Corrosive new graffiti costing city businesses 

A new type of permanent graffiti or "tagging" — acid etching — is costing city business owners thousands of dollars because it cannot be removed and is done on expensive window glass that is costly to replace.

Windows and bus shelters throughout The City are affected by acid-etch graffiti, a form of tagging — in which a vandal scribbles his name or "tag" — that uses a hydrofluoric acid solution product called "Etch Bath" to burn through and permanently tag windows with a milky white stain.

Normally used for stained-glass art, the solution leaves behind marks that cannot be fully removed from the window surface, forcing business owners to replace expensive windows. Although some services can sand the glass to make the etch less apparent, it can never be fully removed.

"It’s a shame when you see brand-new, beautiful glass going into street-level construction," Officer Christopher Putz of the San Francisco police graffiti abatement unit said of the acid-etching potential.

Hydrofluoric acid products are usually sold in art supply stores, but the Board of Supervisors passed legislation by a vote of 11-0 in 2001 restricting stores from selling it to anyone under the age of 18. However, the product is still readily available online, Putz said.

Steve Shinn, transit manager for CBS Outdoor, which advertises on The City’s 1,100 glass bus shelters, said the company spends about $400,000 annually to replace glass — 90 percent of that, Shinn said, is because of acid etching. Monthly, the company spends about $10,000 average on replacements, but February was particularly high — $23,000.

"If they acid etch the glass, we have to replace it. We take pictures and submit them to the graffiti task force, but that’s the $10,000 question — why they do this," Shinn said, adding that the company offers a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of vandals responsible for the acts.

Small-business owners also have a hard time dealing with acid etch — such as the Cup-A-Joe Coffee House on Sutter Street. About nine months ago, an acid-etch tagger struck the café’s front left window, leaving a massive white tag.

"It’s just too expensive to replace," employee Adalberto Gonzales said, adding that it costs $600 for a new window.

Although the Department of Public Works usually cites businesses to clean up graffiti within 30 days, spokeswoman Christine Falvey said businesses with acid etching are not cited.

"Acid etching is considered too much of a [financial] hardship on owners of small businesses to clean," Falvey said, adding that the department does not keep statistics on acid etching.

Catching the anonymous vandals has proven difficult — Putz said the unit has only been able to catch about 10 to 15 acid etchers. Once arrested, they can face felony charges.

"To use acid etch is an automatic felony. It’s a bigger deal than spray-painting windows — it ups the ante on how you’ll be treated, because it’s most destructive," Putz said.

Awareness of tagging up with onset of citations

Since the Department of Public Works began citing private property owners in 2004 to abate graffiti on their buildings within 30 days or face a minimum fine of $500, officials say awareness around graffiti has increased.

"I don’t think graffiti has increased overall, but now homeowners, landlords and business owners are being held accountable," said assistantdistrict attorney Paul Henderson, who oversees prosecution of graffiti offenders. "When I talk to community groups about graffiti, I tell them, ‘You and I may not know someone personally that was murdered or raped, but we all know where graffiti is in The City.’ We are exposed to it on a regular basis."

Henderson and his team work to prosecute graffiti cases, with special emphasis given to acid-etching cases because of their dangerous and costly nature.

"Acid etch cases are top priority," Henderson said.

Because the hydrofluoric acid is considered a caustic chemical and causes more damage than any other graffiti, Henderson says offenders can face up to three years of felony probation, up to a month in jail and 96 hours of working with graffiti abatement officers to remove graffiti.

Peter Vahid, manager of San Francisco-based TP Windows, has seen the damage from acid-etch graffiti firsthand. Replacing several windows throughout The City on a weekly basis, Vahid said the acid-etch damage is mostly in the South of Market area and the Financial District and causes business owners great distress.

"The cost to replace the window usually depends on the thickness and square footage," Vahid said, adding that the range of prices is between $200 and $2,500.

One measure business owners can take to help repel acid etching is lining their windows with graffiti film, which does not allow the etch to penetrate the glass and burn through its layers.

The film, however, costs $3 to $5 per square foot, and many small businesses can’t afford the extra expense, according to graffiti abatement Officer Christopher Putz.

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