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How Spray Paint Works

Cosmetic and Cultural Uses for Spray Paint
Here's a famous example of spray paint's cultural power: the Lennon memorial wall in Prague.
Here's a famous example of spray paint's cultural power: the Lennon memorial wall in Prague.
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Spray painting has also turned the worlds of tanning, cosmetics and pop culture upside down. Sunless tanning has been popular for years since ultraviolet radiation from the sun and tanning beds have been linked to cancer. Salons offering spray-on tanning options use methods similar to manufacturers. A would-be sun worshipper steps into a small booth and sprayers, either hand-held or fixed, use compressed air to apply a chemical solution to the customer's skin.

It isn't paint that causes the skin to turn brown, but a sugar called dihydroxyacetone (DHA). When DHA touches dead skin, a reaction takes place that causes the skin to brown temporarily (usually for about a week).

Makeup artists have adopted airbrushes, small air-powered tools, for personal application of cosmetics. Airbrushes use compressed air to atomize liquid makeup, much the way the propellant in a can of spray paint atomizes the paint it's mixed with. The result is a thin, evenly distributed layer of makeup that's much smoother than can be applied with a powder brush. The rise of high-definition television, where unforgiving cameras reveal every flaw, has contributed to the popularity of this method of make-up application.

Probably most noticeably, graffiti artists have embraced the convenience of spray paint as their medium of choice. In the 1960s and '70s this form of expression exploded in Philadelphia and New York City as artists began creating colorful, thematic murals in public places -- most notably on subway cars -- as a way to generate buzz for their other artistic endeavors [source: Scape]. Since most street artists operate outside the law, the light and portable nature of spray cans makes them an ideal tool. And spray paint offers a variety of bright colors, adheres well to virtually any surface and provides good coverage in a short time.

Graffiti, once a symbol of lawlessness, has evolved into a chic art form complete with gallery showings, high-dollar pieces, and even tortured artists like the celebrated Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work has been shown in museums around the world [source: Davies]. Even spray paint companies are helping elevate street art into the mainstream by donating product for legal, large-scale projects [source: Laboy].

From its beginnings as a way to get a paint job done faster, to using it to mask imperfections or make an artistic statement, spray paint has left an indelible mark on global pop culture.