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WRITER OF THE STORM

JOHN MAIZELS MEETS PHASE 2, ONE OF THE MASTERS OF NEW YORK CITY'S REBELLIOUS AEROSOL CULTURE

From its early beginnings in the late 1960s, the aerosol culture of New York City developed into one of the most vibrant and unprecedented art movements. Its young artists, all self-taught and predominantly from Hispanic and African-American backgrounds, have been involved in a genuinely revolutionary artistic development, whose followers have been consistently persecuted, harassed and ignored by social, political and cultural forces

Originally stemming from stylised names drawn out on walls and subway trains, the culture of rebellion that went alongside it brought retribution from authority. Aerosol culture was born out of an era when many of its youth identified strongly with the protests of Vietnam, the suppression of those from the ghetto, the riots and burnings of rebellion. Human rights, racism, poverty, crime, drugs, all played their part. This feeling of being outside society, of art and revolution closely linked, is still a strong element.

The first signatures depicting the logos of the alias names of their owners, appearing on city walls and shutters, drawn with magic marker pens, may have been a cry from the streets, a shout of existence in a world that was not their own. A re-affirmation of the self in a hostile environment. Although termed 'graffiti' by the press and observers, the artists referred to themselves as 'writers'.

I met the tall, soft-spoken Phase 2, one of the great masters of aerosol art, in New York. He explained the logic of this definition:

'First of all, don't call it graffiti. Those of us who truly understand the magnitude and depth of this culture would never refer to it as that. What is that terminology supposed to represent anyway? It's like calling a meteor a pebble. Technically it's not politically correct, unquestionably due to the fact that from the very beginning we called ourselves 'writers' and what we did 'writing'.

Phase 2 (or Phase Too) first came to prominence in the first major wave of writers to emerge from Manhattan. He seemed to reluctantly accept his fame. He explains that his first intention was to get his name known but at the same time remain anonymous. However, the recognition he received was inevitable and having an impact became a duty that he rose to achieve. He termed it 'impact expressionism'. Phase has witnessed the birth, growth and evolution of aerosol culture. He became totally involved with his position as an aerosol artist, it became his principal activity, his profession.

'Once you really got into it, somehow it became an integral part of you, second nature. It's something you ate and slept and aspired to do when you woke up in the morning, it was part of our lives for years after our first encounter with a magic marker'.

Magic markers gave way to spray paint in the early 1970s as writers realised the potential for elaborating and enlarging their signatures. The movement soon grew into a wealth of varied and constantly developing calligraphic expression, each writer having his own distinct style and identity. Signatures gave way to more involved and complex calligraphic forms, which in turn evolved into complex compositions where the words and letters became just one element in the overall whole. Phase 2 describes this new development as a 'second coming' and it laid the way for the classic 'pieces' of the aerosol rebels.

By the 1970s the culture moved from the streets of upper Manhattan to the subway. The New York underground trains and stations became the most favoured canvasses of the youthful writers who would often spend six or eight hours on their pieces, working in the silent darkness and secrecy of railway tunnels and sidings. Once morning broke they could stand back and admire their night's work as it sped around the city; a combination of the secretive and anonymous with the most public and audacious display of their talents.

Some of the artists worked out their compositions with small sketches, at other times they would work with a spontaneous intuitive flow, reacting and responding to their evolving composition. Often an outline would be drawn or painted first and then filled in, the development of the piece was followed by the final outline and background. Local variations and styles developed, with Brooklyn, the Bronx and Manhattan leading the way. Phase explains:

'It was like one big gigantic network. We'd see names from Brooklyn and be impressed and inspired with them. You looked forward to meeting people like Dino Nod, La-Zar or Devilish Doug and Evil Eric, partly because of their styles'.

'At one point it was all about the 2s, 4s, 5s (train lines). They travelled through Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which was where a lot of history was being made. When new flavours came into the scene, we bombarded the yards and lay ups and took over like a factory churning out all the new products on supply and demand. So all eyes were on the Bronx. That's where you showcased. Manhattan was kind of next door to it so they were connected and channelling like sister and brother'.

As the movement spread, open warfare developed between the writers and the Transit Authority. From Brooklyn, teams or 'crews' of writers would descend on a train in its night time lay-up or tunnel, covering the cold metallic carriages with a mass of vibrant and colourful words and images. Once more the imagery developed, always organically, naturally, intuitively. A favourite became the all over coverage of a subway car, from top to bottom, from end to end, even painting over the windows.

Techniques became highly developed and pieces took even longer to complete. A whole technical repertoire was established, with a host of differing nozzles and paints used to produce a previously unknown array of effects.

Although New York City was its birthplace and still remains its centre, Aerosol Culture had by now spread and was flourishing across the USA and the world; strong movements were evident in London, Berlin and other European cities.

Phase went on to become one of the great innovators of aerosol art. His letter forms were drawn as outlines or cut into one another, his softie, or marshmallow, lettering became fused together and then developed extensions and extension bars. They moved on to sport loops, feet, stars and arrows. Another of the great New York aerosol masters, Vulcan, said of him:

'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 shit.'

The writers influenced one another, borrowing each other's imagery yet turning it into something of their own. The greatest of them were always one step ahead, continually seeking and producing new forms and variations. Phase's work became ever more complex and grew further and further away from its original simple signature towards a hieroglyphical calligraphic abstraction.

'The English language isn't much, especially in its current state. By comparison (to Chinese and Japanese) it's like a dot. Why not go beyond that and just create an alphabet or language? You can't put a limit on communication or how one can communicate, you've always got to look further, that's how style expanded in the first place.'

'All those things that were part of the initial game are now passé. Presently, it's a matter of word and the power of word, speak and the power of speak. Verbally and visually. Language and its essence. Not being able to read Arabic or Thai doesn't dismiss them as languages, so to me what I'm doing isn't much different. When it gets in that, let's say 'psychophonetickeneticverbalgenitichyper-bolicsyllabistictonguetwisticmysticcalliguistical-cerebralinconcievebrial' mode or whatever, consider it plutonian. I'm absorbing and devouring language in its co-existing state and creating something else with it'.

Phase is immensely conscious of the achievements of the aerosol artists:

'What we have done with it goes beyond what it started out as, or any language invented. At its highest degree, writing is a science based on the power of speak, of communication and symbolism. No matter how simple or esoteric, even though unspoken, it says something and relays and relates to all who come in contact with it. At its lowest degree it is probably an eyesore but at its zenith it can hold its own with any so-called artform on the planet.'

Raw Vision Magazine #21SEE MORE TEXT AND IMAGES IN RAW VISION #21


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