Special report by Claire Reilly

Last week, when Harvey Norman franchisee Mitchel Hayes arrived at his Mount Gambier store to begin a busy day of Saturday trading, he was met with the ugly sight of graffiti. The front and side of the corner-facing building had been defaced in the middle of the night, and Hayes was forced to call in a clean-up team to fix the damage.

It was the last thing Hayes needed to welcome customers to his store.

“It’s not a good look having that in front of the shop,” he told local paper The Border Watch shortly after the incident. “I was pretty upset.”

But it wasn’t the first time his business had been vandalised with ‘tags’ — scribbles of spraypainted graffiti, generally used repeatedly across different sites by the same person — and his case is far from unique.

While trying to remove ugly tags from walls is a hassle for anyone, the problem is particularly bad for retailers who, in many cases, trade seven days a week and lack the time and resources to be dealing with the problem. Every year, thousands of properties across Australia are vandalised by graffiti artists, causing millions of dollars worth of damage.

Just last month, New South Wales Police made a string of arrests in relation to a single gang responsible for more than 125 alleged incidents of graffiti and damage on the Central Coast. On the other side of the country, Western Australia Police were faced with a similar problem — finding the source of photos that had popped up on social media sites that documented incidences of graffiti all across Perth.

Vandalism is a problem that affects retailers all over the country, and one that carries a significant financial burden.

It’s difficult to know just how much graffiti costs retailers every year. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), “estimating the cost of graffiti is difficult,” but the Government institute lists the estimated cost of “criminal damage across Australia” (including but not limited to graffiti) as $1.5 billion annually.

“This is likely to be a conservative estimate given that the figure is based upon a figure multiplied from recorded crime data and graffiti and other forms of criminal damage are not always reported to police. It also does not take into consideration the social cost of graffiti; in particular the impact on perceptions of safety and public amenity. The total cost of graffiti is therefore likely to be substantially higher.”

There are also problems in estimating the cost of graffiti as it’s not always reported. According to the AIC, property owners may be worried about making an insurance claim for repairs, some may perceive vandalism as a “minor” offence, and others just don’t believe that offenders will be caught.

While there is legislation in place to punish vandalism — the NSW Graffiti Control Act 2008, for example, stipulates fines for offenders of up to $2,200 — that doesn’t provide much relief for retailers who find their shop defaced long after the culprits have fled the scene.

There are plenty of companies that provide graffiti removal services, but these also come at a cost. To give an indication, one Australian company, The Graffiti Eaters, charges between $200 to $300 per ‘tag’ or ‘hit’ of graffiti on a standard shopfront. But if there are multiple areas of the building affected, this cost can easily blow out to the thousands of dollars.

When vandals strike in the dead of the night, there’s little that can be done to recoup costs in the light of day. And those costs can clearly be significant. So for retailers and small business owners concerned about the cost of vandalism, it is wise to be proactive and deter vandals from striking in the first place.

The CEO of Keep Australia Beautiful New South Wales, David Imrie, has plenty of tips to help prevent graffiti.

“The best way to prevent graffiti is to take a multi-action strategic approach,” said Imrie. “Use one of the commercial anti-graffiti coatings on exterior walls, remove any graffiti as soon as it appears and keep the exterior well lit. Good exterior lighting and visible security cameras are good deterrents.

“There is a vast array of anti-graffiti coatings that are available on the market today, each of these are effective in enabling graffiti to be very easily removed.

“Graffiti breeds graffiti and should be removed immediately after it appears,” he added. “If it’s removed quickly, there is much less likelihood that it will reappear.

“Be creative where possible — use ground or pot plantings, hanging gardens or timber lattice work to shield any vulnerable surfaces. Graffiti never grows on trees.”

On this final point, Keep Australia Beautiful suggests native plants as a great way to create a graffiti barrier while also offering a habitat for native wildlife — and as a bonus, the plants can also be an attractive addition to an otherwise plain facade.

South Australia Police also offers practical advice on minimising graffiti opportunities, including the use of CCTV to deter criminals and to help identify them if they do strike, installing sensor lights, limiting access to areas that are likely targets for vandals and keeping trees and shrubs trimmed to reduce “concealment opportunities”.

A standard retail shopfront on the main street of town can’t ever be fully graffiti proof, experts say, but with a little effort, retailers can get on the front foot to prevent vandals from hitting their stores, and avoid the expensive and time-consuming task of a messy clean-up.

This article first appeared on Current.com.au