I recently discovered several videos on YouTube talking about a new form of public art called Reverse Grafitti, the idea being that instead of adding paint to a wall, you form an image by selectively cleaning it. This creates a temporary form that will fade naturally within a short (few months) timeframe.

Here is a video demonstrating the idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ut96pkYUOiM

Now I know that in most places, grafitti is illegal. However, here are my questions:

  1. Is "Reverse Grafitti" considered Grafitti? and
  2. Have any similar ideas been brought before a court? What was the result?
  • By "cleaning", you do mean that in the everyday sense of the word, right? As opposed to the removal of paint, which would be much more accurately described by the term reverse graffiti, and would be destruction of property. – Nij Jan 11 '17 at 9:56
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    @Nij Yes, he means cleaning - from the video it looks like they stencil an area and then waterblast that area to reveal a clean surface. No destruction of property is involved. Its a novel concept. – davidgo Jan 11 '17 at 21:46
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    In some cases, that's destruction of the historical patina and possible damage to masonry and concrete. But mostly, you're still creating an image or lettering on a surface that is not authorized by the owner (public or private); the image or lettering is the defacement. The graffiti is the message, and has little to do with the medium it's on or if paint is added or patina removed. – BlueDogRanch Jan 11 '17 at 22:42

I don't know of any legal reason to care whether people consider reverse graffiti to be graffiti, since graffiti is not itself a legal concept. The act when done without permission is, however, trespassing, which is against the law. Painting a building is legal, if done with permission; painting a building in a pattern is legal, if done with permission. Strangely enough, cleaning a building without permission, whether entirely of selectively in a pattern, is illegal.

There are in fact specific laws about defacing property, so the illegality of the act does not rely solely on trespass laws. The NYC law is here, the California law is here, and there are many similar laws. In Washington, illegality arises from a more general prohibition against causing physical damage, which is defined here, and boils down to "costs money to fix". These laws are not limited to "applying opaque material to a surface".


From what the video shows, you'd still be vandalizing property. However, there may be different laws about it from city to city, so you might still be able to do reverse graffiti without being charged. If your state does NOT have any laws governing it, you might be better off just assuming that you shouldn't do it.

I don't believe any of these ideas were actually brought before a court, but it's sort of a given that the minute someone starts doing it, there WILL be a case.

This will depend on the state or city, but you may be able to ask your city council (if applicable) about it, but it most likely would only be legal on city property if a law were to get passed.

  • You really should base your answer in legal aspects for this site. There will be different laws according to jurisdiction. But exactly how is reverse graffiti vandalism? Are you sure there are no legal cases? Why could it possibly "only be legal on city property"? – BlueDogRanch Jan 12 '17 at 2:34

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