to dry. Rule of thumb: in a hot, dry summer day, 1 thin coat on a non-plastic, non-metal surface will take ~30 minutes to dry to the touch. Otherwise leave at least an hour between coats.

5. PRIME IT: For the smoothest finish, make sure your subject is primed. If the object is porous like wood, sand and smooth the surfaces you’ll spray paint. In general, I recommend using a primer spray paint, especially if you’re trying to paint something plastic. Primers will make your color more opaque and “true,” as well as improving paint adhesion. The Krylon Dual Paint + Primer series works pretty well for a 2-in-1, but I found that I’d get a grey haze sometimes when using the black matte paint, vs. other brands.

This is the Krylon primer in "Red Oxide" – since the Unicorno figurine is plastic, a primer coat was really important before applying the gold spray paint.

This is the Krylon primer in “Red Oxide” – since the Unicorno figurine is plastic, a primer coat was really important before applying the gold spray paint.

6. CHOOSE OBJECTS YOU WON’T TOUCH THAT MUCH: No matter how completely gratifying spray painting feels, the stuff is sadly not magic – it can still chip or pick up your fingerprints. The longest-lasting DIY spray painting projects will often those that you don’t plan to touch / handle very often – for example: picture frames, decorative objects on your shelves, table lamps, etc. I’ll share some of my flea market transformations in a future post.

There are lots of other tips that I didn’t include here, but you can google “spray painting tips” and find more useful articles, like this one!