A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2021


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Barcroft Neighborhood Graffiti Patrol

Keeping our neighborhood clean!


Sometime during the dark winter of 1995 the marks of a local gang appeared on a Barcroft stop sign at 8th Street and Buchanan, and on three Barcroft sidewalks. We did not recognize the marks as gang-related, but Arlington’s finest eventually informed us they were the work of a gang based just outside our neighborhood. The graffiti was their tag, denoting that they considered our neighborhood their territory.

We called the police graffiti line, and they said they would check it out. They did, but nothing happened to the graffiti. We called again and they said they had photographed the graffiti, but the property owner is responsible for removing sidewalk graffiti, and we should contact the Signs Division of Arlington County Public Works to have the sign replaced. We did, but nothing happened.

At about the same time, someone stapled signs all over the neighborhood for a barbershop on Wilson Boulevard. We were annoyed. Pole signs are for yard sales, lost cats, leaf collection schedules and such, not for general business ads. Real estate agents push the envelope, but by County ordinance they are required to remove their signs after a weekend open house. If many of Arlington’s 15,000 businesses stapled signs to the poles at our street corners, we would have a really ugly neighborhood.

Enter the Barcroft School and Civic League (BSCL) Graffiti Squad. We removed the signs. More satisfying was removing the gang graffiti, which we did with a product called Goof Off. Reading the can showed that Goof Off is actually Xylene (Xylol) a solvent available by the quart at your local hardware store if you had a local hardware store. With either chemical and a wire brush we cleaned the sidewalks and actually got the paint off the stop sign as well. (Xylene is thought by the State of California to be a carcinogen, so we use heavy rubber gloves and hold our breath.) Then we discovered graffiti from yet another gang on the rock at the base of 9th Street where pedestrians and bicycles enter the park. We got that off too. What fun! Next was a wall on George Mason Drive. The County had refused to remove the graffiti there, even though the County had constructed the wall, so we did it. The log above notes subsequent occasions. As time went by we discovered that a wire brush alone without solvent works best on wood. For smoother surfaces we use paper towels, steel wool or 3M's abrasive pads with a solvent to float away debris. We have now moved on to less toxic solvents (see Methods below), doing most of our work with acetone (active ingredient in nail polish remover). We bought some paint at Home Depot to match the grey on the powerline pylons, which were beginning to look like patchwork.
We understand that prompt removal of graffiti is important in controlling its spread. If you see graffiti appear in your corner of our neighborhood, be aware that those are probably not random markings, but a gang tagging its territory, even if they seem to be nonsense markings. Get them off. Or drop us an email to graffiti@bscl.org and we will pass the word to the Graffiti Patrol. Now that Arlington County has its own graffiti hotline up, you can even report graffiti to them if you see it in other neighborhoods. They will remove it from public property, or send a letter to the owner if it is on private property. (We don't make that distinction--we just remove graffiti wherever we find it. So far that has not caused any problems.) Arlington's Graffiti Hotline is the police non-emergency number, 703-358-2222. Or for parks, call 703-228-6525. The County says they have improved the response, and some people have reported getting good results from them, but we have not yet, so we just keep taking the graffiti off.



After some months of using mainly wire brushes and xylene, we began experimenting with several other less dangerous chemicals and other abrasives. We have found a citrus paint stripper called Citristrip to be more effective than xylene for removing paint from porous concrete. We have also had good success with paint thinner. But our most useful solvent now is nail polish remover (acetone). We buy it in gallon jugs for $9, and also find it in foil-wrapped pads available in grocery stores and pharmacies. Even an alcohol swab works fine for magic marker.

Another non-toxic experiment was Go-Jo Natural Orange Pumice Hand Cleaner. It works well for some things. We are reserving Xylene for the worst jobs. The fumes seem highly toxic even when used outdoors, and there is a warning label on the can stating that California found it could cause cancer. We have also been advised to use liquid caustics, which cause spray paint resins to craze or wrinkle, a technique to prevent the partly dissolved paint from being reabsorbed back into the substrate (avoids staining or ghosting). In addition, we are told that 1.1.1 trichlorethane removes ball point pen ink, but we prefer hair spray for that. Alcohols work best on markers, EB or DB on mean streak paint sticks, and glycerin is said to be best for adhesive labels (We use paint thinner or acetone for that).
We received and have used a sample of Redi-Kwik 100.1 Graffiti Remover, a product containing menthadiene (chemical name, 4-isopropenyl-1-methycyclohexane. Common names: citrus terpenes, orange terpenes, menthadiene). It is a colorless liquid by-product of citrus, entirely of natural origin. The literature accompanying our sample recommends gloves, goggles, a breathing apparatus and good ventilation. But the salesman (Pierce Fitchett, 410-381-8400) thinks the product is non-toxic, and the manufacturer is using precautionary language in case the product excites allergies. He noted that it can melt some plastics, so you have to be careful where you use it. We tried it to remove ghosting left after removal of paint from a concrete patch, and later to remove paint from concrete. It does dissolve paint, but the results were about like other solvents we have used, and the stuff burns if it gets on your skin. Probably worth a try if you don't want to use petroleum-based solvents. The County is now using a product called Scuff, but have not tried it yet.


More recently we found Klean-Strip Graffiti Remover in a local store. It is product GA-166 by W.M.Barr and Co. Among other ingredients, it contains some apparently nasty stuff called Methylene Chloride, another carcinogenic chemical that can also cause "neurological and physiological damage." Whew! We used it outdoors on a rock, and it worked really well, bubbling up the paint that had been very difficult to remove with Xylene and a wire brush. You just have to wear heavy rubber gloves, stand upwind and hold your breath. We'll reserve this one for the "impossible" jobs.
Our favorite abrasive for concrete, stone and wood is a wire brush. For signs and other surfaces where a wire brush is too harsh we like 3M's scouring pad known as Scotch Brite Scour Pads or sold in hardware stores as 000 steel wool replacement. We use it with nail polish remover. It is amazingly effective that way, with a pad of nail polish remover on the surface, covered by the 3M pad and vigorously scrubbed.

Our bicyclist's graffiti kit now has four Clinipad nail polish remover pads, two alcohol swabs, a 2 inch square of 3M scouring pad and two paper towels, all tucked into a zipper sandwich bag. It slides in your pocket and weighs less than an ounce. It has handled almost everything we have seen that you would attack with a pocket kit of any kind. Add a four inch section of wire brush and you are prepared for tougher jobs. Our shoulder bag kit has a full-size wire brush, alcohol, water, acetone, xylene, scouring pads, water, paper towels, rubber gloves, and now some of the new citrus-based cleaners.



Signs are a constant problem. Arlington County sign regulations permit real estate signs on public rights-of-way between sundown Friday and sundown Sunday. On Monday morning, they are unlawful, so we remove them. Ditto for stale yard sale signs--down on Monday. We also remove illegal diet plan signs, political signs and other advertising signs on public property. They are all unlawful here from Sunday sundown to Friday sundown. The poles make good kindling, and the cardboard or paper can now be recycled in the mixed paper bag. Unfortunately the plastic ones with the metal stakes can not be recycled, so if you are a real estate agent careless about picking up your signs, please use the wood-and-cardboard ones.

Pole Sign Remover

One of our challenges is getting to the signs that are nailed high up on telephone poles in an effort to make them difficult to remove. This is a simple device designed to be carried in a bicyclist's handlebar bag. It consists of a nine inch piece of lightweight aluminum tubing or pvc plastic pipe, and about 25 feet of nylon parachute cord. We used an old tv antenna mast for the tubing, but hardware stores have pvc pipe laughably cheap. Parachute cord comes from hardware or surplus stores, or on the Internet from places like Countycomm. Actually, any reasonably strong rope will do, but the parachute cord is very strong for its weight. Cut the tubing to a 9 inch length or longer to make sure you can hold it with both hands. Run the cord through the tube and tie it securely. Roll the cord around the tube and use a rubber band to keep it from unraveling in your pack.
When you need to remove a pole sign that has been nailed way up there, just unroll the cord, hold the end in one hand, and toss the tube up and over the sign. Then roll the free end of the cord around one end of the tube, grab it with both hands, and pull that sucker down! If the sign is stubbon, yanks work better to dislodge the nails than steady pressure. Some signs are harder than others, but we have not yet failed to bring one down with enough persistance.

For the b-boys:

We have read Bomb the Suburbs and have some understanding of the subculture. We are not expecting to "stop" graffiti. We keep our neighborhood clean, especially the parks, and buffing tags is just part of that. It leaves a nice clean surface for the next b-boy to work on! When it comes to gang tags, we just do not tolerate that.


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