Graffiti Paint Removal: Tips For Getting Graffiti Off A Tree

Graffiti Paint Removal: Tips For Getting Graffiti Off A Tree

By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist

We’ve all seen it on the sides of buildings, railcars, fences, and other vertical flat services, but what about trees? Graffiti paint removal on non-living surfaces requires some serious elbow grease and some fairly caustic chemicals, but it can be accomplished. When graffiti “artists” hit your trees, getting the paint off can be a bit more challenging. We’ll give you some tips on how to remove graffiti paint from trees without damaging the plant or the environment.

Methods of Graffiti Paint Removal

Freedom of speech is an inalienable right, but does it have to occur on your trees? When graffiti taggers hit your trees, the result is not only unsightly but it can convey unsavory messages. Additionally, some paints can cause toxic damage to trees and clog the lenticels which are necessary for tree respiration. Getting graffiti off a tree safely requires some scrubbing and careful monitoring of the plant’s health.

There are many graffiti removers on the market, but some of them pose respiratory and even cancerous issues to you, and toxic or chemical problems with the tree. Removing graffiti paint on trees requires a more deft touch than simply blasting it off a building. You must be careful of the bark and outer tissue of the plant.

Traditional graffiti removers have caustic ingredients which cannot only burn the skin and respiratory system of the user, but can also cause damage to the tree. One that is deemed safe enough on most trees is Graffiti Gone. It claims to remove spray paint, marker, pen and other surface marring items without damage to you or the tree.

Methods such as scrubbing or pressure washing can be used on trees with caution. Smaller trees will need to be hand scrubbed while a pressure washer on low setting can be used to remove graffiti paint on trees with large trunk girth.

Mechanically Getting Graffiti off a Tree

It may take some practice to use a pressure washing tool to remove paint on trees. Step well away from the tree initially to make sure that each spray stroke is not doing any damage. The general rule is to use the washer on medium to low and step at least 3 feet (1 m.) away from the trunk. If necessary, gradually step in towards the plant, always assessing for any bark or cambium damage. Only use a pressure washer on trees with thick bark such as hornbeam, chestnut, locust, oak, and cottonwood.

Other than pressure washing and good old-fashioned scrubbing, another method to try is sanding. Use a light sandpaper, such as a 400 grit, and hand sand the painted area. Do not use a power sander, as more bark and wood will be removed than necessary. Use a polishing motion on the lettering until it fades or is removed completely.

How to Remove Graffiti Paint on Trees Naturally

Getting graffiti off a tree without doing harm to it or the environment is possible. Use a citrus based graffiti remover or degreaser which is widely available at hardware stores and some supermarkets. These have active ingredients which are completely natural, such as orange oil.

For recent graffiti, apply the remover and let it sit on the area for up to an hour before rubbing and rinsing. Older graffiti will need a longer soak and possibly several treatments to fade the letters completely. The treatment will work best if it is agitated with a nylon or other soft bristle brush.

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Graffiti Removal in Eight Steps

The cleaning agent you will use for graffiti removal depends on the surface material to be cleaned, like wood, vinyl, aluminum, glass or masonry. Read on to learn how to effectively remove graffiti from masonry.

Prepare the Area

Gather the necessary materials. Spread drop cloths or plastic tarps, and use masking tape and plastic sheets to cover surfaces not meant to be cleaned. Have hand-cleaner and safety goggles at the ready, as well as rubber gloves, rags, stiff wire brushes, and scrapers.

Work Down

Make sure the surface is dry and clean before you begin. Start from the top of the surface and finish at the bottom, catching any running or streaking fluids as you work your way down.

Identify the Graffiti

Pressure-washing is found to be most effective in removing chalk graffiti. Spray paint will usually require some type of solvent, cleaner or abrasive. Baking soda-based products, paint thinner, acetone and WD-40 have been known to work on concrete and brick surfaces.

Sometimes the trial and error method is the best approach. The first attempt should be with the least-invasive method available. This might include using a high-pressure washer (1000 to 3500 PSI) to remove graffiti from unadorned concrete. Carved masonry or architectural brickwork, however, might be vulnerable to pressures above 500 PSI. Use hot water and a wide-angle fan-type nozzle, as opposed to a concentrated jet-type spray, which can damage some surfaces.

Use a Combination

Sometimes it is best to use a solvent in addition to a pressure-washer. Apply the solution to the surface and let it settle in before using the pressure washer.

Work Large Areas

Do not focus on the graffiti itself, as this may permanently etch or 'shadow' the graffiti outline into the surface.

Apply a Preventative Coating

A non-sacrificial, permanent coating is unaffected by the graffiti removal process, while a sacrificial coating would have to be continually replaced. An example of the former is CPU 647 Barrier Coating, a waterborne polyurethane consisting of 2 compounds that are mixed together before use. Once applied, it forms a protective barrier and prevents additional coatings or markings from adhering to the surface without a solid bond, they are easier to dissolve.


If all else fails, you can re-paint, but you will have to re-paint the entire surface. You may have to apply multiple coats to prevent the image from bleeding through.

Before attacking graffiti yourself, consult a graffiti-removal contractor or specialist. Local governments and municipalities will remove graffiti from public buildings, but it is the responsibility of the owner to maintain private property. There are often volunteer groups within the community that will assist homeowners with graffiti removal.

Graffiti Taggers Turn to Trees, With Some Possibly Harmful Effects

Outside Elixir bar in the Mission district of San Francisco, graffiti taggers have left their mark — not on the wall, but on the living. Every tree on that 16th Street block has been spray-painted in shades of purple, red, white and black.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would think that’s O.K.,” said Shea Shawnson, the bar manager. “What do you do to clean up a tree without messing it up?”

In a city where graffiti abatement is swift — property owners are fined if graffiti is not immediately removed, and the city spends $20 million on the problem — taggers have discovered a way to ensure that their mark has staying power. Graffiti, taggers believe, is not easily covered or removed from trees without harming them.

The vandalism has angered residents, and possibly threatened the health of some trees, which are remarkably rare in San Francisco because very few tree species are indigenous. The tagging also appears to violate one of the tenets of the graffiti subculture: it is supposed to be a reaction to urban life, not an attack on nature.

“It’s an insult to the tree,” said Jeremy Novy, a local street artist. “It has nothing to do with urbanization.”

Mr. Novy is well known for his stencil art of koi fish that have become ubiquitous on city sidewalks. He has painted at least 3,000 in the past few years, often at the request of property owners. Mr. Novy is also an instructor at First Amendment Gallery in SoMa, where graffiti art is taught.

“Graffiti artists look for areas where it’s hard to reach or remove,” Mr. Novy said. As for the trees, “That’s them finding a different surface that’s difficult to cover over or remove,” he said.

The police reviewed several images of the graffiti for The Bay Citizen and said it was not gang-related or drug turf insignia.

“To me they appear to be individual tags or monikers,” said Officer Martin Ferreira, who investigates graffiti crimes.

The extent of tree defacement is unknown. The city has applied to the state for money to inventory the city’s trees, but it is unclear when or if that project will happen.

Trees in other neighborhoods have also been hit with graffiti, including the Ocean View area in the south of the city.

It is also not the first time taggers have targeted trees. “Three or four years ago, there was a rash of it in the Mission,” said Dan Flanagan, executive director of Friends of the Urban Forest, a nonprofit group that plants and cares for trees in the city. “Then it went away.”

Mr. Flanagan was dismayed to hear that the problem was back.

Trees play a crucial role in the city’s ecosystem, reducing air pollution and absorbing rainwater to prevent dirty street runoff from entering the bay. But it takes decades for trees to become mature enough to have this impact, and the city’s unusually foggy climate and other factors (including vandalism) kill 20 percent of newly planted trees. That makes existing trees, especially older ones, far more precious than many realize.

San Francisco has one of the sparsest tree canopy covers in the nation, ranked 22 out of 23 similar cities surveyed by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service in 2007. Only Chicago was ranked lower.

“It takes 20 to 30 years for a tree to really give back,” Mr. Flanagan said. “It takes only a few minutes to destroy it.”

But the city has a message for those who believe that tagging trees will give their graffiti permanence: you’re barking up the wrong you-know-what.

“With many species of trees, a wire brush and mild soap and water can get graffiti off,” said Carla Short, an urban forester with the San Francisco Department of Public Works. “With most trees, it’s actually easier than cleaning a building,” Ms. Short added.

Trees with smooth bark, like ficuses, might be more vulnerable to damage from removing graffiti, but Ms. Short said that steel wool would most likely work on those species, and that in some cases limited use of painting over graffiti would probably not cause much harm.

Indeed, along 16th Street some ficus trees have had their graffiti painted over.

“Trees are so beautiful in and of themselves,” Mr. Flanagan said. “They don’t need taggers to add to that beauty.”

How to Remove Graffiti

While Graffiti is a form of expression that looks incredibly artistic on street walls, it’s never quite appreciated on a building, and it probably wouldn’t receive as much appreciation! If you’re not responsible for exterior maintenance make sure you tell the facility manager if any graffiti appears on the building. If it is your responsibility, this blog on how to remove graffiti will guide you in the right direction.

How to remove graffiti tips:

Using a high-pressure system might seem the most logical way to remove graffiti, but it can cause damage to certain materials. Knowing the type of paint used and the material it is on is key to helping you remove the graffiti.

Baking-soda-based products can help restore vast areas of masonry, brick, concrete and other surfaces. But how it is applied can depend on the results.

When removing spray paint, regardless of method, work from the outside, rather than across the stain. That way, the spot doesn’t spread to clean areas.

On any surface, using abrasive materials too aggressively can leave the graffiti’s pattern scratched or shadowed into the surface. There is a particular method to use to ensure that you do not leave any obvious traces of the graffiti ever being there.

Prepare to clean

Gather the necessary materials before you begin. You will need plastic tarps, sheets, and masking tape hold down and cover surfaces that do not require cleaning. Safety is critical, so ensure you have rubber gloves and safety goggles at the ready. Equipment such as brushes and scrapers will come in handy!

From top to bottom

Make sure the surface is dry and clean from dirt before beginning the graffiti removal process. Work your way down from the top of the surface and finish at the bottom, catching any liquid as you work you clean.

Spray or Chalk?

Knowing how to remove graffiti depends on which type of graffiti it is. Chalk-based graffiti is best removed using pressure washers. However, spray paint will usually need some cleaner or abrasive such as baking soda-based products, paint thinner and acetone to work on masonry. The method of removal depends on the surface which the paint is on.

Test and test again

Ease into the process and use the first attempt to trial and error. To begin, use the least-invasive method possible such as soap and water moving up to pressure washers. Why? Because materials such as brickwork might show vulnerability to high pressure-washers, whereas concrete is a lot more hardy in its nature.

Don’t start small

Take concentration away from the graffiti and focus on the bigger picture. You should clean the whole area rather than focusing on just the graffiti as it may permanently leave the graffiti outline on the brickwork.

Prevention is better than cure

Apply a protective coating after the removal process as this will form a safeguarded barrier, preventing additional graffiti from sticking to the surface with a protective layer, it is much easier to remove.

The last resort

If none of the above works, repainting is a good last resort, if you have the time to repaint the entire surface. You may even have to apply multiple coats to prevent the image from coming through.

Before you discover how to remove graffiti yourself, you should discuss your situation with a graffiti-removal contractor. Local governments and towns are responsible for removing graffiti from public buildings, but it is the responsibility of the owner to maintain private property.

Hiring a specialist to remove the graffiti for you can save you time and money in the long run. Graffiti removal can be tiresome, and busy landlords won’t have the time or energy to invest in the process. The cost of hiring a specialist will not only give back time but also the money you’d spend and miss out on where you could be completing other tasks.

Taskforce clean graffiti from all types of surfaces including:

  • Brickwork
  • Stone surfaces
  • Masonry
  • Glass
  • Painted putty or Rubber seals
  • Painted woodwork or PVC frames
  • Windows
  • Perspex
  • Woodwork

Our removal system deals with graffiti on painted surfaces, brickwork, or ‘ghost’ image as a result of the graffiti seeping into the texture of the material. The use of our low-pressure system means that we can remove graffiti from any surface safely.

Taskforce UK is one of the South of England’s leading height access specialists providing cleaning and maintenance services across the region. We can eliminate any worries you may have, by taking on the risks of working at height for you.

Graffiti Abatement

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Coordinated through the Garden Grove Public Works Department, the City removes graffiti from public sidewalks and walls that face the Public Right of Way. We do not remove graffiti from private property, such as businesses, apartment, townhomes/condos, private residences or garage doors. To report graffiti on private property, please contact Code Enforcement at (714) 741 - 5358.

To report graffiti on public property for removal, please call our Graffiti Hotline at (714) 741 - 5381 or you can report it online by visiting Citizen Requests Page

If you are interested in obtaining information on the paint colors we use, please call us at (714) 741 - 5372.