POLISHING UP GRAFFITI

* To some people, it is a work of art. To others, it is a growing problem, and a costly one at that.

Two or three times a month, the American Industrial Cleaning Company in Somerville, Mass., receives a call from a Boston-area building owner complaining about graffiti. Typically, the building owner has waited until the property has been hit several times before making the call.

"It's too expensive to call every time," says Fred Dello, owner of American Industrial. "They wait and let it build up and then they call."

Mr. Dello's company uses a paint remover and a pressure washer that shoots sand and water simultaneously. It is a cumbersome process, but it usually gets the job done.

But in the San Francisco area, where a strong anti-graffiti campaign has been under way, one company has taken the business of removing it a step further and has seen sales rise as demand increases. More than 150 San Francisco buildings are now coated with "Graffiti Defenz," a clear, permanent protective coating developed by Graffiti Control Services of San Bruno. With the sealer, permanent markers wipe clean immediately and paint takes only a few minutes more.

"Graffiti is a constant problem and this is the only answer," says Greg Keiser, the company's president. "Graffiti artists present us with a new challenge just about every day, but so far we've been able to remove everything from our coatings."

Sealants are not a new concept, but most are "sacrificial," Mr. Keiser says, meaning that when the graffiti is wiped off, the protective coating comes with it.

The cost of regularly reapplying a protective sealant can be prohibitive, he adds.

Typically, the California building owners who have used Graffiti Defenz have paid about $1,895; if the surface needs a lot of work, the price can run up to about $2,500. "We hear all the time that sealants don't work," Keiser says. "But graffiti can be cleaned up effectively and economically - especially in repeat cases."

Every building has its own personality, Keiser says. Some owners want Graffiti Control Services to do all the work for them; others ask for a kit the company provides and they tackle the problem on their own.

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