Understanding graffiti

To understand what motivates taggers to deface public spaces requires a broad-brush, objective look at the psychology behind the action. With this insight – where it’s most likely to occur and why – property owners and asset managers can prevent property damage and recover quickly when it does occur, thereby ameliorating further attacks.

Whilst graffiti advocates perceive graffiti as a method of reclaiming public space, the rest of us regard it as expensive vandalism requiring repair of the damaged property. The act of graffiti can be viewed as a “quality of life” issue and its presence contributes to a general sense of social decline, a heightened fear of crime and devaluation of assets.

There are many reasons for graffiti. A lot of people involved in graffiti are teenagers. (In fact, most pure vandalism, which includes graffiti, tends to be committed by juveniles.) Taggers need their friends to know what they are capable of achieving at many levels. Creativity, danger of being caught, bravado, cavalier attitude, difficulty of access all play a part in establishing themselves in a hierarchy that is part of the graffiti subculture. Attackers rebel against authority and see their moniker as a way to publicly announce this attitude whilst receiving kudos from their peers for the method of delivery.
Defacing government and public property is a particularly effective way to get back at the establishment. Rather than tackle confrontational issues in a personal manner, graffiti vandals “vent” their anger and frustrations on an inanimate object that cannot defend itself against attack. It is a vicarious form of assault that leaves the attacker feeling empowered and satisfied…for the short-term.

Responding quickly to graffiti is a key element of prevention. Quick and consistent clean-up will deter graffiti vandals from returning.
“The faster we get the graffiti off and the better the job we do, the less likely it is to come back” says Steve Harris MD of Graffiti Solutions Ltd., New Zealand’s leading graffiti control company. “Essentially, we aim to leave no trace that graffiti has ever occurred.”

The reason for this reduction is because of a shift in the vandals’ environment.

A clean, graffiti-free environment sends out the message that vandalism is not appropriate here and would-be attackers are likely to respond to that message.
A prime example of this is within schools. Schools are a typical breeding-ground for taggers. There are many schools in New Zealand that have very few problems with graffiti. One Auckland secondary school which has a huge graffiti problem on the main campus, has absolutely no graffiti problem in the Ethnic Studies Unit. This, according to the facilities manager, is due to a zero-tolerance approach and mana for the building from the pupils who attend this unit.

Public spaces are prime targets for attack

By virtue of their nature, public spaces need to be accessible to the community, thus leaving themselves open to graffiti vandalism. Schools are particularly vulnerable at anytime, especially so at weekends and holidays when there are few authoritarian figures and witnesses around and the ennui of free time calls for more exciting pursuits.

There are two sorts of attack.

Random tagging and glass etching

Planned break-ins leading to wilful damage. At the high end of this scale is arson.

Generally, primary school attacks are not caused by current students. The perpetrators tend to be ex-pupils bearing a grudge or a highly developed sense of anti-establishment and a desire to be noticed by erstwhile students. The “signature” in the exercise book may be still recognisable as a stylised tag. Indeed, exercise book tagging may be the start of a career in tagging.

Asset owners and managers need to consider how to best deal with this ubiquitous problem.

Address potential attacks within vulnerable areas before attackers strike. Pre-empt the attack and evaluate your most cost-effective, productive course of action.

Sailing these unchartered waters can be a daunting prospect and best left to the experts.

There are many possible solutions, each with varying effectiveness and costs.

Access Denial

Vegetation Screening



Glass-etching and Security Films

Graffiti Protection Coatings

Subsequent Removal (maintenance)

One thing is for certain:- the faster a tag is removed, the less the exposure and gratification for the tagger. Rapid removal response times will result in the tagger feeling he/she is wasting their time and will eventually give up on a particular site and move on to another location where no counter-measures are in place.
International research on the effects of graffiti upon users of an environment shows huge gains in morale when a site becomes and stays graffiti-free. It is liberating and extremely satisfying to take back control of one’s own environment and encourages students to engage fully in “pride of place” behaviours.

Compiled by Steve Harris, Managing Director of Graffiti Solutions Ltd.

Steve has had 12 years’ experience in heading up New Zealand’s premier Graffiti control company and brings a vast amount of knowledge and expertise. He is regularly requested to speak at graffiti control forums and meets annually with a group of overseas specialists and suppliers in order to confirm Industry Best Practice Standards. As industry leaders, Steve and his technical team are often called upon to provide advice and consulting service to a diverse range of organisations.

Graffiti Solutions Projects
Tim Smith receiving Appreciation Award for Graffiti Solutions from Auckland Mayor, Len Brown
Tim Smith, Graffiti Solutions’ Operations Manager, receives an Appreciation Award for Graffiti Solutions from Auckland Mayor, Len Brown, at the Graffiti Vandalism Conference recently. The Award acknowledges GSL’s significant contribution toward graffiti vandalism prevention.

Understanding Graffiti

Graffiti Protection Systems


Accident Compensation Corporation
Eco Warranty
Eco Warranty Trademark
ISO 14001
AS/NZS 4801
ISO 9001
ISO 3100

ECNZ - Guardian Graffiti Shield