Rustoleum’s New Cap and the Demise of American Spray Paint

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Rustoleum with a dreaded female cap

Rustoleum with a dreaded female cap

Spray paint dates to about the 1920s, but in its familiar form, the history of the spray-paint can begins in the early 1960s. By the early ’70s, it was an art medium in the hands of New York kids, who quickly figured out that swapping out the factory nozzle for one from a can of oven cleaner could give a fatter, cleaner line. They also found that nozzles from cans of spray fixative could give a narrow, clean line perfect for detailing. By the mid-’90s, enterprising graffiti writers had figured out how to bulk-order these specific spray tips from their various factories and resold them to other graffiti writers. I remember going on little missions in the early ’90s to find oven cleaner tips — which meant taking the tips off these cans in the store, then carefully keeping them in a film canister (remember those?) full of nail polish remover between uses to keep them free from clogs. It was a pain in the ass, and when I first managed to send 20 bucks to some dude in New York and got a big sandwich bag full of nozzles in return, it was both a revelation and a time saver.

Then, there were the paints themselves. In mid-’90s Europe, spray paint companies very logically looked to graffiti writers to guide their product development. European spray paint brands, such as Belton and Montana, really paid attention to graffiti writers, eventually sponsoring projects and even gave star graffiti writers their own signature color of paint. Graffiti writers knew all these nuances of spray paint — coverage, overspray, color intensity, compatibility with other brands — and all of those other details that no weekend warrior out spray-painting his metal deck furniture is ever going to see, but will benefit from.

The two main American spray paint companies, Rustoleum and Krylon, on the other hand, have always played blind to graffiti. While Belton and Montana each have several hundred colors, Rusto and Krylon have kept their color palettes to about a dozen or two at a time, forcing graffiti writers to shop at out-of-the-way discount stores to stock up on colors only available for a season or two. Since you can’t mix spray paint colors without a lot of fuss, this is annoying. Krylon, a onetime favorite, has been so watered down that it’s simply useless. Along the way, they switched to a “fan” spray tip — the worst for any kind of artistic use — and even worse, fixed the fan tip to the can so that it couldn’t be removed. One of those details that graffiti writers really pay attention to is nozzle quality and the compatibility of the valve (where nozzle meets can) to accommodate a variety of nozzles for various effects. Krylon simply removed itself from the artistic-use market with this one move.

American graffiti writers are fiercely loyal to Rustoleum, however. Rusto is legendary as the thickest and most durable of all spray paints. It’s not for finesse: The thickness of the stuff precludes detail work, but there’s nothing that’ll last like it. Recently, graffiti writers on forums like and elsewhere were circulating photos like the above with horror. Rustoleum is busily making a switch to a “female” cap — one where the little post between nozzle and can is connected to the can, not the nozzle. It’s a small detail, but it’s one that they wouldn’t have made if they had listened to the people who know their products best.

European spray paints took awhile to arrive in U.S. markets, but they’re here now and easy to find. American graffiti writers who would go through hundreds of cans of Rusto in a year are now doing the same with Belton, Montana, or new arrival Ironlak. These European spray paints can cost twice as much as their American counterparts, but artists are artists and they’ll pay the cost to make their work. American graffiti writers certainly aren’t happy about having to pay more, and they are basically a patriotic bunch who would rather buy American, but when one company races to make things easier and another harder, the choice is clear. It’s a shame that these once-proud American companies, both based in Ohio, have put on such a clinic in business suicide, but that’s what happens when you willfully ignore your customers.