China has a graffiti problem.
Or, more specifically, The Great Wall has a graffiti problem.
It’s not really surprising that people have visited the Great Wall for centuries and left their names etched into the bricks—it’s what people do. The Chinese approach to managing this graffiti may be more clever than functional, but it does suggest that we don’t always need buckets of grey paint.
The Great Wall Solution is to meet people halfway. Now, you’ll find large, removable sheets of plastic attached to certain sections of the wall, on which you can write to your heart’s content. When the sheets are filled, they are replaced. And while this doesn’t provide the same sense of permanence that etching into millennia-old stone gives, this tactic is certainly more creative-- and cheaper-- than a strict policy of graffiti removal.
The city of Wichita spends a fairly substantial amount of money on graffiti removal—$500,000 in 2008 and 2009 alone. And this doesn’t even include the money and time spent by business or homeowners who find their property vandalized: the removal of that graffiti is the responsibility of the property owner.
The most common method of removal is called “buffing." It's the application of a square of paint, roughly the same color as the tagged wall. Although cheap paint is cheap paint, and the main point is to cover the graffiti quickly and effectively.
While the theory is that by quickly covering up graffiti, you deter future vandalism by making your wall a “bad wall” to paint, in practice, this only begins a curious life-cycle of the wall: from clean, to vandalized, and back to clean, over and over again.
A more radical approach to mitigating graffiti might be to consider a blank wall as always already painted, and not at the beginning of this life cycle, but somewhere in the middle. Responses to vandalism then become less of a futile attempt to return the wall to its original state, and more about understanding the wall as a dialogue-- choosing the next layer of paint with an eye towards positively contributing to that conversation, rather than shutting it down entirely.
An excerpt from the tongue-in-cheek documentary The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal