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Graffiti: Aerosol Art

Aerosol Art
Aerosol or "spray can" art

The strand of graffiti art which is considered one of the four elements of hip hop culture is usually denoted urban 'Aerosol Art'. Sometimes synonymous with "hip-hop heads," so-called graffiti artists have gone beyond that stereotype and are abundant even among middle-class white children. Different genres exist, from Philadelphia's wicked style to California and New York's wild style graffiti. Graffiti artists are classified based on their style and sometimes even on what surface they use.

Graffiti tagging existed in Philadelphia during the 1960s, pioneered by Cornbread and Cool Earl. Another Philadelphia product, Top Cat, later exported the characteristic Philly style of script (tall, slender lettering with platforms at the bottom) to New York, where it gained popularity as "Broadway Elegant". It wasn't until it reached popularity in the New York City Subway system that it took on an extravagant artistic role, expanding from tags to full-blown "pieces".

One of the originators of New York graffiti, TAKI 183, a Greek-American foot messenger, would tag his nickname around New York streets that he daily frequented en route. His tag expressed a diminutive for Demetrius, while 183 came from his address. After The New York Times showcased him, hundreds of urban youth rapidly started mimicking his tag.

Other active writers existed in New York City before Taki, such as JULIO 204, but an article about Taki in the New York Times brought attention to the movement. With the innovation of art, and the craving to gain the widest audience, taggers made attempts. There developed a preference for spray-paint (due to the fact that artists had to paint their art fast to evade police and security) and a strict adherence to spraypaint, sampling foreign calligraphy, and the much-anticipated mural (that usually covered an entire subway car). The graffiti vandal became a "writer," and groups of associated "writers" became "crews". The movement spread on the streets, returned to the railroads where hobos had popularized tagging, and spread nationwide with the aid of media and rap music; thus spurring imitation worldwide.

New York City's "Lady Pink" became one of the earliest active women on the graffiti scene. Also known as Sandra Fabara, Lady Pink starred at the age of 18 in the classic 1982 hip-hop film Wildstyle. The 1984 film Beat Street documented all the elements and many of the personalities of the early hip-hop movement. Graffiti features strongly in the film, with one of the main characters a writer who works on walls and on subway cars.

In the early 1980s, the combination of a booming art market and a renewed interest in painting resulted in the rise of a few graffiti artists to art-star status. Jean-Michel Basquiat, a former street-artist known by his "Samo" tag, and Keith Haring, a professionally-trained artist who adopted a graffiti style, became two of the most widely recognized graffiti artists. In some cases, the line between "simple" graffiti and unsanctioned works of public art can become blurred.


"Bombing" in the graffiti world refers to the act of vandalising property with one's signature or logo. "Bombing"-type graffiti can manifest itself in many different forms, but always happens illegally.

Tag: The simplest and earliest form of modern graffiti, a tag consists of a stylised signature - commonly executed with spray-paint or markers.

Throw-up: The throw-up involves the execution of one's name in large bubble-like letters. Throw-up design emphasises fast and easy painting.

Burner: A full sized logo, usually accompanied by a symbol and a date of creation, a project of such artistic challenge(both in the art and evading being "pinched" in the act) that only experts dare to attempt.

Block letters: Different names apply to this style of lettering according to where one comes from, but in general it refers to large, angular, easily-read characters.

Piece: Commonly refers to the complicated letter styles characteristic of graffiti art. Bombers execute pieces illegally, and usually with the least amount of decorum possible.

Rollers: Graffiti done with paint rollers. Usually very large. Often done by leaning over the edge of a building and painting one's name, logo, etc.

Stickers: Taggers often put their tag on a blank stickers and post them where they would tag, but faster.
Other: A lot of bombers have come to use logos, characters or other types of designs to represent themselves.

Graffiti art battles

In the early 1980s one of the largest community "graffiti art battles" took place next to the Bull Ring shopping centre in Birmingham, England. The city invited a selection of the UK's most renowned graffiti artists, including Wolverhampton local artist Goldie, Bristol's 3D (who went on to form Massive Attack), London's Mode from the Chrome Angelz, with Bronx Man Brim and his New York alter ego Bio attending for good measure.

The city erected massive boards with scaffolding in place to enable free movement of the artists. It provided a rare occasion of the age for so many prestigious artists to come together on one wall -- many battles would lead to crew rivalry, especially if one artist would "bite", or copy, another's style. A Channel 4 documentary titled Bombing preserves clips from the Battle.

Aerosol spray

Aerosol spray is the name given to a type of canister containing liquid under pressure from pressurized vapor in equilibrium with another liquid, which often also dissolves the payload (see propellant below). When the can's valve is opened, the liquid is forced out of a small hole and emerges as an aerosol, or mist. As gas expands to drive out the payload, some propellant evaporates inside the can to maintain an even pressure. Outside the can, the droplets of propellant evaporate rapidly, leaving the payload suspended as very fine particles or droplets. Typical liquids dispensed in this way are insecticides, deodorants and paints. An atomiser is a similar device that is pressurised by a hand-operated pump rather than by stored gas.

The modern aerosol spray can was invented in Oslo in 1926 by Erik Rotheim, a Norwegian chemical engineer. The patent was sold to a US company for 100,000 Norwegian kroners, but it wasn't until 1941 that it was first put to good use by Americans Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan. They turned it into an instrument for the US military to fight the malaria mosquito in the Pacific during World War II.


If the can was simply filled with compressed gas, either it would need to be at a dangerously high pressure, or the amount of gas in the can would be small, and it would soon run out. Hence, usually, the gas is the vapour of a liquid with boiling point slightly lower than room temperature. This means that inside the pressurised can, the vapour can exist in equilibrium with its bulk liquid at a pressure that is higher than atmospheric pressure (and able to expel the payload), but not dangerously high; yet, as gas escapes it is immediately replaced by more evaporating liquid. Since the propellant exists in liquid form in the can it is desirable that it be miscible with or dissolved in the payload.

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were once often used but since the Montreal Protocol came into force in 1989 they have been replaced, in nearly every country, due to the negative effects CFCs have on Earth's ozone layer. The most common replacements are mixtures of volatile hydrocarbons, typically propane, n-butane and isobutane. Dimethyl ether (DME) and methylethyl ether are also used. All these have the principle disadvantage of being quite flammable. Nitrous oxide is also used as a propellant to deliver foodstuffs (for example, whipped cream). Medicinal aerosols such as asthma inhalers use hydrofluoroalkanes (HFA): either HFA 134a (1,1,1,2,-tetrafluoroethane) or HFA 227 (1,1,1,2,3,3,3-heptafluoropropane) or combinations of the two.


Aerosol spray products have three major parts; the can, the valve and the actuator or button. The can is most commonly lacquered tin plate and may be made of 2 or 3 pieces of metal crimped together. Aluminum cans are also common and are generally used for more expensive products. The valve is crimped to the rig of the can, the design of this component is important in determining the spray rate. The actuator is depressed by the user to open the valve; the shape and size of the nozzle in the actuator controls the spread of the aerosol spray.

Aerosol safety and removal

Spray paint usually contains volatile organic compounds (VOCs)-often highly toxic. Some graffiti artists who regularly work with spray paint develop neurological problems due to overexposure to VOCs. An article from contains more information on the subject and recommends that spray painters wear a filter mask when painting. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also have protective guidelines for working with spray paint.

Some heavy duty permanent markers also contain harmful VOCs such as xylene, although the quantity of VOC released will probably be less than with spray paint. Paint markers are another concern, while on the surface they may seem to be less toxic due to lack of particularization, they also contain chemicals like xylene which can be absorbed through the skin (not just through inhalation). Those who use permanent or paint markers should check the label and follow the recommended safety instructions. Care should also be made to reduce skin contact; latex or vinyl gloves are useful for this purpose.

It is not just graffiti artists who must deal with these volatile chemical compounds; the compounds designed to remove graffiti can also be highly toxic. The maintenance workers who work with these substances, however, are usually trained to use them safely. To remove graffiti they generally use techniques such as high pressure cleaning or paint thinning solvents such as Acetone or Toluene; they may also paint over or, as a prevention, apply a specially formulated anti-graffiti coating to the surface of high-risk areas.
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