Will Van Zandt is a man full of stories. Son of famous folk singer Towens Van Zandt, who is as legendary for his wild antics as his song writing; Will is a bit of a legend himself. He was once run over by a tractor trailer on the interstate in Nashville, passed up by the responding ambulance, and lived to tell about it. He is about as genuine a person as anyone could hope to meet. I have had the pleasure of knowing him for some time and share a few crazy stories with the man myself. This interview won’t be covering any of his wild past or give you specific insight into his fathers song writing process (sorry Townes fans). Instead we will cover WVZ’s obsessive passion for crusty old spray paint cans. Perhaps this will give you more insight into his father than a world full of unreleased demo tapes. Perhaps you will learn about the hunt for Jungle Green. Either way, while “there are two kinds of music. (The Blues, and Zippity-Do-Da”- TVZ), there are many can’s of spray paint yet to be unearthed.
-THE BAG MESSENGER
THE BAG MESSENGER: How did you first get into collecting cans?
Will Van Zandt: I got into it through graffiti. Back before all the specialty paint brands were around, you were very limited as far as colors and shades. In the mid nineties krylon had discontinued a lot of their more vibrant colors. My guy Verse, who basically schooled me as far as graffiti is concerned knew about some local mom and pop hardware stores who still had a good stock of discontinued colors, so we started cleaning those out, just getting paint to use. Every now and then I would find cans that were real old, they wouldn’t even spray, little off brands I had never heard of, some with crazy graphics. I would stick those on a shelve to display. Over time it was less about finding paint to use, and more about the older cans themselves.
THE BAG MESSENGER: How long have you been doing it?
Will Van Zandt: It started in 98’ so around twelve years. I slowed down for a while until I realized people were paying good money online for some of these cans. I defiantly got a second wind after that.
THE BAG MESSENGER: How much are some of these worth?
Will Van Zandt: In this economy no one is safe… Stuff isn’t going for what it was say, five years ago. At one point it was nothing to get on ebay and see cans going for a couple hundred dollars. I’ve seen single cans go for close to eight hundred dollars, that’s unheard of right now. Most stuff isn’t even selling. Right now it’s more about trades with other collectors.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What brands are you into? What types of cans are you looking for? How many cans deep are you?
Will Van Zandt: Probably my favorite right now are what are called picture cans. They were made by a few different brands, and basically every color has a different illustration that describes it. Also I’m into Rustoleum stuff 1965 or older. They sent out a lot of cool advertising stuff back in the day. Giant display cans, transistor radios that look like cans, I have a gold money clip, and a company softball team jersey from the early seventies. I’m looking for 1950’s “grenade and soup cans”, called this because of their shape. I don’t think most people would even recognize the “soup cans” as spray paint. I’m into greens, avocados, limes, and aquas. I would say i have around a thousand cans that are worth mentioning, but I’m defiantly trying to downsize. It’s gotten a bit insane, so a lot of stuff is boxed up these days.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What is the furthest you have gone on a trip digging?
Will Van Zandt: With Verse I’ve been down into Mississippi, on all back roads. We made it to Vicksburg Miss before we ran out of room in the truck and had to turn around. Same deal in Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky. Those are forsure some of the best come ups. There is not really anybody else in the South doing this. It isn’t like in the North East where you have a lot of guys going to the same spots competing. It was all untouched old family owned hardware stores. You know, “Grandpa opened up after the war, then my dad took over, now it’s mine.” These guys don’t recycle, and they don’t throw stuff away. Prime digging.
THE BAG MESSENGER: Can you describe what a digging mission might look like? How do people react when you tell them you want to dig up their old paint cans?
Will Van Zandt: We leave at three or four in the morning, and by the time we get to the next state the stores are starting to open up. We map it out, then hit every little town. When they start to close we get a cheap ass hotel room, and figure out where to go the next day. Most of the time you just get looked at like a psychopath, “ Your looking for what!?” I’ve been called a “long haired paint huffing drug addict” and told to get out of people’s stores. Sometimes you come across an old man who’s happy to have somebody who’s actually interested in his business, and wants to show you everything upstairs, in the basement, and tell stories about the “good ole’ days”. You can spend full days in a place like that. I’ve been in basements where cans were literally stuck up in the spaces under the floorboards. Then his buddy over in whateverville has a store so he calls him up and sends you over. These places are far and few between now, if they even still exist.
THE BAG MESSENGER: What other kinds of stuff do like to collect?
Will Van Zandt: I’ve collected everything at some point. Stamps, coins, comics, baseball cards. If I see a shiny rock I want that shit, but there’s a fine line between a collector and a hoarder, and I’m trying to cut back. I don’t want to end up on A&E!
As a product designer, I spend a lot of time obsessing over what folks might consider mundane. Take keys, for example. The number of times I spent looking for my keys, was locked out of my apartment, or was just generally disorganized as a result of having improper key discipline, are innumerable.
To some degree or another, I feel we have all experienced this, so I started to tinker with the idea of trying to solve this problem.