The original definition of graffiti is to mark, but that doesn’t mean all markings are significant. Markings have been a mode of communication since the cave scratches in Pompeii. A resurgence occurred with the freight train movement when railroad workers tagged their monikers, and gangs marked their territory. These pioneers used basic markers and paint to write messages such as the “Kilroy was here.” The advent of spray paint proved a turning point that sparked more fascination with the movement. Not all markings evoke intense reactions the way spray paint pieces can. Spray paint simplifies the creative process, acting as both a paintbrush and paint. This tool provided the sleek finishing touch we associate graffiti with today. It inspired artists to see a bigger picture beyond the simple act of tagging.
Spray paint simplifies the creative process, acting as both a paintbrush and paint.
The creation of spray paint has a rather odd backstory, one that could not have predicted its massive popularity with graffiti artists and the creation of an entire subculture. According to an article by The New York Times, a paint salesman named Ed Seymour wanted to find a way to paint radiators with aluminum coating. His wife suggested using a spray gun, similar to the ones used in deodorizers. Thus, the spray paint can was born. Seymour’s creation was so popular that its usage expanded to other industries. The automobile and home furnishing industries adopted the new technology. Spray cans were especially prominent in the auto industry because their usage made it easier to paint auto parts. By 1973, Seymour’s enterprise Big Spray was manufacturing 270 million cans annually in the US alone.
Spray paint gained massive popularity with rebels, protestors, and graffiti artists. Not only was it easy to use, but easy to steal and even easier to conceal. Graffiti artists gained more respect for using stolen paint. Spray paint dries quickly, making it a prime candidate for covering, buildings, and subways. It’s impossible to pinpoint who first started using this new tool to create art. The History of American Graffiti by Roger Gastman and Caleb Neelon explains that spray paint pieces took off when artists like Cornbread and Julio 204 started using it to write their tags.
Spray paint gained massive popularity with rebels, protestors, and graffiti artists. Not only was it easy to use, but easy to steal and even easier to conceal.
Cornbread became a spray paint pioneer in Philadelphia during the late 60s. The fledgling vandal changed graffiti’s trajectory with his decision to use spray paint. The writer claims that he was the only person in the world using spray paint to make his mark at that time. While this may or may not be factual, innovations in New York occurring during his rise truly put graffiti on the map. Julio 204 was operating in New York at the same time as Cornbread, and also used spray paint. Julio 204’s tags later inspired Taki 183, and sparked the mass movement in New York. In New York, teenagers started using spray paint to write their monikers and street numbers.
Unprecedented access to the New York City subway system allowed the movement to expand, for tags to cover more ground. The allure and mystery of the graffiti world prompted more kids to take up the form. Especially if you were born in 1957 (meaning you were a teenager by the 70s), high schools were unlikely to provide art courses. The bigger the pieces were, the more accessible they were to different kids across communities.
The allure and mystery of the graffiti world prompted more kids to take up the form.
As boredom burns, a desire to create ignites, and inspiration sparks. These kids created their own media, even modifying spray paint cans. They found that nozzles on the factory cans were not the best for painting crisp lines or working fast. Naturally, experimentation took place between different brands of cans and nozzles. Swiping the nozzles off every aerosol product became a way to see which can fit best and create an optimal piece. The kids found that certain nozzles placed on the clear coating brands of paint created the crisp lines they sought, as well as allowing for the mist to flow smoothly. Clear coating is traditionally used to protect charcoal and pastel drawings, but in this case, it allowed for more detail to be brought out in the pieces.
Clear coating is traditionally used to protect charcoal and pastel drawings, but in this case, it allowed for more detail to be brought out in the pieces.
American spray paint companies were reluctant to upgrade their materials to appeal to the graffiti market. Graffiti was closely associated with vandalism, and companies did not want to encourage this behavior, especially to younger buyers. The prominent spray paint companies were Krylon and Rust-Oleum, and there weren’t many other options to obtain paint. Significant improvements included upgrading colors and nozzles to make it easier to paint. By the 90s, many writers realized that European companies such as Molotow (Germany), and Montana (Spain), offered higher quality paint. These specific paints were also ideal because they were weather-resistant and had UV protection. Unlike the American market, The European market was willing to collaborate with street artists. Brands like Krylon and Oleum, however, are classified to be the “working man’s paint” by comparison, establishing a paint hierarchy
One of the most respectable things you could do as a graff writer was to steal your paint. Once there was an influx in graffiti appearing everywhere, public outrage ensued and retailers cracked down. Selling spray paint to teenagers was restricted, and if you go into art stores today, you’ll still see spray paint in cages. This new prohibition however did not work, and the next best thing was simply to steal it. The logic was if you’re already going to be in trouble for “defacing property” why not add stealing to the rap sheet?
The logic was if you’re already going to be in trouble for “defacing property” why not add stealing to the rap sheet?
Spray paint pieces changed the game by maintaining an “out of this world” feel. These larger than life pieces were mystifying. There was truly nothing like seeing larger than life names and comics passing by on a train. At a time where art was not encouraged, graffiti stood out from the status quo, creating a world of its own. The kids of that generation had limited access to view art or to take art classes. Graffiti was their only scope of reference for being creative. Despite attempts to restrict sales, graffiti still persists, and artists still steal their paint.