Vandals’ New Weapon: Acid

December 19, 2008
By

JOHN RUCH


Gazette
Photo by John Swan
Molly Kile of JP waits for her bus in front of the backdrop of grafitti etched into the glass of the bus kiosk at the South Street Mall. The Harvest Coop across the street (in background) was also tagged.

SOUTH ST.—Vandals in Jamaica Plain have unleashed the latest weapon in their arsenal: acid or corrosive chemicals used to permanently etch graffiti onto store windows.

The chemicals, sold under such brand names as Armour Etch, are normally used by artists to etch letters or designs into glass. Etched glass has a whitish, “frosted” look.

“Now the weirdos have decided to make a new use of it,” said Sydney St. James, president of Armour Products, maker of Armour Etch.

The dripping, whitish tags were burned into the surfaces of windows at Harvest Co-op Market and the Yesteryear antique shop sometime last month. The glass-walled bus stop shelter at South Street and Carolina Avenue was also vandalized with the glass-scarring chemical.

Rosa Irene, a supervisor at Somerville’s A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts store, confirmed that JP’s graffiti sounds like Armour Etch.

“It’s permanent,” Irene said. “The longer it stays on the window, the deeper the etching is.”

While acid graffiti appears to be new to JP, it is well-known in cities around the world.

“It’s not a new problem. We often see acid-etching of glass,” said Martin McDonough, president of Wall Decaux, the company that built and maintains the bus shelter. He estimated that about 5 to 10 percent of the company’s annual damaged-glass bill in Boston—about $50,000—is due to acid graffiti.

Managers at Harvest and Yesteryear, both on South Street, did not respond to Gazette questions.

The JP graffiti consists of at least two “tags,” or logos, one of which appears to read “Atlas” or “Atlasa.” The same tagger has hit walls in the same area, apparently with paint.

At first glance, the acid tags appear to be written with thin acid white paint, or a giant, watery, white Magic Marker. The lettering is relatively neat, but the liquid then ran into long drip marks.

On closer examination, the “paint” is actually a gritty substance that can be wiped off. Underneath is a translucent, whitish mark—a permanently etched scar on the glass.

Acid graffiti first appeared in Seattle during the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization, according to a 2001 Los Angeles Times report. By 2000, it was a problem across the country, from San Francisco to New York City. It often has inspired calls to ban the sale of etching chemicals to minors.

“It’s definitely something we see worldwide,” said McDonough, whose company operates internationally.

One technique for creating acid graffiti—possibly the one used in JP—is to put the etching chemical into a sponge-tipped shoe polish applicator, according to the Los Angeles Times.

While some graffiti victims have been able to buff the glass to remove the etchings, usually the only solution is to replace the glass. That makes for expensive property destruction that can lead to felony charges far more serious than the usual vandalism rap.

“The glass, unfortunately, has to be replaced,” said McDonough. “If it’s
minor acid-etching, we’ll keep it up. If it’s major, we’ll take it down.”

He said replacing the back glass wall of a bus shelter—the part tagged with acid in JP—costs $140 plus labor. “It ain’t cheap,” he said.

One method used to prevent acid graffiti is applying a thin plastic to windows. The plastic cannot be harmed by the acid and can be peeled off and replaced. In other cases, some businesses simply install metal grates.

When informed by the Gazette about the innovation of acid graffiti, local City Councilor John Tobin groaned and said, “Oh, no.”

“Every once in a while, you have a person defending so-called graffiti art,” said Tobin, who has authored several anti-graffiti ordinances. “It may be art. It’s just not your property. Go buy an easel. I’ll buy it for you.”

He added that “seniors are frightened by graffiti” because it makes the neighborhood look like a place of criminal activity.

St. James said she has attended New York City meetings about graffiti and proposals to “license” certain products used in it. She said she learned at those meetings that even when vandals are caught, they often get off easy.

“There’s no fear,” St. James said. “This is my suggestion. If a child is caught [making graffiti], the parents and the child should do community service. You have to worry where little Johnny is at night if your ass is out there shoveling snow [as community service].”
Graffiti science

Glass-etching chemicals work by reacting with silica, a mineral in glass. The chemicals essentially eat away the silica, leaving the permanent mark.

Industrial etching is done with hydrofluoric acid, a highly dangerous substance. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hydrofluoric acid can be absorbed into human flesh without doing any damage at first, then start eating away at the bone, while also releasing toxic fluoride into the body. Then the chemical will start burning flesh like more familiar acids. The fumes are also dangerous.

Craft store etching products such as Armour Etch use a corrosive chemical salt—a solid mineral—processed from hydrofluoric acid. Ammonium bifluoride, also known as ammonium hydrogen fluoride, is the most common chemical.

Ammonium bifluoride is also dangerous, but not nearly as much as the acid. The residue it leaves on glass after etching is also not particularly dangerous and is no longer corrosive, though it is probably best not to touch it.

St. James noted that there are many etching products on the market and said that Armour Etch has never been definitely proven as a vandal’s acid-graffiti weapon of choice. Another popular product is Etchall’s Dip ’n Etch.

But Armour Etch appears to be the leading product of its kind. Armour Products, based in Hawthorne, N.J., has been making etching products for more than 25 years. Its web site describes itself as the “leading manufacturer and supplier of glass etching and mirror decorating products.”

Armour Etch is sold in a variety of sizes, from a 3-ounce bottle to a 5-gallon tub. It also comes in etching kits along with stencils and other craft supplies.

Armour Etch is identified as a “cream,” but it is not very thick.

“It’s like paint,” Irene said. “If it’s on a window, it runs.”

Windows being etched by artists or professionals—for example, to put a business’s name on the glass—usually are removed and laid flat before the etching is done, she said.

In normal arts and crafts use, etching chemicals are used with a stencil to make designs on virtually any glass product. One popular use is etching monograms onto custom drinking glasses for weddings, Irene said.

Irene said that Armour Etch will work on Plexiglas as well. “It’ll pretty much damage anything it falls on,” except for vinyl, she said.

Irene and a manager at the Fenway’s Blick Art Materials store both said that demand for glass-etching products appears to be low or dropping.