When pioneering teenagers in both Philadelphia and New York City began spraying their names on walls, buses, trains and a variety of other surfaces, they had little idea that they’d have such an impact on modern culture and give birth to an art form with a billion-dollarplus reach. Similarly, spray paint itself has humble beginnings. Inventors could never have anticipated that hundreds of millions of cans would be sold in the United States each year, and that hundreds of thousands of cans would be stolen off the racks by the would-be vandals. While the “chicken or the egg” metaphor is often used to discuss what exactly came first in a given scenario, it’s clear that spray paint itself — a tool synonymous with graffiti — pre-dates the graffiti boom of the late ’60s/early ’70s by over 20 years.

Since the pioneers of graffiti had no other “artists” to parrot, spray paint was something that had to be discovered and adopted as opposed to just reappropriated.

THIS IS ANN BOOKLET, DESIGNED BY THEODOR GEISEL/
DR. SEUSS, 1943 COLLECTION OF ROGER GASTMAN

PRESSURIZED PAINTING

To fully understand the evolution of aerosol from its more utilitarian usages (which will be discussed later) to the preferred method of writing/ painting graffiti, one first has to recognize that, historically, man has been viewed as truly becoming human only after graduating to the use of expedited means of leaving his/her mark.

The Indonesian island Sulawesi, an hour north of the port of Makassar, is now believed to contain the earliest Paleolithic examples of man looking to express himself in an artistic manner. In the 1950s, researchers discovered stalactite-like growths created with a pigment called red ochre to produce red and mulberry-colored paintings that formed over outlines of human hands. In 2014 scientists confirmed that they were created some 40,000 years ago by blowing paint around appendages.

“Its emergence, therefore, marks one of the key moments when our species became truly human,” the BBC remarked following the announcement.

“Archaeologists love to say things like ‘ability X is what makes us human,’ but in the case of the origins of art they are probably right. Our species is compelled to make art. And in one form or another, it is inherent in almost everything we do,” archaeologist Adam Brumm told Reuters.

Prior to the October 2014 study in Indonesia, the animalistic imagery in Chauvet Cave in southeastern France, believed to be around 30,000 to 32,000 years old, was commonly thought to be the oldest example of art as we understand it today.

EARLY ORIGINS OF AEROSOL

The concept of aerosol dates back to the late 18th century, when pressurized carbonated bever-ages were introduced in France. Although it was an advancement in efficiency and cleanliness, it was a far cry from how aerosol would be used in a graffiti context.

In 1926, Norwegian engineer Erik Rotheim applied for the first patent for an aerosol can that could hold products and dispense them with the use of propellants. By 1931, Rotheim was recognized for his invention in a legal context and viewed as a pioneer in the transfer of carbonated liquids into cups.

The medical profession was one of the biggest early adopters. Abbot Laboratories developed the Aerohaler for inhaled penicillin G powder and launched the devicein 1948 with what could only be considered a Rube Goldberg- esque device in which air intake caused a metal ball to strike a cartridge. The device was further perfected with the introduction of a pressurized system. In 1955, Dr. George Maison, the president of Riker Labs (now 3M Pharmaceuticals), created the first-of-its-kind “metered-dose inhaler” at the suggestion of his asthmatic teenage daughter, who got the idea from perfume spray devices.

As with many other inventions of the era — like the dynamo-powered torch (aka squeeze flash-light) and the jerrycan fuel container made from pressed steel — World War II was a major factor in how innovation informed usage.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers were being shipped to the South Pacific to engage in the conflict with Japan. The climate proved a chal-lenge to a G.I.’s health because of illnesses like malaria and typhus, which were spread through contact with mosquitos.
In turn, two researchers from the Department of Agriculture, Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan, developed a small portable can in 1943 that was pressurized by a liquid gas and capable of spray-ing an anti-insect agent to combat the scourge of insect-borne disease that was plaguing soldiers and compromising battle plans. Malaria was so out of control in Guadalcanal that a division commander ordered that no Marine be excused from duty without a temperature of at least 103°F.

Theodor Geisel, perhaps better known by his Dr. Seuss moniker, spearheaded a campaign to support the war effort in a 1943 Army orienta-tion booklet by depicting “Ann” — a whimsical blood-sucking, malaria-carrying mosquito. His cartoon warning to the troops: “Get sloppy and careless about her and she’ll hunt you down just as surely as a bomb, bullet or shell.”
All in all, malaria accounted for almost a half million hospital admissions and more than 300 American deaths during the war despite the use of aerosol protection, which would soon find its way into other products on the market for the general public to use.

EARLY AEROSOL IMAGES AND
ADVERTISING IMAGES COURTESY OF
DARRELL & BEN CHAPNICK

THE BIRTH OF SPRAY PAINT

PHOTOS COURTESY DARRELL & BEN CHAPNICK

While the mention of the word “graffiti” evokes thoughts of early urban imagery — complete with trains rumbling by and music blaring from Discolite Boombox Ghettoblasters — its true origin as it relates to spray paint lay in the tiny town of Sycamore, Illinois, which is 70 miles northeast of Chicago and whose entire population could twice fit inside the friendly confines of Wrigley Field. In 1949, Seymour of Sycamore, a paint company owned by Ed Seymour, recognized a need to create a novelty prototype to demonstrate an aluminum paint Ed had developed for painting steam radiators. It would employ a “mist” feature similar to the device American soldiers had used in World War II to combat mosquitos. It’s important to note that Seymour of Sycamore was the first to use aerosol technology solely for paint products.

According to official company history, “Though intended to show sales prospects how the paint would look when applied to surfaces, the aerosol sprayer proved so popular that he borrowed a few thousand dollars from a local bank to develop this revolutionary idea. Soon after perfecting the first spray can, Ed and the employees of his new company formulated the paint, which was mixed and filled with aerosol using a combination of customized and specially engineered machinery.”

Nancy Seymour Heatley, Ed’s daughter and the president and CEO of the company until her passing in 2017, recalled the mysterious origins of the product with the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb: “There is an urban legend that says my mother was using what they called a bug bomb and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you put paint in an aerosol can?’ I have no idea if that is true.”

“It’s funny that a town this size, something like that was invented here,” said Jon Larson, Seymour of Sycamore vice president of manufacturing, to the Daily Chronicle. “It’s just like DeKalb with the barbed wire.” It seems quite ironic that DeKalb County birthed both the means of criminal mischief and a security instrument often used to try to discourage graffiti’s pervasiveness. The Seymour paint factory was originally located in downtown Sycamore but moved to 917 Crosby Avenue in 1964. The current headquarters and manufacturing facilities total 220,000 square feet. At peak production, the factory employs 150 workers and can produce over 200,000 cans of paint a day. “There have been a couple companies that put on their website that they are inventors of aerosol spray paint, but we’re the first,” Larson told the Daily Chronicle. “Everyone in the industry knows we invented it.”

THE VALVE BUSINESS

At the same time Seymour was wowing people with his spray-paint invention, Robert Abplanalp was starting up his own company. The Precision Valve Corporation was forged with two other partners and aimed to manufacture a new type of aerosol valve that Abplanalp invented in a machine shop in the Bronx — patent No. 2,631,814 — an attempt to address the fact that the metal valves on aerosol cans were unreliable, easily corroded and expensive to produce.

By using plastic instead of metal caps, the priceper- valve went from 15 cents down to 2 cents. After seeing the company turn a profit in its first year, Abplanalp, a Villanova University mechanical-engineering dropout, bought out his partners, John Baessler and Fred Lodes, became the sole owner and set up headquarters in Yonkers, New York.

Between 1958 and 1960, the Precision Valve Corporation developed the first “under the cup” filling machine, which replaced the much more inefficient and costly cold-filling method, in which both the product concentrate and the propellant had to be cooled to temperatures between 30°C and 60°C, where they will remain liquefied. Instead, the Precision Valve Corporation opted for “pressure filling,” which is carried out essentially at room temperature; with the product concentrate placed in the container, the valve assembly is inserted and crimped into place and then the liquefied gas, under pressure, is added through the valve. Using this method, the mixing of the concentrate and propellant actually happens in the canister rather than in a bulk-formulation tank.

At the company’s height, Robert Abplanalp’s Precision Valve Corporation valves were present on 60 percent of all aerosol products in the entire world.

“In the U.S. now we sell something like $30 million worth of valves a year,” he told People magazine in 1977. “My guess is that within 24 months that will either double or triple. That’s just in this country.”

PATENT FILING

PHOTOS COURTESY DARRELL & BEN
CHAPNICK

GRAFFITI AND MARKERS

The earliest graffiti writers often employed markers — which could be acquired from their homes or schools — as the most effective and stealthy means of getting their names up, despite the accessibility and prevalence of spray paint at neighborhood hardware stores.

“We used markers on bus and train interiors,” recalls early graffiti pioneer BLADE. “They had a little bit of a smell, but not as much as spray paint, which had a smell, a mist, and was much more obvious. We used little Dri Marks, which are about the size of your thumb. The spray paint was for the outside of the train.”

That switch from doing graffiti on the interior of a train or bus versus doing it on the exterior perfectly illustrates the shift from markers to spray paint. Simply put, if a writer had the time or ability to use spray paint, he/she did, but outside factors like number of people on public transportation played a significant role in deciding which tool was best for a certain scenario.

“Markers were perfect for the inside of the train,” explains another one of the earliest writers, COCO 144. “They were a no-brainer and perfect for the panels. Also, depending on what time you were doing it, if the train was full, you could only use a marker. It was speed. I know that you can express yourself better with a marker and your penmanship than with a spray can. A marker signature was more personal than a spray-paint signature.”

Specifically, COCO recalls using brand names like Dri Mark, Pilot, MARKS-A-LOT and the Sanford King-Size, which would colloquially be adopted into terminology like “mini-wides” and “maxiwides” — preferred because of their broad tip widths and their ability to easily be refilled. They also allowed artists to load different colors of ink to produce a “hit” or “tag” with a variety of tones.

“It was pretty much like warfare,” COCO says. “What weapon are you going to pull out to make your mark? It sounds romantic and poetic, but that’s the way I view it. I think the major ones we were going for were Dri Marks. It was roughly three inches, stubby, with a nice chiseled tip. They were refillable. They were glass. We would cut the plastic off of them and now you’ve got the guts of the marker — cotton and ink. You’d go out and get Flowmaster ink at art stores like Pearl Paints. It all depended on the neighborhood, what was available. For me, there was an overabundance of Dri Marks and MARKS-A-LOT in the hoods I would rack up.”

In addition to the markers you could steal from art stores or school, some artists even began fashioning homemade markers.

“In 1974, writers tried to make markers any way they could using school erasers, lighters, Tic Tac dispensers etc.,” says graffiti writer FREEDOM. “They rarely worked, but it was a good way to waste time until you got a real mini or uni.” As markers took hold, writers also began to use substances other than ink that had a similar effect. “We used to use Griffin’s black shoe polish,” says COCO 144. “That’s where the idea for the mop came from.” The term “mop” refers to any such tool similar to a marker — like bottles of shoe polish with sponge or bingo dabbers, which left a bolder mark and were harder to buff.

While it would be nice to put an exact date or etch a specific graffiti writer’s name into the history books as the first to switch from markers to spray paint, the evolution was something that happened on an organic, macro level.

PHOTO BY ADAM WALLACAVAGE

THE MOVE TO SPRAY PAINT

The decision to move to spray paint was a logical next step for those who wanted to continue writing their names. “I might’ve been one of the first writers to use a wide-tip marker, but it wasn’t like one-upmanship,” TAKI 183 recalls. “It was just there; you did it. Just like if you found a can of spray paint left over somewhere, you’d use it. It was all what was there, what was available. I’ve done a big piece with black enamel paint. I’d get home with my hands all black from the paintbrush.”

“The reason I started tagging with marker was because TAKI 183 started with marker,” says early writer JOE 182. “Then I saw he was hitting with paint, and I thought ‘that’s not a bad idea.’ So I started hitting with paint, too.”

“I think the shift happened unconsciously,” COCO says. “But it happened purposefully. It had to happen. I describe it as a graduation. After you got to a certain point, you had to go on to your next platform, which was spray paint. Cats were saying, ‘I wanna make my name bigger and bolder. I’m gonna go with spray paint.’ It’s all a part of the evolution. There are certain things that happened that you can’t put your finger on. People try to break it down and all these books have been written. There is still a lot of stuff that doesn’t need an explanation. They just happened. People communicated with each other. They saw the grapevine is long. The shit got around fast.”

GRAFFITI SPREADS

 

According to pioneering writer CORNBREAD, the earliest traces of graffiti as we understand it today began in Philadelphia with his own daring exploits in 1965 and then exploded by 1967.

“I was the only person in the city of Philadelphia who wrote their name in spray paint for the purpose of establishing a reputation for myself,” he says. “In fact, I was the only person in the world who was writing their name in spray paint on city walls for the purpose of establishing a reputation for themselves.”

In 1971, an even greater awareness was placed on graffiti culture when The New York Times ran an article about aforementioned TAKI 183, a Greek teenager whose all-city exploits made him as common a fixture on New York City streets as the halal carts. While Taki will admit to being one of the first prominent graffiti writers in New York City, there is no record as to who truly was the first to make the switch from markers and paint to aerosols.

Quickly, artists also began realizing that they could manipulate the caps to improve their graffiti and spray larger arcs.

“We were making our own fat caps by taking caps off the Easy-Off oven cleaner,” says COCO 144.

When COCO mentions “fat caps,” he is referring to certain repurposed nozzles that widen the area of spray from aerosol paint, which made it easier for artists to create “masterpieces” on walls and the exteriors of trains.

There was no mistaking the fact that Robert Abplanalp’s Precision Valve Corporation was a major force in commerce. Thus, his “stock caps” were often the only choice when a graffiti artist opted to do a piece or leave his tag on the wall. Whereas usage often informs innovation, writers who were using his stock caps wondered how much better their work would be if their spray paint had different valves. This led to the utilitarian reappropriation of other aerosol caps to replace the Precision Valves.

“We used Niagara Spray Starch caps — which fit on Rust-O. And we used Scotch Guard and Jifoam oven-cleaner caps, which fit on Red Devil,” says BLADE.

Specifically, BLADE remembers the exact moment when he recognized the importance of specialized caps.

“I was in class at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx in 1972. I was 15 years old and either in 9th or 10th grade. You could see the 3rd Avenue El train from our classroom, and we all see the first top-to-bottom train car, done by GUN 229. It was all red with no outline. Everyone in the classroom runs to the window. The teacher is dumbfounded. It was the most amazing thing in the world.”

As graffiti artists are known to do, BLADE was encouraged after seeing GUN 229’s piece to try something similar that same year, given the newfound ability to be more precise with lines thanks to the reappropriated aerosol caps.

According to The New York Times, in 1973, two years after its “Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals” article ran, two of the largest manufacturers of spray paint, Rust-Oleum and Krylon, were producing 270 million cans annually in the U.S. — and being looked upon as a major reason why it took 80,000 man-hours and $300,000 to curb the upswing in graffiti in New York City each year.

Much of the success of the industry could be attributed to how spray-paint advertisements catered to both men and women looking to accomplish a task, as well as those who viewed spray painting as more of a fun activity, such as holiday decorating for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

At the time, very rarely were products viewed as unisex. However, Krylon and other major brands like Seymour of Sycamore challenged that approach through colorful advertisements urging that “everyone should get into the act,” “use your imagination” and “cook up something special this Christmas” by using spray paint to “holidazzle” everything from Christmas trees and centerpieces to baby cribs.

THE EARLY HISTORY OF CONTEMPORARY BRANDS

As the aesthetics of graffiti shifted from rudimentary designs to works that used outlines and multiple colors, spray paint was uniquely suited to satiate the needs of artists who needed a tool that was both conspicuous and able to be applied quickly.

The brand favored by many artists in graffiti’s formative years was Rust-Oleum — colloquially referred to as Rust-O — because it was thicker than that of its rival, Krylon.

Rust-O’s unlikely story begins on the high seas in the early part of the 20th century, the product of a chance observation by Scottish-born ship captain Robert Fergusson: After spilling fish oil on his ship’s rusty metal deck, he noticed that the corroding effect of the salt water didn’t advance in areas where the oil had touched the ship.

Just as aerosol technology was born of problem- solving — mosquito-related illness — Fergusson believed he could combine fish oil with paint in order to produce a paint that might be used to protect against and retard the spread of rust on his ship.

In 1921, he perfected a fish-oil-based paint that stopped rust, dried overnight and didn’t smell like fish.

To celebrate its Scottish heritage, Rust-Oleum marketed its products with a Scotty mascot — a winking, plaid-wearing, tam-o’-shanterclad pitchman.

With a bold advertising strategy that declared to customers, “Stops rust!” Rust-O was in direct competition with Seymour of Sycamore, which advertised on the sides of its own cans, “As rust-preventative as a paint can be!”

“We know it . . . and you know it . . . so let your customers be in on it,” Seymour of Sycamore advertised in publications like Better Homes, Popular Science, House & Garden, Remodeling Guide, Life, Home Decorating and Home Remodeling, where they touted racks of paint dubbed “The Little Colonel,” “The Commander” and “The Chief Supreme,” which came in run-of-the-mill colors like red, white, blue, black, silver and orange.

Philadelphia businessman Howard E. Kester revolutionized the paint industry in 1947 when he founded Krylon, Inc. — which, despite the claims of the others, still touts itself on its website as “the first and still largest supplier of aerosol paints in the world.”

Impressed by both the DuPont Corporation’s refinements in aerosol paint and its introduction of the synthetic fiber known as nylon, Kester arrived at the name “Krylon” by dropping the first “n” from nylon and adding the first and last letters of his own last name.

In 1952, Krylon adopted a lightweight, two-piece aerosol can with no side seam and no top seam — dubbed the “Spra-Tainer.” This design, adopted from Crown Holdings Inc., came to be known as the modern-day push-button aerosol can, delivering everything from pesticides and car wax to household deodorizers.

In 1964, Krylon introduced Krylon Car Colors, which were produced in 270 colors and featured gold-lithographed aerosol cans. “We think this is the biggest news in the aerosol paint field in 1964,” an advertisement stated. In the early days, Krylon admitted it wasn’t completely sure what its spray-paint products were used for.

“Our customers come up with 10 new uses for every one we suggest,” James W. Bampton, president of Krylon, stated in one newspaper feature about the company — perhaps a glimpse into the future, when Krylon would be used in an illegal context.

This era was marked by extreme growth for the Norristown, Pennsylvania, company. President Bampton had contacts in Europe and arranged a partnership abroad for his products, which was brokered by Francoise Woltner and Francis DeWavrin, the heirs to the owner of a large Bordeaux winery called La Mission Haut-Brion, who handled all of the overseas marketing.

Most notably, Krylon products were used in Cairo museums alongside relics of King Tutankhamun. Fifty-five-gallon drums of Crystal Clear — an acrylic preservative — were transported and applied to wood objects that were brittle and in need of preservation.

PHOTO COURTESY THE INTERNET

James W. Bampton served as president of Krylon until 1966, when the company was acquired by Borden Inc. — a brand with roots in dairy that had expanded its ventures to include printing ink, fertilizer and plastics.

Borden Inc. introduced Krylon cans with the distinctive 5-Ball logo and signature Borden script below, which were available both in paper-label and litho cans — with metal or plastic overcaps and the patented Borden-cow logo on the back.

According to The New York Times, “by 1973, Big Spray was producing 270 million cans annually in the U.S.” This was despite a minor setback for Krylon after it was unable to produce any paint for one whole month a year earlier due to Hurricane Agnes, which inflicted massive water damage at its factory.

While Rust-Oleum and Seymour of Sycamore fought it out using advertisements with stock characters like “the homemaker” and “the busy father,” Krylon sought out opportunities using celebrity endorsers.

From 1978 to 1982, Cincinnati Reds catcher (and future Hall of Famer) Johnny Bench served as spokesman for Krylon spray paint, under the theme “No Runs, No Drips, No Errors!”

George Lyon, chairman of Borden Inc., was one of the first aerosol executives to realize the impact of advertising on television. Aided by Bench’s star power, Krylon grew 15 to 20 percent a year for seven years. In February 1984, Krylon reignited its sports connections by enlisting the promotional services of John Madden, former coach of the Oakland Raiders, and the jocular Bob Uecker, once a backup catcher for the Milwaukee Braves. They championed the joys of regular Krylon and Krylon Rust Magic, respectively, in a series of TV spots.

HEALTH CONCERNS

One of the biggest changes in the business came in 1978 with the removal of lead from spray paint products/brands such as Red Devil, a privately owned family business with state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities in Pryor, Oklahoma — which had been favored by graffiti writers because of the trouble it gave to people who were trying to clean up the artistic destruction.

The federal government responded to the risks associated with lead paint due in great part to studies carried out by Philip J. Landrigan, an American epidemiologist and pediatrician and one of the world’s leading advocates of children’s health. His work studying toxic chemicals in the environment resulted in paint containing more than 0.06% of lead being banned for residential use in the United States in 1978 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

After researching the effects of lead exposure on children living near a large ore smelter in El Paso, Texas, Landrigan was one of the first people to show that lead could cause brain damage to children at levels too low to cause clinically evident signs and symptoms — a phenomenon termed “subclinical toxicity.” This proved vital in persuading the EPA to remove lead from gasoline and paint — actions that have resulted in a 95% decline in lead poisoning among U.S. children.

“People got all ozone friendly between 1977 and 1978 when they took the lead out of paint,” BLADE remembers. “Lead paint was better. It was killing you, but no one gave a shit about the environment or their health at the time.”

In November 1984, Borden Inc. closed its Krylon spray-products plant in Norristown without warning. A company spokesman said that Borden could no longer produce spray products at the plant as economically as elsewhere because of the age and condition of the facility.

“We had no room for expansion to accommodate our growing product lines,” according to Allen K. Botbyl, manager of the Krylon plant, which also produced Sparvar and Rust Magic brand names. Borden later stated that spray coating previously made in Norristown would be packaged for the company in Holland, Michigan, by the American Aerosol division of Guardsman Chemicals Inc.

 

In 1990, Sherwin-Williams added the well-known Krylon and Illinois Bronze lines of aerosol paints to its holdings.

The initial design of the Sherwin -Williams Krylon can earned the nickname “flatball” because of the appearance of the logo, which was different from later 3D-Ball can graphics between 1992 and 1994, where the 5-Ball logo had dimensional shading and square labels.

During this era, marketing reflected a shift in how a brand like Krylon wanted consumers to understand what the product could be used for and on as opposed to what kind of paint formula was contained inside the can.

Kathy Rich, assistant product manager for Krylon, told the Chicago Tribune in 1998, “Whereas before aerosol paints came in basic colors for utilitarian needs, we are becoming more up-to-speed with home-decorating colors. We want to stay more on top of the color palette and match what’s going on in other housewares and decorating areas, but we’re not anywhere near the cutting edge because people mainly use aerosol paint to spruce up something they already have.”

Krylon’s strategy was reflected in a number of new items for the market, like the Fabulous Finishes line of coatings (Make It Stone! Make It Pearl!) for arts-and-crafts projects. Other new sprays included the Rust Tough Hamm-R finish, which prevented rust and produced a dimpled, metallic look, and Glass Frosting, which could be sprayed on windows and glass shower doors to create a veil of privacy.

In 2002, Krylon reprised its famous “No Runs, No Drips, No Errors!” tagline, which had gained traction during baseball season in the early 1980s, and also returned to its full 5-Ball logo, which helped make the brand famous.

A year later, Krylon introduced its Fusion line, aimed at plastics — an industry in which 101 billion pounds of resins were produced in the U.S. alone. Available in 16 colors, Krylon Fusion formed a superior bond to all types of clean, dry plastic surfaces including ABS, polypropylene, polyethylene, PVC, vinyl, resin, ceramic, glass, tile, wood, metal, wicker and other hard-to-bond-to surfaces.

While all the aforementioned examples had little to do with graffiti and much more to do with commerce, Krylon’s new cap system certainly ruffled many writers’ feathers after it was unveiled in 2008. Dubbed “the greatest revolution in spray paint,” the EZ Touch 360 Dial changed the direction of the fan spray — horizontal, vertical and any angle in between — and was said to reduce finger fatigue for users while mimicking the design of the Fusion line of products. For graffiti purposes, Krylon’s new cap resulted in a poor spray pattern and cans dispersing more paint than a person intended.

In 2009, Krylon continued to distance itself from its graffiti past/pedigree when it partnered with Keep America Beautiful, Inc. on the “Graffiti Hurts” program.

“Building a consistent message to prevent graffiti vandalism requires that our organization and programs remain relevant to their target audiences,” said Keep America Beautiful president and CEO Matt McKenna in a press release. “We thank The Sherwin-Williams Company for their ongoing support of this program that is making a difference in hundreds of communities nationwide.”

“Preventing graffiti requires a commitment to providing tools and resources directly to the people and organizations that need them,” said Harvey Sass, president and general manager, Diversified Brands Division, The Sherwin-Williams Company, in the same press release. “Sherwin- Williams is proud to support Keep America Beautiful’s efforts to improve communities and the lives of their residents through the Graffiti Hurts program.”

Today, Krylon is still owned by Sherwin-Williams, the largest paint manufacturer in the world, which also controls

 

COLOR RUSH & CAN COLLECTIBILITY

The biggest change in the spray-paint business occurred between the late ’60s and early ’80s, when simple colors in the color spectrum were not enough to beat out stiff competition.

Specifically, home décor and the choices people favored as it related to the color of their kitchens played a large role in shaping spray-paint palettes moving forward.

In the 1950s, kitchens were often painted in popular colors like Stratford Yellow, Sherwood Green, Turquoise Green, Cadet Blue, Woodtone Brown, Petal Pink and Canary Yellow.

Kohler, a longtime manufacturer of furniture, cabinetry and tile, noted of the era in official company history, “It was a decade of rule-breaking styles and colors. It was a time of rebellion as men burned draft cards and the sexual revolution was in full swing.”

Similarly, GE said of the colors of its appliances in 1966 in company history, “These new colors went hand-in-hand with the Danish modern look of the late 1960s. During this time, color remained a critical factor for fashion-conscious consumers.”

Specifically, the color Avocado made the jump from kitchen décor into spray cans.

“In the ’60s, if you look at how the era was, there were a lot of bright, pastel colors,” recalls veteran spray-paint collector Ed Walker. “I’m assuming they jumped on that bandwagon and were like, ‘Okay, well, all these bright colors are popular. So let’s make spray paint for those colors.’ I can point to a few things specific. For example, look at the color Avocado. If you look at people’s kitchens between the mid ’60s to the mid ’70s, Avocado was a very popular color for either the walls or the refrigerator. Avocado came out in Rust-Oleum in 1967. And it came out in Krylon in 1968. So it just makes sense that these manufacturers were using these colors.”

In turn, Krylon also introduced dozens of new colors — Topaz Yellow, Brick, Pearl Grey, Bonfire, Almond, Beige, Chippewa Sandstone, Terra Cotta, Burgundy, Graystone, etc. — in hopes of creating bigger business. For the company, this was definitely a departure, considering that the very first can it ever produced was Crystal Clear, followed up by run-of-the-mill colors like black, silver, white and red.

“Now, with the five new colors, there are 45 colorful ways to make higher profits instead of 40,” a Krylon advertisement from March 1982 stated. The result of the color invasion in a graffiti context was twofold; it gave writers the ability to create vibrant pieces using different colors but also created a secondary market for ownership among individuals who saw can collecting as a hobby.

 

Can collecting as a hobby began in the early ’90s and engages thousands of people who go sifting through estate sales, basements, hardware stores and flea markets to score vintage collectibles.

“IZ THE WIZ had a collection of paint that were cans that he held onto from the 1970s and 1980s that he wasn’t going to get rid of,” Walker says. “For him, they were nostalgia, because he used the cans and had fond memories of getting them and who he used them with. He held onto those cans for years.”

Whereas certain pieces of ephemera gain value due to age, spray paint’s price tag on the resale market is also based on color, brand and how long the color was produced.

“You can have a Seymour’s can from 1947 when spray paint came out,” Walker says. “You can have one of those cans and it might sell on eBay for maybe between $200 to $400 USD. But you could take a [Krylon] Icy Grape from 1980 and it would sell from $700 USD plus. That’s just because of the color.”

Specifically, a can of Pennant Blue from Krylon has come to represent the pinnacle of ownership for spray-paint collectors, in Walker’s mind.

“I can tell you that the most valuable color is Pennant Blue made by Krylon,” Walker says with absolute certainty. “It came out between ’69 and ’71. It was only available for a couple years, and there have only been a couple cans that have popped up. I’d say that there are less than 10 in existence that I know about. I know someone who paid $1,500 USD for one. To real can collectors, that’s the Holy Grail.”

Another veteran collector, Darrell Chapnick, believes that the true Holy Grail — or what he calls “owning Superman #1,” drawing a parallel to his other passion in life, comic-book collecting — is Krylon’s very first can, which was in fact a clear coat but is still considered a color in the eyes of collectors.

“What makes that can particularly rare is that Krylon never made colors in soup-can styles,” Chapnick says. “Other manufacturers did, but Krylon only had the clear. There’s only one that exists in the world, and I own it. I know for a fact. Two guys who wrote books about it came over and said no other one exists. I snagged it in 1999 from a guy from Wyoming. How he got it I don’t know. Historically, it came out around 1948-49, and collectors refer to them as ‘soup-can’ style because of their shape. They’re flat on the top. It’s cylinder shape, five inches high and three inches in diameter. It says the word ‘Krylon’ in a three-dimensional font style inside an oval and the letters get larger as you progress and then smaller. Underneath, it says ‘the plastic spray,’ and it also has the directions on it.

Chapnick has refused $2,000 USD offers to buy the first can of Krylon clear coat. “If I didn’t have a son, I would consider donating it,” he says. “It’s probably going to go to my son. It would stay in the family right now.”

While sites like eBay have made amassing a collection easier, it still begs the question, “Where are the 50-year-old cans coming from?”

“As far as finding cans, they’re all over the place,” Walker says. “You can find them at estate sales. You can find them in barns in the middle of nowhere. People I know make treks and go into stores. I know people who have driven all the way from New York to Ohio and the Chicago area just to get paint.”

Since Walker is a veteran of can collecting, he even admits that there is a trade secret he didn’t want to give up so easily.

 

IZ THE WIZ’S PAINT STASH, FORT ROCKAWAY, MID 1990s PHOTO BY IZ THE WIZ

 

“I’d say the biggest place that people find paint now are at paint recycling plants,” he says. “People go into your household-waste programs and they make friends with people. People come in there and throw the things away, and then collectors go in and have workers pull stuff. Sometimes they are able to go in there and pull the cans themselves.”

Darrell Chapnick resorted to taking out advertisements reading “vintage spray paint wanted” in the local Penny Saver, like he had done in the past when trying to acquire antique tools and hand planes.

“I call it beginner’s luck,” Chapnick says of one of his earliest and most noteworthy finds. “This old lady who probably bakes apple pies calls me and says that her brother left some cans behind. I enter this bomb shelter with metal double doors that leads into this lady’s basement. She turns on the light and nothing is there. It’s dark and dank with a cement floor. But way in the back are unopened boxes of 1950s Krylon. Pastel colors. They were just stacked. Hyacinth Blue. Jonquil Yellow. Asher Blue. Nile Green. In total, there were about 300 cans.”

Can collectors view their pastime as a “rescue” mission, unlike the more nefarious means graffiti writers have resorted to when it comes to acquiring paint. Although there is still danger in acquiring vintage cans, according to Chapnick.

“I’ve gotten myself into a lot of colorful situations where I should have gotten mugged,” he says. “I’ve been to some scary neighborhoods. I used to go into this old hardware store where they were selling heroin on the corner and I would pray my car wouldn’t break down.”

As with other collectors who engage in unearthing ephemera, enthusiasts of spray paint also have an affinity for acquiring signage from stores, color charts from House & Garden, advertising from Popular Mechanics and other items that reflect the progression of aerosol from World War II to its usage during the graffiti explosion in New York City and Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

“I collect the early dealer catalogs from hardware stores, where industry people would get brochures inside three-ring binders,” Chapnick says. “There are collectibles like the Rust- Oleum clock, but those are around. There are point-of-purchase displays/advertisement props. Champion made some really cool ones with an arm coming up — it’s made out of cardboard and inset in the cardboard is the actual can.”

Despite the range of collectibles, spray paint remains the gold.

“Without the spray can you wouldn’t have graffiti art,” Chapnick says. “I look at them as early tools. It’s a 20th century phenomenon and unique to that era.”

 

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