The Crime Prevention Website


What is Graffiti?

Graffiti is regarded by most as a form of criminal damage and can be defined as ‘any inscription, marking, writing, painting or drawing, illicitly scratched, scribbled, drawn, cut, carved, posted, pasted sprayed or painted on any surface’. Note the word 'illicitly'.

The surface or canvas upon which the graffiti is applied is normally vertical and in public view, because those who apply their tags or ‘works of art’ (known as pieces – short for masterpieces) want them to be seen.  Graffiti is applied to stationary objects such as walls, fences, trees, street furniture and street cabinets and also to moving objects, such as railway carriages, buses and commercial vehicles.

Visit the DIRECTORY for products and services relating to advice on this page 

Graffiti takes many forms including stylized tags (often gang related to mark their territory), slogans and political messages (‘Kilroy was here’, ‘Make Peas not War’), advertising, cartoons and highly colourful and complex artistic creations. 

Although graffiti can appear literally anywhere it is the urban environment where it is most prevalent. The more ‘artistic’ graffiti is most often found in locations with a high chance of public viewing and so tend to be next to streets with greater pedestrian and vehicular movement.  The gang or 'crew' stylized tags turn up just about anywhere as they’re used to indicate ‘ownership’ of a particular neighbourhood or canvas. 

The most commonly complained about graffiti in respect to housing is wall tagging, either a gable end wall, such as the one on the end of a terrace or the side of a block of flats, a garden wall, particularly those next to bus stops and close to neighbourhood shopping streets and main roads and the walls along alleyways  

Certain forms of graffiti street art have sometimes been welcomed by the local community, either because of its verbal or visual message with which the local population agree, or because it has brightened up an otherwise dreary blank wall or perhaps over-painted a mass of tagging.  Many local authorities and businesses have sanctioned the use of certain walls as ‘graffiti walls’ or have engaged street artists to paint murals over walls that have been consistently tagged (however, by our definition, we wouldn’t call this graffiti).  Indeed some local authorities, such as Bristol, have even protected some graffiti, giving it the status of public art.

Graffiti can affect us in several ways:  We can suffer direct attacks on our personal property, such as the walls and fences of our homes, but we can also suffer the misery of living in a neighbourhood that has been blighted by a high prevalence of tagging, which some might say is a sign of urban decay. Likewise we also experience graffiti in the wider environment when we are out and about including scratched tags on the windows of buses, bus shelters and train carriages (known as Dutch graffiti), tags and writings on buildings next to railway lines, in underpasses and on the walls of both occupied and derelict commercial buildings.  Interestingly a tiny proportion of this graffiti has gained some public support, even though it was applied illegally.

A visit to these two websites will no doubt enlighten you!


UK Street Art 

Graffiti and the law in England and Wales

Criminal Damage Act of 1971

gives us the following definition of criminal damage:

Section 1 (1) A person who without lawful excuse* destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.

*In respect to graffiti we're talking here about ‘without permission’

If someone is caught applying graffiti without the permission of the owner of the canvas they can be arrested and charged under the Criminal Damage Act and if found guilty they can be fined or imprisoned or both.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003

Under this legislation, which was amended by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005, a person caught applying graffiti without permission can be issued with a fixed penalty notice by the local authority.  The fixed penalty for this offence is currently £75, but the local authority can stipulate a higher or lower amount. If the person fails to pay the penalty they will be subject to further criminal sanctions.

The same legislation also empowers a Local authority to issue clean-up notices to owners of street furniture to remove graffiti and if the owner fails to do so with 28 days the local authority can do it themselves and send the bill to the owner.

The Act also makes it illegal for retailers to sell spray paint to people under the age of 16. In order to avoid a hefty fine the retailer has to prove that they took reasonable steps to confirm the age of the person buying it.

Whether graffiti is ‘illegal’ or not normally depends upon the opinion of the owner of the surface to which it has been applied.  A certain form of graffiti, which some would describe as ‘street art’ has more often been applied without permission and then the owner has decided to keep it and has even taken measures to preserve it. Indeed some street art has been sold for many thousands of pounds. 

In some cases graffiti can be regarded as illegal regardless of the canvas owner’s opinions or permissions.  This will be the case if, for example, the words or images incite racial hatred (an offence under the Public Order Act of 1986). 

And do bear in mind that if you want to do some street art on yours or somebody else’s property, even with their permission, you may still need planning permission from the local authority. 

Whatever your opinions are on the subject of graffiti, if it’s your wall and you don’t want it there what are you going to do?  How are you going to remove it and how are you going to prevent it from returning? 

Preventing graffiti 

If you have a wall that’s been graffitied and you’ve had the graffiti removed or you live in an area where your clean wall may get attacked there are some things that you can do to prevent attacks.  For those of you who have already suffered a graffiti attack the most important thing to do is to remove the graffiti as soon as it appears.  Taggers or ‘writers’, as they are known, want their ‘work’ or ‘piece’ or ‘dub’ to be seen and if they know that it will be removed within a very short time after its application they may not use your wall again.  And as sure as ‘eggs is eggs’ if you leave it there more will follow!

Removing the canvas

This is not about knocking the wall down! 

Obstructing the canvas This is more about making the wall less attractive as a canvas.  For example, if there is direct access to soil at the base of the wall you might be able to grow a climbing shrub.  Depending on the plant choice you may first have to provide a climbing frame.  Of course, this isn’t going to be an instant solution and you must be careful not to use a plant that will damage the wall or be too vigorous in growth as to become a burden. 

Restricting access to the canvas Another method used to some effect, where you have sufficient space, is to erect a fence in front of the wall.  This solution normally requires the use of a mesh fence, such as chain link, welded mesh or expanded mesh set at least 300mm away from the wall. You may need planning permission. (See Types of fences and walls)

If the effected wall lies along an alleyway it might be possible to prevent access into the alley with gates. You may need planning permission to do this, especially if the alleyway forms a public right of way.  You will also need the agreement of the other residents who use the alley.  (See Access opportunity and alleyway gating)

Treating the canvas

If you can’t remove the canvas then you’ll need to paint the canvas with either a permanent anti-graffiti glaze or paint or a sacrificial coating.  If the threat to your wall is real you should know that removing graffiti from an unprotected surface can be up to 80% more expensive than removing it from a protected one. 

Permanent anti-graffiti glazes and paints have a very hard finish and make the removal of graffiti (using environmentally friendly chemical solvents) much easier to achieve with less damage to the wall. 

Sacrificial coatings also have a hard yet permeable finish (allows the walls to ‘breath’), which creates a barrier between the graffiti and the wall.  The graffiti is removed by washing away the sacrificial coating with low pressure hot water and then the sacrificial coating is reapplied. 

If you live in a listed building you should seek advice from the local authority before you carry out this work. 

A similar concept is used to protect glass from scratching, but instead a sacrificial sheet of film is applied to the glazing, which is removed and replaced when necessary, which avoids the need to polish the glass or replace it.

Removing graffiti

If you should find graffiti on your walls contact your local authority in the first instance as many offer a free removal service so long as you sign their indemnity form.  Some local authorities, such as Hillingdon Council in West London also offer graffiti removal kits and training to individuals who volunteer to be ‘Street Champions’. There are also companies who specialise in graffiti prevention and removal and some of these can be contacted via the Anti-Graffiti Association’s website below.    

Having had the graffiti removed think seriously about applying an anti-graffiti coating to the same wall to make it easier to remove the graffiti should you suffer the same problem again.

Further information

The Anti-Graffiti Association, which can be found on the Keep Britain Tidy Network website, was formed to promote Best Practice in the management of  Graffiti, Vandalism and related crime, through a combined approach of research, education and communication. One of this organisation’s members, Anti-Graffiti Systems, in conjunction with the British Transport Police, the Metropolitan Police and the Crime Prosecution Service manages the National Graffiti Database.  Member organisations are encouraged to submit information about graffiti onto this database to better enable successful prosecutions of graffiti vandals who cost the nation an estimated £1 billion a year.

If you want to know even more about graffiti take a look at the Wikipedia reference

Updated August 2017

Some history

The word "graffiti" comes from the Latin word ‘graphium’, which means ‘to write’ and was used by archaeologists to describe drawings and writings found on ancient buildings and monuments in the Roman Empire. Such writings have helped the archaeologists date certain structures and find out about the lives of ordinary people of those days. I'm not excusing graffiti, but it's a good thing this ancient stuff was left for us to interpret.