Trying to get rid of graffiti? Whether you use Lift Away, Krud Kutter, Wipe Out, TSW (This Stuff Works), Lift Off, or Goof Off depends on what kind of graffiti removal project you're dealing with.
by John Strieder
The wall was not protected by an antigraffiti coating. How do you clean it when cleaning it means, essentially, stripping paint off paint?
Can such a thing even be done? It depends on whom you ask.
Hy Dubin, president of Dumond Chemicals Inc., says no. Paint removers can be strong, but they are not smart, he says. Anything that dissolves graffiti paint will also attack the original painted surface underneath. “You can’t tell a stripping product to take this off and then stop.”
But Peter Dawson, president of Supreme Chemicals Of Georgia Inc., disagrees. He says his company’s Krud Kutter Graffiti Remover will remove spray paint and other graffiti from unprotected surfaces.
“Krud Kutter Graffiti Remover contains a special blend of surfactants that penetrate graffiti, but do not damage the integrity of the paint surface behind the graffiti,” he says. “It contains a blocking agent which prevents the cleaning chemicals from attacking the paint underneath.”
Like any stain, graffiti is easier to remove if remover is applied quickly, he says. “However, Krud Kutter Graffiti Remover will remove practically any type of graffiti, even where it has been on the surface for months or even years.”
Dumond’s Lift Away, a citrus-based graffiti remover, will go easier on a painted surface than the company’s heavy-duty Wipe Out remover, Dubin says, but it is not as powerful or foolproof. “It could be a struggle. Sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t work. Wipe Out, 95 percent of the time it will work.”
Lift Away can be applied on the graffiti itself, mark by mark, minimizing damage to the painted surface, Dubin says. But if a shadow of the tag is left behind, Wipe Out will be needed to remove the shadow, and again, the original paint will pay a price. “If you think you’re going to get graffiti off without hurting the paint underneath, you’re looking for a miracle.”
This Stuff Works Inc. makes three graffiti removers with different specialties, and one of the three might work removing paint from paint. “The key is removing graffiti from a substrate without damaging what you’re removing it from,” says This Stuff Works owner Drew Lindner. “That’s why there’s no such thing as one for everything.”
TSW-1 Plasti-Master is an alcohol-based product designed to lift graffiti off hard, flat surfaces without migrating through the graffiti paint. TSW-3 Mason-Master, with potassium hydroxide, is corrosive, designed to penetrate into pores that gentler strippers pass over. “You need much harsher solvents for brick, something that is going to get in there and penetrate, than you will for plastic,” Lindner says.
In the middle is TSW-2 Multi-Master, a mixture of solvents that removes paint a layer at a time. This would be the best choice of the three to remove a graffiti tag from an unprotected painted surface.
How can TSW products tell the difference between graffiti and original paint? There are ways, Lindner says. Latex comes off easier than oil, so latex graffiti paint will come off before oil wall paint. Sometimes, just solvent with a rag will get rid of the marks. The solvent will soften the original paint, but not destroy it.
As with paint, different products may need to be tried on a test area first, Lindner says. “Products are not going to work every time on every surface. Sometimes you have to use Multi and Mason together. You need to get up to the surface and see what’s working with different porosities.”
Lindner also says that his company’s products are best used on smaller tags, such as a 2-foot-by-2-foot patch that, if painted over, would result in an unsightly square.
If the graffiti in question is spread across a 10-foot-by-20-foot area, he recommends repainting. “With the big stuff you’re better off just sealing and repainting because it’s much less expensive.”
Tags ought to be removed quickly as a matter of strategy, because leaving them up inspires other taggers to make their mark alongside the first one. But letting graffiti sit creates chemical complications as well. Graffiti paint, like all paint, cures over time. “As a rule the sooner you can get to it, the easier it can come off,” Lindner says.
Sometimes a cleaner will not remove graffiti after just one month, he says. Other times it will work after a year. “It’s consistently inconsistent. Once you start working with it, you learn the kinds of areas where you can and can’t do things.”
One thing that distinguishes graffiti removers from each other is how they attack the offending mark. For example, take Motsenbocker’s Lift Off, described by chemist Gregg Motsenbocker as one of the only biodegradable, Scientific Certification Systems-certified products of its kind in the world.
Acrylic, enamel and oil-based coatings have one thing in common, he says: linkage. They are held together by a glue that links the molecules laterally as the material cures. “The way everyone else removes paint is they melt and dissolve the glue,” says Motsenbocker, who is also president of Motsenbocker Advanced Developments Inc. The biodegradable material mixes with the paint to create a “gelatinous toxic sludge,” he says. “The citrus guys do it, the green guys do it.”
Instead of combining with the coating, Lift Off, a water-based stripper, migrates through it and breaks the molecular bonds between it and the substrate. When Lift Off is finished, the paint looks like crinkled skin on the back of the hand, and it can simply be pulled off.
But because of how Lift Off works, it may not help taking paint off paint. “If a wall is already painted, we tell people, just don’t use our stuff,” Motsenbocker says. “(Repainting is) the cheapest, easiest way to solve the problem.”
Bryan Benson, marketing director for consumer brands at Valspar Corp., makers of Goof-Off products, points out an important fact to remember when removing graffiti from an unprotected painted surface: You can always do a little at a time to minimize the damage. “Antigraffiti products are basically spray-and-wipe-off-with-a-rag,” he says. “If you don’t remove enough you can go ahead and continue with the process.”
The task will be affected by how long the graffiti has been sitting on the surface and whether climate has affected curing time. “We tend to see it being removed, at the latest, anywhere from four to seven days later to have any chance,” Benson says.
A graffiti removal product is typically going to be a solvent-based or specialty cleaner that is stronger than one made to soften lipstick or crayon, he says. Goof-Off graffiti remover soaks in from the top down, breaking down the graffiti that way.
Then the user wipes it off, which, again, may be the most crucial step when minimizing damage to the original paint. Apply the coating over the whole area surrounding the tag, Benson says, but when wiping with a rag, only rub the graffiti mark. If the worker uses only a little remover at a time, the tag may be removed gradually while taking off as little of the surrounding paint as possible.
“You do have to be careful as you’re rubbing with your rag so you don’t get into the original substrate,” Benson says. “You’re going to have to experiment with it. As you continue to use it, you have to know when to stop.”
If you do too much damage to the original paint, of course, there is always repainting.
Frankly, that may be the easiest way to solve the problem. But a graffiti remover at least provides a possible alternative to giving up on the original coat.
“This is a solution,” Benson says. “It may not be the best solution because there are so many other factors out there. But it is a start.”