The Intricacies (and Brilliance!) of Graffiti Removal

It’s Wednesday morning. Middle of January.

I’m on the trail with a group of 20, talking about rock formations and geological age. As I walk towards the first ramada along our tour, I take a step back.  The interpretive signs are covered with paint, words have been sprayed on the cement and there’s more spray paint on the support poles.

“Jonathan to Park Ranger Cassy,” I asked on the radio. “Can you report graffiti along the Judith Tunell trail near our petroglyph ramada?”

“Sure,” she said. “Can you take some pictures for me to send in an email?” 

Just a few minutes later, the chain of command began for restoring the signage, cement and metal paint damaged the night before.

Flash forward to the weekend. I’m back on the trail on a crisp, Sunday morning at 8:11 a.m. with Justin Olson, Park Ranger II. Olson has worked at South Mountain for over a decade and serves on the City of Phoenix Natural Resource Division’s anti-graffiti task force. As a member of the task force, Olson is part of a team that coordinates graffiti removal efforts amongst Natural Resources Division staff and the City of Phoenix archaeologist when damage occurs in locations with historic or archeological significance. In an era where natural resource management has moved beyond just painting over graffiti, our City of Phoenix partners take a holistic and detailed approach to the challenge.

Every time graffiti is reported in the park, particularly on natural petroglyps, Park Rangers document the affected site – GPS coordinates, written report, photographs – and submit this information to the Phoenix police department. The police department catalogs all graffiti information in a centralized database to look for trends and patterns between graffiti found throughout the city. This information has led to successful prosecution of offenders in the past.

Graffiti removal at South Mountain Park has a long and rather unique history. Unlike many neighborhood parks and other urban spaces, the cultural significance of petroglyphs throughout the South Mountain creates increased demands upon the nature of graffiti reporting and abatement efforts. Our Park Rangers encounter graffiti on a nearly daily basis at Dobbins Lookout, a popular location for spectacular views of downtown Phoenix. Parking barricades, curbs, stop signs and other everyday objects are often vandalized. Yet when objects of cultural or historic significance are affected, the reporting and treatment process becomes more complex – particularly near the northeast corner of the park (48th St) where petroglyph panels and surrounding sites with Hohokam remnants are cataloged by the Arizona State Museum. In those locations, Park Rangers and the City Archaeologist must coordinate with the State Museum before any graffiti removal may occur.  

Olson and the anti-graffiti task force has experimented with various solutions to treat archaeologically significant surfaces in the park. This morning, he is using a specialized citrus-based solvent called “Elephant Snot” to remove spray paint from cement on our Judith Tunell trail. Elephant Snot was first used by the Park Ranger team a few years ago at the recommendation of Bureau of Land Management and Arizona State parks archeologists. While mildly caustic, Elephant Snot does not damage the patina of the rock or cause bleaching. Justin delicately strokes the very thick, viscous liquid onto the cement with a wide 4” brush, checking the time to make sure it has 15 – 30 minutes to “set” and soak into the porosity before rinsing with a hand pump-sprayer water tank. On this chilly morning, it takes Olson longer than on hot summer days; Elephant Snot activates more quickly and effectively in higher temperatures. Luckily, the graffiti he’s removing today is light-colored, and comes off cleanly with only one application.  His anti-graffiti team is tracking locations where the Elephant Snot is used on archaeologically significant areas to monitor its effects on those surfaces over time.  

For paint on less porous surfaces, Olson uses an aerosol-based spray to tackle graffiti on places like our outdoor interpretive signage panels and metal structural posts. 

“Graffiti cracks and falls off with the spray,” mentions Jerry Owens, another South Mountain Park Ranger, when I ask him about it a few days later. “It’s pretty immediate – 30 seconds to one-and-a-half minutes when you let it sit on the surface.”

As a new member of the South Mountain team, I feel fortunate to work with our talented City of Phoenix Park Rangers. With over two million visitors a year, both intentional and unintentional damage to our environment is inevitable. The talented Park Rangers I work with each day help ensure South Mountain Park remains the special place it is for all.

And where else do you get to talk about Elephant Snot on the job?