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Removing graffiti a true art form

By Jeff Cota

Armed with spray paint, markers or any number of preferred ways of applying messages or decorations, a graffitist leaves an “I was here” imprint on a street sign, building or parking garage.

Some call it art. Milwaukee calls it vandalism.

It usually disappears within 24 hours. A team of graffiti removers, armed with soda blasters, elbow grease and a little magic, wipes it away.

Some call it graffiti eradication. It’s actually an art form.

“There is an art to removing graffiti,” said Beth Nichols Weirick, of Downtown Milwaukee Business Improvement District No. 21. “It’s a lot more extensive than people think it is.”

It’s tedious to be sure.

A 10-foot-by-10-foot area can take an hour to clean thoroughly. Graffiti-removal gurus identify the makeup of the vandalized surface and the substance used by the graffitist. This helps determine the removal method, otherwise, “You can create a bigger mess,” said Michael Van Alstine, neighborhood improvement project director at the Milwaukee Christian Center.

“We’ve learned the hard way,” he said. “If you use the wrong chemical, you can pit or melt (a surface).”

For instance, on most buildings, Van Alstine’s organization, which removes graffiti for both the BID and the city, prefers soda blasting — using compressed air to shoot baking soda in some form at the offending message.

“The advantage for us is that baking soda is water soluble,” he said. “We can run it wet or dry. It’s more effective wet. It’s softer than sand, so we can use it on historical buildings.”

Soda blasting isn’t perfect, though. Cleaning Milwaukee’s signature Cream City brick, for instance, can be tricky. Soda blasting will remove the graffiti, but it also might alter the brick’s texture or knock away loose mortar. Then, there are ghost images to contend with, like an eradicated stain’s outline that stubbornly remains on a shirt.

“You try to blend,” Van Alstine said. “Typically what you have to do is remove the graffiti, and then remove a little less in adjacent areas.”

In 1993, the city launched an aggressive anti-graffiti program that has become so successful that several cities have adopted Milwaukee’s eradication guidelines.

“Rarely do you see graffiti here,” Weirick said. “We, the BID, make it our objective to keep graffiti off public and private buildings.”

The quicker the graffiti is removed the better, said Todd Weiler, Certifications & Communications Coordinator for Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services.

“Past experience tells us that graffiti that is up for more than 24 hours tends to encourage taggers,” he said.

“If it’s not tolerated, taggers stay away,” Weirick added. “They want it to stay up as long as possible. It’s really like a billboard for them.”

It’s an expensive undertaking.  The city budgets $175,000 a year to remove graffiti. In its infancy, the BID spent more than $30,000 annually. Since joining the city’s no-tolerance stance, graffiti volume has dropped dramatically. In turn, the price tag has plummeted to about $8,000.

“Business districts want to make sure that their businesses are inviting and their neighborhoods are places you want to come into,” Van Alstine said. “It’s important that it didn’t look like we were there.”

The true artist creates not for the public, but for himself. Whereas the graffitist’s only possible motive is to show off, Van Alstine is pleased that no one but he knows he created beauty by erasing its opposite.

Jeff Cota is a copy editor at The Daily Reporter. For tips and guidelines to prevent and remove graffiti, visit or call the city’s anti-graffiti hotline at 414-286-8715.

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