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
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
'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
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
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
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
'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.'