Graffiti And Vandalism

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

Graffiti is a word with roots in ancient times; it is actually the plural of “graffito,” a mid-19th-century Italian word meaning “a scratch.” Examples of graffiti can be seen etched into stone walls dating back to ancient Egypt, Greece, and the Roman Empire.

Today, graffiti is synonymous with another ancient word—vandalism—based on the Vandals, members of a Germanic tribe that ravaged Gaul and Spain, and sacked Rome in 455 A.D. Now, the word refers to the disfiguring or destruction of property belonging to others.

Parks and rec maintenance crews aren’t thinking about the word’s origin when they have to clean up graffiti. All they know is that it takes precious time, money, and patience. The cost of graffiti is no doubt high, but it is not easily quantifiable.

Lost Revenue, High Crime Perception

Larry Kaufman, Director of Communications for Keep America Beautiful, notes that, unfortunately, to his knowledge, there is no central repository of cost information. “Similar to litter, most of the information about graffiti costs and prevention is very local,” he says. “Ordinances vary, policing of graffiti varies … and the manner in which cities address graffiti vandalism varies.”

However, while graffiti vandals may believe their actions harm no one, the reality is that they hurt everyone—homeowners, communities, businesses, and schools. 

Kaufman provides information that graffiti contributes to lost revenue associated with reduced ridership on transit systems, reduced retail sales, and declines in property value.

In addition, the presence of graffiti generates the perception of blight and heightens fear of gang activity, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.1 Even the appearance of graffiti is often perceived by residents and passers-by as a sign that a downward spiral has begun.

Kaufman also points out that patrons or the staff of facilities that suffer graffiti vandalism may feel their safety is threatened. If graffiti are tolerated, then more serious crimes, such as theft or assault, may be encouraged.

While actual cost figures are elusive, Kaufman notes that for many communities, private-property owners, and public agencies, the amount dedicated to graffiti cleanup is rising, even as budgets shrink. “Larger cities, like Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, may spend anywhere from 3 [million] to 7 million dollars each year for cleanup and other related services,” Kaufman relates. Even smaller cities cite annual counter-graffiti program budgets of several hundred-thousand dollars.

The Cost Of Battling Graffiti

Heidi McAuliffe, Executive Director of the Graffiti Resource Council (GRC), also confirms that pinning down the cost of graffiti vandalism is a tough issue. However, in her research she notes that on a per capita basis, the cost can be from $1.10 to $5 per person, annually. 

“The amount of money spent at the municipal level is astounding,” she declares, noting that large cities generally spend more than smaller cities, but proportionately it works out to about the same per-person ratio. 

The GRC ( ) is designed to be a resource for communities that are battling graffiti vandalism.  “We are a nonprofit organization, and all of our services are free to city, county, and municipal governmental agencies,” McAuliffe asserts. “If there is any way that we can help the national, state, or local park systems, we would love to do so. It would be a great opportunity to collaborate on programs.”

One note: The link shown above for GRC actually takes one to the American Coatings Association, a non-profit organization working to advance the needs of the paint and coatings industry and the professionals who work in it.  GRC is sponsored by this organization and is found under the drop-down tab “Programs.”

While cost is often associated with graffiti cleanup and eradication, prevention and deterrent measures can often be effective at a much lower cost.

McAuliffe mentioned one project entitled “Convert A Can,” which is detailed on the GRC website under the “Cities In Action” page. The can program was designed specifically for parks and rec locations, where a group of volunteers paints over trash canisters and coverts them into works of art. “Many of these canisters are targets of graffiti vandalism, but once you turn them into a work of art, graffiti vandals tend to stay away from them,” she says, adding that this type of low-cost project can be done at any park across the country.

To aid parks and rec staff who may be struggling with ideas to prevent or eradicate graffiti, the GRC features an “Ask the Experts” page ( “If parks staff is looking for help, I can forward their questions to coating and restoration experts for suggestions,” she says. “These experts will respond with specific products or strategies to use.”

Related to that service, GRC also has the “Anti-Graffiti Marketplace” ( ),  an online, electronic catalogue of all products, services, and equipment that can be used to prevent or clean up graffiti vandalism, including information on anti-graffiti coatings, mobile equipment, and surveillance technologies.

One of the best ways to deter graffiti vandalism is to catch vandals in the act, bring them to justice, and dole out the appropriate punishment. Make examples of convicted vandals, and others with similar aspirations will scatter.

Silent But Vigilant In Graffiti Removal

Adam Curry has been the Quality of Life Program Manager for Keep Cincinnati Beautiful since May 2012. With a background and degree in criminal justice, he interned with the Cincinnati police department, where he made the contact that led to his position.

Curry cautiously told me that based on some key factors, graffiti vandalism is down substantially in Cincinnati; he is cautious because he doesn’t want to make too big a deal of it. He intentionally does not alert media every time there is an arrest and/or conviction of a vandal.

“One of the primary reasons graffiti vandals do what they do is for the attention,” he says. “For whatever reason, they think that tagging brings them some sort of recognition. So putting their names and photos in the media only encourages others to emulate them.”

When he first took the position, he was sent to Los Angeles to see what successful programs that city had. “They have a $7-million budget and contract the dedicated services to a non-profit,” he explains. “In Cincinnati, our city crews do the work, and we get to it as soon as possible.” 

Competing with all of the other jobs a city parks and rec or public services crew has to accomplish, graffiti removal is not always the top priority. However, Curry explains that the agency’s goal is to eradicate any sign of graffiti within 48 hours of its being reported.

Closely connected with the police department, he structures his response program around the five police districts in Cincinnati. “I try to ensure that the maintenance crews focus on one district at a time and not waste drive-time hopping from one to another,” he says. 

But deterrence is the key to success in Cincinnati. There have been nearly 40 arrests for graffiti vandalism since 2012, 18 of them last year. “Some of these were big taggers who were out there putting hundreds of tags on property throughout the year,” Curry says.

Cincinnati graffiti-removal programs use Sherwin Williams paint; in fact, Curry says the agency has a contractual agreement with the company. Sherwin Williams provides the equipment and sprayers, including the maintenance (and anyone who’s used that type of equipment knows the help is huge), and gives the community special pricing on the paint. “This arrangement works out very well for us,” Curry says.

He adds the program recently received a $5,000 grant to create “Graffiti-Free Zones” throughout the city. The grant provides graffiti-removal kits to businesses in different sectors of the city, empowering owners to remove graffiti in their zone of operation as soon as they appear.

This seems to work; Curry reports that overall there was a 65-percent reduction of graffiti since using the kits. In one area, there were 553 graffiti attacks in a year; the number was reduced to 112. Other areas of the city reported similar contrasts.

Separate But Similar

So while the words “graffiti” and “vandalism” have separate historical origins, they have become associated to identify a current and pervasive issue for parks and rec professionals. There are probably many different prevention and eradication programs that are successful and that could be helpful to other professional maintenance people. If you have such a program, please share it with me or the editor so we can further promote it in the magazine and online at  

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email