Healthy Spray Painting Practices (Ft. Askew One & Jordache)
As we dig deeper into the world of street art, we’re forever learning about aspects of the craft that hadn’t come to mind before.
It’s easy to think of street artists like we do many contemporary artists, imagining some glamorous lifestyle and romanticising the act of painting walls.
But painting walls is hard. It’s physically demanding, artists are out in the elements, they’re working long hours, and usually up against deadlines that demand the physically impossible. Not to mention, in most cases, they’re using spray cans; inhaling chemicals and getting covered in paint and other particles.
This topic first came to our attention when meeting Brisbane-based artist, Jordache, during the Brisbane Street Art Festival’s project in Ipswich, QLD. During our chat, Jordache mentioned that the mural he completed was painted entirely with brushes as he’s no longer able to work with spray cans. A decade of spray can use had led to deeply concerning health effects, and he was not the only one.
When Jordache joined us on the Street Art Unearthed podcast, we expanded on this topic. He mentioned that Askew One was another artist who raised concerns about whether his use of spray cans had led to a thunderclap headache, leading to long-term side effects. So we asked Askew One onto the podcast, too, and got both artists’ perspective on the possible impacts and how graffiti writers and street artists can use spray cans with their health in mind.
You can listen to the full podcast with Jordache below or read on from excerpts around this topic.
You can listen to the full podcast with Askew One below or read on from excerpts around this topic.
Not a Care in the World
“In my career with spray paint, I used a lot of different spray paint. I was using car paint, crap paint, whatever paint I could get my hands on — every type of paint, just poor quality. You grow up, you just want spray paint, it doesn’t matter what it is. If it sprays you can make marks, that’s good enough.” — Jordache.
“I definitely wasn’t thinking about anything like that. I think about what the products look like in the early 90s. In NZ we had a very narrow selection of paints and only one locally manufactured paint that was very noxious. It smelt worse than the rest, and it was very sticky. It stuck to everything. It never really kind of dried and being young you’re really unaware. You find yourself in situations where you’re just so eager to learn and practice that you find yourself painting in an enclosed space, like a tunnel or a friends garage or something and you’re fuming yourselves out and no we weren’t very conscious of that at all.” — Askew One.
Impacts of Exposure
“Years and years of that, and not wearing a proper respirator mask, just being engulfed in fumes, painting in certain spots with no ventilation, times that by a decade, and I guess I really just started to feel it. I felt it, let’s say five years ago, four years ago even. I just felt weird when I’d spray paint.
“I started to get headaches, I’d sneeze a lot, I could feel it in my lungs, and it feels gross on your skin. It really ruins your skin if you’re not wearing gloves or long sleeves, and obviously, if you live in a hot climate, you get a sunburn, and you’re covered in spray paint, that’s not really smart.
“It’s just one of those toxic things, it’s spray paint. Of course, it’s full of chemicals. Obviously, when I was younger, I couldn’t give a fuck. Who cares, I’m living in the now, I’m not living in the old man’s stage. But in the last few years, if I’d use it heavily, I’ll sneeze blood. I’d feel that there’s a taste in my mouth, and I know I’ve used too much.
“I know people who have had really bad health effects from it. Askew talked about it, maybe 10 years ago he had a thunderclap headache like a stroke, which is how he describes it.” — Jordache.
“I met a lot of German artists around 2000–2001 onwards, and they were very, very in tune to this whole idea of looking after your respiratory health and covering up — not getting paint on your skin. I kind of heeded and paid attention to them but at the same time, I would go in and out of being consistent, like maintaining a mask properly and changing the filters frequently and keeping them in an airtight container… It’s not 100% conducive with being a 23–24-year-old idiot that isn’t really thinking things through. I think that is kind of where it was at. A couple of things hit me — a couple of catalysts for thinking about things differently.
“One was that I did have some health issues, and the doctors really never conclusively could say one way or another that was attributed to paint exposure or if it was stress or if it was genetic. I got diagnosed with what they call Call-Fleming syndrome which I realised is just a really fancy name for “we don’t know what it is” its something that marathon runners get from time to time and it can affect people who are particularly stressed.
“Essentially, a blood vessel in my right frontal lobe just constricted and stopped all the blood flow to the left side of my body, so I was paralysed on one side and couldn’t talk, but it was what they call a thunderclap headache. It was really sudden. I was walking to my studio and got rushed to the hospital, but within about 48 hours, I was mostly better. But I had some longterm residual effects that took a few years to resolve.
“One of them was fatigue, and it did seem to get worse when I was using paints.
“I remember one day I was in my studio and someone had a 10-litre bucket of white paint open and I went deaf in my left ear while it was open and it was kind of strange. I get slurry and exhausted really easily. Sometimes the left side of my face would droop when I was really tired. It was a very crazy experience.
“The thing to really discuss is that on the one hand, I was very health conscious already. I was a vegan for a number of years prior to that. I ran frequently. I did yoga. I hadn’t had any drugs or alcohol for almost 15 years at that point. People were so stunned. But then I was also painting frequently without a mask, often in a studio space with a tonne of other people. I had a furniture-maker in there who was sanding things and creating lots of sawdust… people using oil paint… It could have been anything, but it did get me thinking.” — Askew One.
Healthier Painting Practises
“I put it down to paint. It definitely was a big contributor to what spray paint I used. It’s just something I’m so conscious of these days.
“I love spray paint. If I have one medium to use forever, it probably would be spray paint. But yeah, you just can’t keep doing it, unless you have this $3,000 mask. It’s got its face shield, and you’ve got a battery pack.
“It’s just like any trade. If you’re an electrician for the rest of your life or a chippie or whatever, you’re going to buy a good tool. If you’re going to use spray paint for the rest of your life, just invest in it. It’s going to increase your life.” — Jordache.
“There are a few different approaches here. Increasingly you’re seeing people like Adnate and MadC and people like that wearing full respirators, like full visors when they work, because for some people the paint dust really irritates their eyes. There are a number of people who have to wear safety glasses as well as the respirator when they paint.
“I always remember DAIM from Hamburg, when he came to NZ, and it was the peak of summer. When he was painting, he didn’t allow any of his skin to be exposed. He used to wear a hooded jacket tight [around his face], a respirator, glasses, gloves. He didn’t allow any paint on his body. The amount of times I’ve had completely paint-covered hands and dust all over my face…
“If you want to be really conscious about it, there is no such thing as being too careful. Paint exposure can be really damaging for people, and it’s kind of like the luck of the draw because a lot of it factors around your diet, if you have a genetic predisposition towards certain things… There are so many factors that I don’t think people can be too safe.
“Once you’re doing things during the day and on a large scale, also being sun smart, and hydrating properly and stretching! After a while, this work gets really brutal on your body.” — Askew One.
Better Spray Paint Brands
“When I started, it was still possible to stumble over a product with lead in it or use much more noxious solvents than a lot of the paints have today.
“Ironlak has always had this reputation because of its odour, and that’s because they had perfumed the paint in the factory, which is really common amongst Asian manufacturers, but they had actually worked really hard to get any solvent out of their paint, like totally free.
“I think that a lot of paint manufacturers are heading that way, thinking about how they can make their product a little bit safer. But overall, I don’t think that the spray can has really changed that much since the 1950s, just minor iterations and shifts but they’re not radically different.” — Askew One.