The buff

Different cities, just as they have distinctive cultures of street art or graffiti, have different policies for removal of illicit images from urban spaces, and different methods of removing (buffing) graffiti and street art. Some councils employ cleaning crews who use water sprays, other paint over images. Graffiti removal is also big business – in Melbourne, there are many graffiti removal companies, such as Graffiti Eaters. Sometimes ‘concerned citizens’ get involved – Neighbourhood Watch groups, or organizations such as Graffiti Hurts Australia, or R.A.G.E. (Residents Against Graffiti Everywhere), or even individuals (such as ‘Guerilla Joe’, in Doug Pray’s fantastic documentary film Infamy).

On my travels this year, I’ve been interested to see different removal ‘regimes’ in action. In San Francisco, the city has put the onus of removal upon the property owner. If graffiti appears on your property, you are under an obligation to remove it within 30 days. If you don’t, the city’s attorneys will obtain a court order against you to allow city officials to remove the graffiti themselves, and you then have to pay the costs (at least $500 US, or $775 AUD). Here’s a photograph of a man in the Mission District of San Francisco who was busy painting over a tag on his wall:

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But the law that obliges the property owner to remove the graffiti doesn’t specify that any effort should be made to match the paint that the graffiti sits on top of – the objective is to make people take action by painting out the graffiti, rather than attempt to create a particular result (like restoring the wall to the condition it was previously in). So what happens is this:
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Here you can see a kind of patchwork effect, as people use just enough paint to cover a tag or stencil – and thus avoid being fined – but don’t worry about matching the paint in any way. Does it look better or worse than when the wall had a tag or stencil on it? Well, the answer to that may be in the eye of the beholder, but one thing is sure, the result is not a ‘clean’ or ‘blank’ wall…

Blank walls were what I found in many streets of London recently. In streets where, in July, there had been a lively ‘conversation’ (to use Russell Howze’s term – thanks, Russell) of stickers, tags, stencils, objects, paste-ups, by October many of them had been cleaned up, all over Shoreditch, and up and down Brick Lane. Turns out that the local councils (London Borough of Hackney and London Borough of Tower Hamlets) had decided it was time for a cleaning blitz, with the result that hundreds of images had been buffed.

I saw some of this in action:

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And in terms of the overall differences in how these areas look, to compare the amount of work that was up on the walls in July with what was there in October, have a look at these images. Here’s a section of Brick Lane in July:

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And here’s how it looked in October:
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Here’s the start of a little alleyway in Shoreditch in July:

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And here it is a few weeks ago in October:

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But you can see that the Invader piece is still there on the wall: whoever painted over the wall has neatly painted around the tile…

And as for all the other blank walls, I’m guessing there might be a few folks who will look at them and say, ‘Fresh canvas – thanks very much!’

1 comment so far

  1. DTagr on

    While “patchwork painting” does cover the offending graffiti it is clearly ineffective in every respect save avoiding the municipalities fine. It is unfortunate that some property owners use this approach as it encourages the re-tagging of the wall.

    Restoring the wall to new or nearly new condition in a timely manner is ultimately the most cost-effective method and in the owners best interest.

    These big cleaning blitzes make for good press but are extremely expensive and in the case of that Brick Lane in your photo the environmental cost of the heavy concentrations of paint stripper is staggering. Also looking at the after photo under magnification it’s clear that not all of the graffiti was removed. Time applied is a major factor in every graffiti removal.


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