Two years after the passing of legendary aerosol artist and hip-hop pioneer PHASE 2, a new book features a series of drawings and poems that he made from his hospital bed in his final days. This project encapsulates PHASE 2’s lifelong legacy of pushing the boundaries of visual expression, even amid the most trying of circumstances.
“He used to sit down there at the [Grand] Concourse (149th St.) at the Writer’s Bench with this really cool outfit like Super Fly,” recalls BLADE, a well-known subway artist who, like countless other aerosol writers, was influenced by PHASE 2’s work in the early 1970s. “He would actually draw styles for writers in their black books. The one he drew for me, I actually put that piece exactly on the train.”
Raised in the South Bronx’s Forest Houses housing project, PHASE 2 would emerge as an innovator in New York’s burgeoning subway art movement, creating elaborate murals that would shape the evolution of both the spray can and the art form. “I, for one, during and after my stay with the public school system, have always seen an inadequacy in the writing of the alphabet,” PHASE 2 wrote in a 1980s account of his artistic progression. “As early as 10 years of age [I] felt an urgency to alter its ‘terms’ to my own liking.” This penchant to accentuate the alphabet led him to develop his famous puffed-out “bubble” letters, as well as interlaced arrows, cloud backgrounds, letters in the form of facial profiles, intentional paint drips, heart designs, and other styles and motifs that continue to serve as the foundation for aerosol art around the world.
In this posthumous book, titled PRAFODIVI: The Final Writings of P.H.A.S.E. 2, many of his early innovations can be seen rechanneled and altered into esoteric sketches, with the sharp points of arrows, curling of letters, and silhouettes of faces appearing in various forms. There are also several original symbols that PHASE 2 drafted in the book, reminiscent of Chinese logograms, but enhanced with bubble outlines.
The abstraction of the alphabet is something that PHASE 2 had long been exploring beyond trains and walls; he discusses this in several of the poems accompanying his drawings. Beginning with his pioneering gallery exhibitions in New York and Chicago in the mid-1970s, he began applying his stylized “masterpieces” to canvas with spray paint and marker. By the 1980s, he was displaying his deconstruction of letters on canvases with sharp, mechanical, and interlacing symbols. He explained in a 1984 interview with Zat Magazine that his work is “not about writing letters but about righting letters,” suggesting that his aim had been to move beyond the literary function of the alphabet to a “techno-symbolist” reconstruction of its structure into new, captivating signs and motifs.
Around this same time, PHASE 2 famously produced the first-ever aerosol-style letter sculpture, which he titled “Misconceptions of an A.” The three-dimensional piece was displayed at New York’s Jacob Javits Center for over two decades, until, in the spring of 2013, administrators there disposed of the work without any warning or explanation. This episode, which resulted in him filing a lawsuit under the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), was one of many scandalous experiences that he had with the gallery world, leaving PHASE 2 contemptuous of those who denigrated the art form he so passionately championed. Nevertheless, he continued to conceive new and inventive paintings and sculptures throughout his career, delving into other genres, such as collages, vinyl figures, apparel, and graphic design.
If we considered the parallel impact PHASE 2 had on popular music, fashion, dance, design, and historical understanding — there is not enough room to discuss all these achievements here — he was unquestionably one of the most towering figures of modern urban culture. In fact, my own interaction with him was initially geared around dancing, not art, as PHASE 2 was an early pioneer of breaking in the Bronx. Our mutual interest in the dance led to an ongoing correspondence, as he selflessly shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the form’s development in our conversations.
In the fall of 2019, he contacted me unexpectedly, asking if I could help transcribe and arrange this hybrid collection of drawings and writings into a book. Although I knew he was in the hospital at the time, I did not know that he was battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which had debilitated his more dominant right hand and was quickly taking over his body. Despite being confined to a hospital bed and having only a black pen and white paper at his disposal, he used his left hand to draft all of these final works, which I learned only after he passed.
The book’s 60 pages of content are available at www.PRAFODIVI.com, and are close to PHASE 2’s original drawings, writings, and instructions. The title and website name, PRAFODIVI, is the pseudonym he used to sign all of these works — the meaning of which remains unexplained. “A higher force kept me going,” PHASE 2 told me in one of our discussions about the book. In retrospect, this speaks to the remarkable resilience and ingenuity he displayed until his final days.