Removing Graffiti (Self-Help)

By , March 26, 2010

When I discovered that the City of Hayward simply couldn’t keep up with the hundreds of graffiti reports I have submitted, I decided to try another strategy during my daily walks: I’m trying to clean some graffiti myself.  Here’s my initial report of the products I used, and my results.

At a “dollar store,” I purchased steel-wool soap pads, scrubbers, “Mean Green” cleaner, a brush, wet-wipes, gloves, and some “travel bottles” to avoid carrying several large containers of graffiti cleaner.  After finding that the dollar-store brush was not very stiff, I found a better (tougher) brush at Wal-Mart ($2.24).  I also found thicker disposable gloves at Lowe’s ($2.48 for 6 pairs).   Finally, I bought some gray, white, and black duct tape ($1 each for 10 yards).

I bought these four graffiti-cleaner products:

  1. Motsenbocker’s LiftOff type 3 for markers [$7 for 22 oz. at Home Depot],
  2. Motsenbocker’s LiftOff type 4 for spray paint [$8 for 22 oz. at Home Depot],
  3. Motsenbocker’s LiftOff type 5 for latex-based paint [$5.77 for 16 oz. at Wal-Mart], and
  4. Goof Off Graffiti Remover [$5.48 for 16 oz at Lowe’s]

Of these four products, Goof Off Graffiti Remover proved the most versatile, removing the widest range of types of graffiti; LifeOff 4 was the next most useful.  However, LiftOff 3 and LiftOff 5 were definitely able to remove some graffiti that the other two products could not. My biggest disappointment with the LiftOff products was that the spray mechanism didn’t reliably work on 2 of the 3 bottles I purchased.

I’ve now poured small amounts of LiftOff 3, LiftOff 5, and Mean Green cleaner into small travel-size bottles that I carry with me, so I can fit them into a fanny pack, without carrying the larger containers. I also bought a smaller container of LiftOff 4 ($4.47 for 4.5 oz. at Home Depot), and replaced the cap with a spray cap. Unfortunately, the Goof Off Graffiti remover is sold only in a 16-ounce aerosol can, which I don’t think can be decanted into a smaller spray bottle.

I saw several other brands of graffiti cleaner at Lowe’s and Home Depot. I also noticed much more expensive products in stores and online (for example, at the Kelly-Moore paint store near my home, the only graffiti cleaner offered was $26 for a 22-ounce container; that’s $1.18 per ounce, compared to the 30- to 40-cent-per-ounce range for the graffiti cleaners I used). I simply don’t have the budget to compare the effectiveness of more expensive graffiti cleaners.

Considering the relatively high cost of graffiti removers, I was pleasantly surprised that a dollar-store bottle of “Mean Green” cleaner (at just 5 cents per ounce) sometimes proved to be an effective general-purpose graffiti remover.  Even when it isn’t effective, it makes sense to clean dust and grime from the surface before using more expensive graffiti cleaners.

Regular “wet wipe” towelettes were rarely effective on graffiti, but “two-sided” moistened towelettes (Lysol Dual-Action wipes, with coarse and smooth sides) were sometimes effective, when used with cleaner or one of the graffiti removers. But most graffiti required using a steel-wool pad, steel scrubber, or a stiff brush, along with much more muscle.

For cement, brick, and unpainted wood surfaces (including trees), and for some textured plastic and painted surfaces, the stiff brush proved very effective (sometimes just using the Mean Green cleaner).

After seeing thousands of graffiti tags over the past few weeks, I had little caution when I started actually cleaning graffiti myself.  Frequently, graffiti cannot be cleaned without also damaging the paint beneath it, and I found myself mostly  unconcerned about this (since repainting would be necessary whether I removed the graffiti or not).

Sometimes, especially on cement and unfinished wood surfaces, my efforts will merely “smudge” the graffiti into an ugly blur (usually illegible).  On some painted surfaces, my efforts smudge the graffiti and the paint beneath it into a blur.  My worst experiences come when I scrub out a persistent graffiti tag on a metal pole, only to discover that I’ve removed both the graffiti tag and the paint beneath it — and then I realize that I’ve revealed older graffiti that can’t be removed!

And that, of course, is why I bought the duct tape: to cover graffiti that I couldn’t remove (from gray, white, and black metal surfaces).

I also bought a small razor-scraper ($1.48) and a heavier-duty “paint tool” for $4, at Home Depot. The small razor-scraper fits easily in my pocket (barely larger or heavier than a book of matches). These prove very helpful for removing graffiti labels — these are used by “lazy taggers” (presumably writing their tags onto the labels at school, and then inconspicuously slapping the labels onto poles as they walk by).  Within a few weeks, the writing fades away (as rain and sun deterioriate the top layer of the label), leaving just a blank white label. Alas, some “good samaritans” also use blank labels to cover up graffiti; when I remove those labels, I must also clean the graffiti beneath.

After three days of experimenting with “self-help” graffiti-removal, I’ve settled into a pattern: I pause to clean up the smallest graffiti tags (such as initials on the reflective stripes of a utility pole or tagged at the bottom edge of a sign) and the “easiest to remove” (metal surfaces, including sign posts and utility boxes), but when I encounter large graffiti tags or difficult surfaces, I still take a picture and submit it with a report to the city. (Sometimes I use graffiti cleaner to erase or smudge just one or a few characters from a large graffiti tag.)

4 Responses to “Removing Graffiti (Self-Help)”

  1. markwelch says:

    In 2003, the city of Portland, Oregon conducted a “green” survey and evaluation of 34 different graffiti-removal products, to evaluate the use of hazardous materials in these products. Many products contained ingredients classified as “Avoid if Possible” or “Do Not Use” (the report identifies the dangerous ingredients for each product). The report notes that some products are deceptively (and inaccurately) labeled as “earth-friendly,” “biodegradable,” or “non-toxic.”

    View their report at

    Here are their rankings of the products they evaluated, with “Group 1” being the least hazardous and “Group 5” being the most hazardous:

    Group 1 (Best-in-Class)

    • Enviro-Solutions Paint Stripper & Graffiti Remover #73
    • Magic Jell Graffiti Remover
    • SOYsolv Graffiti Remover

    Group 2
    • BG-CleanTM 617
    • Lift>It
    • Mineral spirits
    • Taginator

    Group 3
    • Mötsenböcker’s Lift Off #3, #4 and #5
    • Tagaway

    Group 4
    • Amnesty Jelled Graffiti Remover
    • Bio T Graffiti Buster II
    • D-Vandal
    • Goof Off
    • Graffiti Towels #1447
    • Graffiti-X
    • Hydroplus 504
    • Lift-Away Graffiti Remover and Graffiti Towels
    • RemovAll 310 and 400
    • Superco Graffiti Buster
    • United 126, 526, and 826
    • Vandal Ender
    • 110 VMR, Jelled Vandalism Mark Remover
    • Zep Write Away

    Group 5 (Most Hazardous)
    • Aero-Strip Aerosol
    • Chemstrip Aerosol
    • Misty Vandalism Mark Remover
    • PGR
    • Zep Erase

  2. Deirdre says:

    Good stuff Mark – I think it’s great that you have taken the initiative to remove Graffiti on your own. If more people thought like you, it would make a great difference. Just be carful with what you use. Green biodegradable products are always the best way to go – they work best on all surfaces (not cheap signage), and leave no smells, shadows, or damage behind.

  3. Bertha says:

    hey Mark,
    I recently acquired a clean white bread truck which is a prime target of taggers. I have been using denatured alcohol, steel wool, and elbow grease on a semi regular basis. I saw the mostenbockers at the home depot the other day and decided to read some consumer reviews first. It seems like its effective, but I wonder how it would affect the finish on my aluminum truck. any ideas? thanks

  4. Awesome post! Removing the graffiti is not a simple task for anyone. It requires lots of experience that can’t gain without hard work in the same field. With the help of your post, we can easily understand how to remove graffiti. Thanks for sharing it with all of us.

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