Successful “Convert a Can” Project Uses Art to Deter Graffiti Vandalism

Visitors of the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles County, CA should expect to see refreshing new works of art, only in unexpected places: the forest’s trash cans. Last month, a group of over 40 volunteers as part of the “Convert a Can” project painted murals on a number of large trash cans in an effort to beautify the forest, increase the public’s usage of the cans for trash, and prevent graffiti vandalism. The project’s success has garnered national attention and worthy recognition as a creative, community-driven solution to the serious problems of litter and graffiti vandalism. Since the program’s inception, the U.S. Forest Service (“USFS”) has reported a substantial decrease in the number of graffiti incidents on the converted cans in the Angeles National Forest—normally, USFS has to repaint multiple cans every week that are tagged. Clearly, these “Convert a Can” volunteers are making a difference in deterring criminal activity, helping the environment, and making the national forest a better place for visitors to enjoy.

The program’s founder is Kevin Lynch, Southern California Regional Coordinator for PaintCare, Inc., an industry-lead paint stewardship program that manages post-consumer paint, implemented throughout the state of California in 2012. Kevin is also a graduate of the San Gabriel Mountains Forever Leadership Academy (“Academy”), an organization working to increase land stewardship in the local mountains through community projects and protection for wilderness areas. The Academy is a coalition of 150 plus various organizations, non-profits, faith based, and community groups working together towards a common goal. While at the Academy, Lynch developed his project, received funding from the Liberty Hill Foundation, organized volunteers, and received the necessary approvals from USFS within just a few months. He carried out “Convert a Can” in May 2014, completing the painting of the tops of six large trash cans.

“When I was an environmental science student, one of my professors mentioned on the last day of class, ‘something everyone should think about is trash,’ and that just stuck with me,” said Lynch. “Everyone creates trash, and every day, everyone has the choice to throw trash on the ground or in a can. What you do with it makes a difference in the world. Particularly in this over-used area of the mountains, trash is a huge problem.”

Lynch explained that people going to the area for recreation often create large amounts of trash and do not realize how it negatively impacts the forest. As a forest visitor, Lynch decided to help make the area more beautiful and encourage others not to trash it. While “Convert a Can” started as a way to reduce litter, Lynch also realized that it would make an impact on reducing graffiti, another significant problem for the forest.

“Almost every trash can, sign or structure had some sort of graffiti and was painted over with the same dull color. I had the idea that graffiti vandals would put less graffiti on the trash cans if I put some vibrant colors on them, so the cans would no longer serve as a ‘blank canvas’ for them to put their mark,” said Lynch.

He noted that a local community also facing graffiti vandalism painted some of the commonly-afflicted areas with stripes. The painted stripes had been effective at preventing graffiti since it is more difficult for taggers to have their letters seen with the stripes in the background.

The approach of using murals to combat graffiti vandalism is becoming increasingly popular, and cities are dedicating resources to utilize the talents of local artists and volunteers to cover bridges, walls, overpasses and buildings so people are discouraged from putting graffiti on them. For example, Santa Fe Springs, MN recently started pilot programs to help curb graffiti on traffic signal boxes, and Federal Way, WA started a program to paint murals on utility boxes. In Toledo, OH, the city started a project in 2014 to coordinate with local artists to paint murals across the city. St. Louis, MO held an event called “Paint Louis” where hundreds of street artists came to the city to paint a flood wall in the downtown area. One of the first and most successful arts programs aimed at combatting graffiti is Philadelphia, PA’s Mural Arts Program created in 1984, which has served as a model for other cities. The benefit of these programs is that they provide the community and artists a place to express themselves, improve the aesthetic value of a city, and it deter graffiti from spreading. A mural program is truly an effective solution that does not create burdens for anyone other than those who deserve it, perpetrators of graffiti vandalism.

Lynch’s “Convert a Can” project has also garnered national attention from the USFS. “This program has been highlighted as a project that can easily be continued and replicated elsewhere,” said Lynch. Lynch also indicated that the Academy and the USFS have expressed great enthusiasm for continuing the project. The GRC looks forward to seeing how this program can be expanded to other national forests and parks in order to reduce graffiti vandalism and celebrate the arts.