PHASE 2 is one of the most influential and well known New York City aerosol artists. Mostly active in the 1970s, Phase 2 is generally credited with originating the "bubble letter" style of aerosol writing, also known as "softies". He was also influential in the early hip hop scene.
Phase 2 is from The Bronx, and attended DeWitt Clinton High School along with a number of other early aerosol artists. Many famous writers of the early 1970s would meet at a doughnut shop across from the school called the Coffee Shop before heading down to the subway station at 149th Street and Grand Concourse to watch tagged trains on the IRT line pass by. Phase 2 was mentored as a writer by Lee 163d!, one of the pioneers of writing in The Bronx.
He began writing in late 1971 under the name Phase 2, a moniker which had a rather mundane provenance. As Phase 2 would later recall, "the previous year we'd given this party. We were getting ready to give another one and I said, 'We'll call this one Phase Two.' I don't know why, but I was stuck on the name. It had meaning for me. I started writing 'Phase 2.'"
Part of the appeal of aerosol writing for Phase 2 was that it allowed him to get his "name" known yet remain anonymous. He noted later that tagging provided disadvantaged urban teens "the only significant vehicle to represent their 'existence.'"
It was in late 1972 that Phase 2 first used an early version of the "bubble letter" or "softie", a style of writing which would become extremely influential and is considered a "giant leap" in the art form. The puffed-out, marshmallow-like letters drawn by Phase 2 were soon copied by other artists who added their own variations. Phase himself quickly embellished on his original form, creating and naming dozens of varieties of softies such as "phasemagorical phantastic" (bubble letters with stars), "bubble cloud", and "bubble drip." He is also credited with pioneering the use of arrows in graf writing around this same time. Hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang has noted that Phase 2's canvasses from 1973 have "been widely recognized as defining the early genre."
Over time Phase's work become more and more complex, moving far away from the simple tags of the early 70s to "hieroglyphical calligraphic abstraction." Chang points out that much of Phase's work involved "deconstructing the letter", transforming characters in the alphabet "into hard lines, third eyes, horns, drills, spikes, Egyptian pharaohs and dogs, pure geometrics." Another New York aerosol artist, Vulcan, remarked that "one of the things about Phase is that he was the only person at the time whose name could roll by ten times and each piece was different. That's what you noticed about his [work]."
In 1974 Phase 2 joined the newly created United Graffiti Artists, a professional aerosol writer collective which began to attract media attention. He was featured in an important essay on graffiti art by Richard Goldstein which appeared in New York magazine and inspired a new generation of graffiti artists.
Influence in hip-hop
Unlike some other pioneers of New York City aerosol culture, Phase 2 had a prominent role in The South Bronx hip-hop scene in the early 1980s. He also continues to be referenced in hip-hop songs.
Phase participated in the legendary hip-hop shows organized by Kool Lady Blue during the summer of 1982 at the Roxy nightclub in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. These shows brought together the top DJ's, MC's, breakers, and aerosol artist from The South Bronx and introduced hip-hop music and culture to the downtown punk and new wave scenes. Phase 2 designed the flyers for these events and often did aerosol pieces live on stage. He was also part of the first "international" hip-hop tour when stars from the Roxy performances toured in England and France in November of that year.
Phase 2 was one of the few aerosol artists to be involved in the musical side of hip-hop culture as well. He had a background as a DJ in the very early days of hip-hop, though he never made a name for himself in that role. In 1982, as part of his involvement with the Roxy scene, Phase released two rap singles. "Beach Boy" was a collaboration with Barry Michael Cooper, who would later co-write the script for New Jack City. "The Roxy" featured the Bill Laswell-led group Material and Grandmixer D.ST, though Phase 2 would later remark that he was disappointed in the song and felt that it "wasn't done properly."
Phase was also an early b-boy and claims that his dance crew pioneered the uprock (or "battle rock") style of dance despite claims that it originated in Brooklyn. He was thus actively involved in all of the traditional "four elements" of hip-hop culture.
Though he did not have a role in the production, Phase 2 did apparently influence the classic early hip-hop movie Wild Style. In the DVD commentary for the film, director Charlie Ahearn explained that, when thinking about the key character named "Phade", he had Phase 2 in mind (either to actually play the part or simply as a model) because Phase was a legendary writer from the past who was also involved in the hip-hop scene, as was the character of Phade. The role would ultimately be played by Fab 5 Freddy, himself a graffiti artist who along with Ahearn was the major creative force behind Wild Style. Phase 2 did take on an official role in another early hip-hop film when he worked as a consultant on the 1984 movie Beat Street.
In his 1995 song "Out for Fame" - an homage to aerosol artists and culture - KRS-One implores his audience "in the name of Phase 2" and fellow Bronx legend Stay High to "grab your cans and hit the streets." Several years later Mos Def mentioned Phase 2 on his widely respected debut album Black on Both Sides, specifically on the track "Hip Hop", in which he noted that hip-hop itself was "all city like Phase 2" - presumably a reference to the ubiquity of Phase 2's spray-painted pieces on trains throughout the city during the early 1970s.
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