Removing Graffiti on Rock Surfaces

December 16, 2020
Jim LeMaire
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference


Removing Graffiti on Rock Surfaces


It’s a beautiful day and you’re out doing an inspection on a trail you maintain. You come around a bend in the path and suddenly you’re confronted by a horrifying sight: freshly-painted graffiti on a rock in an otherwise pristine area. After the shock and anger pass, what do you do? 

First, immediately document the graffiti, ideally by photographing it within the Avenza map app. This will allow you to find the location later when you are able to deal with the problem. Also, some graffiti may have features such as hashtags that would allow the vandal to be identified. In some areas, the Trail Conference works with law enforcement to provide evidence to allow them to take legal action against people defacing public property. If you are a current trail maintainer, contact your local leadership in order to obtain permission from the land manager for removal. If you're not a current trail maintainer and you'd like to assist in graffit removal, please contact [email protected]

Second, work quickly to address the issue, especially if the graffiti has obscene language or images. Besides degrading the hiking experience for others, the appearance of graffiti in a particular location may encourage others to do similar damage. On a recent spring day, I removed graffiti from eight stones and boulders on a short section of trail in the southern section of Norvin Green State Forest that appeared to be the work of at least two individuals.

In this article, I’ll share some of the techniques I’ve developed to restore graffiti-defaced rock surfaces to their former natural appearance. I’ve created a graffiti-remediation kit which includes the following:

  • Large stiff wire brush
  • Small soft wire brush
  • Utility scraper with a razor blade
  • Leather palm gloves
  • Safety glasses
  • 5 cans of spray paint in various matte/satin finish earth tones plus black
  • Paper towels
  • Plastic bucket to carry it all

As with painting trail blazes, you need the right weather conditions to be successful. Any rock surfaces you intend to paint will need to be dry and warm. Spray paint requires sustained temperatures between 50° and 90° F and under 65% humidity to adhere and dry correctly. To prevent excessive overblow, use spray paint on days with little to no wind.

Where possible, I attempt to remove the graffiti without painting. This is possible where the graffiti is lightly applied or faded. I find that scrubbing with my large stiff wire brush in multiple directions removes more paint and results in a more natural appearance. Also by not rubbing solely along the lines of the graffiti, you will avoid "engraving" the image into the rock.

Unfortunately using a wire brush alone may not be enough for many instances of painted graffiti. For locations where I have to paint over the graffiti, my goal is to restore the natural appearance of the rock so that someone hiking past will not notice the treatment. My technique involves three steps:

1. Surface Preparation: I take my wire brush and work on all painted areas of the graffiti. This will reduce the intensity of the image and also takes off any paint sheen if the vandal used glossy paint. This will allow for better paint coverage and adhesion in step two.

2. Paint Application: The key here is to match as much as possible the natural colors present on the rock. For our lichen-covered glacially deposited boulders, I have excellent results using earthy tans and greens. I currently use Rust-Oleum 2X Ultracover spray paint in Satin Fossil (tan) and Satin Oregano (drab green). The trick is to apply the paints in combinations of at least three colors in a mottled pattern. I'll spray the first one color, let it dry a bit, then spray another color around the areas of the first color, let that dry a bit, then add brown accents. I also take my wire brush and scrape over the wet areas to blend them together. Remember to spray from at least 6 - 12 inches away from the rock surface to achieve a well-blended effect. I don't find gray primer paint to be a good match for much of the stone in our areas but I do use it in moderation with other colors.

3. Naturalize Location: The last step I take if the area permits it is to "naturalize" the location by randomly placing sticks, logs, and leaves by the painted area. This further enhances the natural appearance because people's eyes are drawn to the sticks and not the painted rock behind it. I also believe this may reduce the temptation of other vandals in the future to put more graffiti there. I feel most graffiti is the result of impulsive acts and occurs when an easy target presents itself. By putting obstacles over the surface, you reduce the accessibility to it.

There are chemical graffiti removal treatments available but I do not recommend using them for two reasons. First, most require power washing after application. Most of us will not be able to bring such equipment into areas at any great distance from our vehicles. Also, there may be landowner restrictions against using them. Second and most importantly, I don’t want to introduce toxic substances in the environments I’m trying to protect. The rocks are homes for many animals and plants and such harsh chemical treatments are detrimental to them. To paraphrase the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath: first, do no harm.

Obviously, other surfaces suffer graffiti abuse. For trees, I would not use a wire brush for fear of further harming the bark. My mottling painting techniques would definitely apply there. For defaced buildings and kiosks, your choice of surface treatments and paint colors would have the goal of restoring them to their original appearance.

Graffiti has been a problem for thousands of years, and I daresay it’ll plague our future descendants for many more years. With prompt attention to the problem using techniques such as the ones I just described, we can reduce the unpleasant impact of graffiti and restore the natural appearance of the trails we maintain for all users to enjoy.

If you're interested in assisting with graffiti removal please contact [email protected]

Comment: Please be relevant, civil, non-commercial.

Sheila F.'s picture

My niece, nephew and I took a beautiful New Year's Day hike on the Castle Loop at Ramapo Mountain State Forest. We were surprised by all the graffiti although it did not interfere with our enjoyment of the day. I would love to take part in removing defacing "artwork". Using your technique and observing weather condition restrictions, can we take it upon ourselves to remove graffiti?
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Kylie Yang's picture

Hello! We appreciate your enthusiasm and would love to have your assistance in removing graffiti, however this must first be cleared with the land manager (regardless of location). Please contact me at [email protected] if you're still interested in helping.
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