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The new laser in use by the a member of the "Angels of Beauty," removes graffiti from the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence.

Famous High Tech Lasers Tackle Huge Low Brow Graffiti

A team of volunteers in Florence nicknamed the “Angels of Beauty” are determined to restore famous monuments to their former glory, thanks to a latest-generation infrared wand, donated by Italian laser developer El.En. Group. “The laser evaporates the graffiti without damaging the stone underneath,” said Daniela Valentini, who heads up the Angels’ team of cultural heritage restorers. “Some graffiti is more difficult to remove; certain colors like silver and red for example. And it also depends how long it has been there and how porous the stone is,” she said.

Valentini then demonstrated the use of the laser, as a beam of silver light erased scrawled black letters on Florence’s historic Ponte Vecchio. For centuries, the bridge has been the home of the city’s gold smiths, but unfortunately, as gold glints in the windows of the tiny jewelry boutiques that line the medieval stone bridge, it is the scribbled messages left by tourists, as well as the passionate declarations by would-be Romeos, that catch the eye.

As curious tourists stop to watch, Valentini turned on the wand and a sizzle could be heard as a message scrawled in white (“I was here”) was burned off the grey stone. “We have cleaned up areas in at least 28 UNESCO world heritage sites around the world,” said El.En general manager Paolo Salvadeo.

The company was founded 38 years ago in Florence by Professor Leonardo Masotti and one of his students, Gabriele Clementi. The lasers have also been used to strip away dirt on everything from frescoes to marble statues to bronzes. The company, which specializes in designing and manufacturing medical and industrial lasers, has donated devices capable of restoring artwork to museums around the world, including the MOMA in New York and the Vatican. However, the laser given to the Angels in Florence is the first to be designed to strip graffiti away and to do so quickly.

It is still a relatively lengthy task and the devices are very, very expensive ($78,000). Restorers using the device can take up to 20 minutes to clean a four inch square piece of wall. It may seem a bit like killing a fly using a bazooka, but when applied to precious works of art and irreplaceable historic monuments, the long-term benefits are obvious. The most common technique of sand-blasting removes part of the surface being treated, while with the laser, there is no damage, change or erosion to the surface. The laser, which has also been used at the Tuscan city’s Galleria della Carrozze, will be the Angels’ weapon of choice wherever vandals with pens or spray cans strike.

An area of the Ponte Vecchio cleaned in January has already been re-vandalized, a situation Valentini admits is very frustrating. “I’d like the kids to see how long it takes them to scribble their message and then how much time and energy it takes for us to remove them,” she said.

But Salvadeo is more sympathetic to those who act foolishly because they are in love. “People fall for someone, get a tattoo of their new love’s name or write graffiti on a wall. They then split up and their new partner wants the tattoo or message gone. That’s where we come in,” he said.