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Phase 2, an aerosol art innovator, is dead at 64
A photo provided by David Schmidlapp shows the graffiti artist Michael Lawrence Marrow, better known as Phase 2, in 1996. Phase 2, who in the early 1970s was one of the most prolific, inventive and emulated New York graffiti writers, and who later in his career produced early hip-hop’s most innovative fliers, died on Dec. 12, 2019, at a nursing and rehabilitation center in the Bronx. He was 64. David Schmidlapp via The New York Times.

Jon Caramanica



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Phase 2, who in the early 1970s was one of the most prolific, inventive and emulated New York graffiti writers, and who later in his career produced early hip-hop’s most innovative flyers, died on Dec. 12 at a nursing and rehabilitation center in the Bronx. He was 64.

The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, his longtime friend David Schmidlapp said.

In the South Bronx at the dawn of the 1970s, all the creative components that would coalesce into what became widely known as hip-hop were beginning to take shape. At the center of them all was Phase 2, an intuitive, disruptive talent who first made his mark as a writer of graffiti — although he hated the term.

“He had a natural gift or ability to stylize letters,” said Alan Ket, a founder of the Museum of Graffiti in Miami, adding that he “continued to develop styles that were pioneering or just wildly innovative.”

His influence on the burgeoning art form was seismic.

The graffiti artist Coco 144, born Roberto Gualtieri, met Phase 2 in 1973 and found him to be an almost mystical figure: “a person from another dimension that came in and deconstructed the letter and reconstructed it again.”

Phase 2 was born Michael Lawrence Marrow on Aug. 2, 1955, in Manhattan. He was raised primarily in the Bronx projects and attended DeWitt Clinton High School, which in the early 1970s was rapidly becoming a graffiti hotbed. Conveniently, it was across the street from a Transit Authority storage yard; subway cars were the preferred canvas of the day.

He began writing graffiti in October 1971, inspired by a cousin, who went by the name Lee 163d. The form was evolving rapidly, with each day delivering a fresh set of artworks on train lines across the city. Phase 2 was best known as the pioneer of softies — bubble-style letters that helped usher graffiti away from simple tags and toward full-fledged artworks. He painted a variety of substyles of these letters, with a name for each: “squish luscious,” “phasemagorical phantastic” and so on. Many innovations that became commonplace, like loops and arrows, are credited to Phase 2.

“His lettering constantly changed; you never saw his tag repeat itself. He was constantly trying to destroy himself, destroying his previous style,” said Hugo Martinez, who formed the United Graffiti Artists collective, of which Phase 2 was a member, in 1972.

Phase 2 — sometimes referred to as Phase Too or Phase II — was featured at the first gallery show of graffiti, a United Graffiti Artists presentation at the Razor Gallery in SoHo in September 1973. Writing in The New York Times, critic Peter Schjeldahl singled out one of his canvas works: “Phase II’s name is couched in fat, sensual, screaming‐pink script set in an ambience of blue billows.”

He also painted onstage, along with several other writers, as part of Twyla Tharp’s ballet “Deuce Coupe” in 1973.

Phase 2 enjoyed the thrill of writing on subway cars; “impact expressionism,” he called it. In an interview with Wax Poetics magazine, he recalled writing a poem to a police officer on the vandal squad who had just missed arresting him: “If you only knew/the real Phase 2/the super sleuth/who’s still on the loose.”

By the beginning of 1975, he had largely given up subway graffiti, moving his work onto paper and canvas or into sculpture. And he was consistently developing new styles, sometimes passing them off to his fellow writers.

Crucially, he rejected the word graffiti — “the G-word,” he called it. He found it denigrating and preferred terms like style writing.

“It’s like calling a meteor a pebble,” he told Raw Vision magazine in 1997. “I’m absorbing and devouring language in its coexisting state and creating something else with it.”

He was also a sometime DJ as well as a dancer and a founder of the New York City Breakers crew. And he rapped: In the late 1970s he was a member of a crew called the Wizards, and in 1982 he released a pair of singles, “The Roxy” and “Beach Boy.”

Charlie Ahearn, the director of the 1983 film “Wild Style,” has said Phase 2 was the basis for the film’s main character, Phade (played by Fab 5 Freddy). Phase 2 wasn’t formally involved with the film, but he was a consultant on the 1984 hip-hop movie “Beat Street.”

In the late 1970s, Phase 2 began applying his artistic gifts to a different medium: party flyers. His designs, laid out by hand, were modern, orderly and dense; he called the style “funky nous deco.” In an interview this year with Eye on Design magazine, he said he drew influences from art deco, comic book artist Jack Kirby, and painter and collagist Romare Bearden.

He designed hundreds of them — for Grandmaster Flash’s early DJ gigs, for a variety of uptown events and, later, for the Friday night parties at the Roxy, where uptown and downtown were commingling, and where he would also do live painting

Phase 2 was comfortable moving between scenes. “For somebody to be from the South Bronx, he wasn’t like everybody else,” Van Silk, a former party promoter, said. “He was intellectually different.”

He designed the first logo for the Tuff City record label and the flyers for the New York City Rap Tour, which in 1982 took a cadre of rappers, dancers and artists across the Atlantic to England and France, the first real exporting of New York hip-hop culture.

“He was one of the few artists of that ’70s period that continued with the newer set,” said Schmidlapp, who later began IGTimes (International Graffiti Times, later International Get-Hip Times). The publication became the first graffiti magazine with any significant distribution, for which Phase 2 became an art director and writer. In 1996, Phase 2 and Schmidlapp released a graffiti history book, “Style: Writing From the Underground.”

Phase 2 also wrote an oracular column for the hip-hop and graffiti magazine Stress. His persistent concerns were the determination of who would tell the stories of his generation and the proper code of conduct for people in the graffiti scene.

He was “policing the culture, explaining, calling out suckers, biters and frauds,” said writer Adam Mansbach, a friend of Phase 2’s since the 1990s.

He was particular about what collectors he would sell to and whom he would do shows with. “He’d rather go hungry,” Schmidlapp said, than compromise his integrity. But if he liked you, his nephew Seku Grey said, “He gave away his art, literally.”

And while Phase 2 prized his anonymity — he rarely posed for photos, and for decades he publicly used an alias, Lonny Wood, rather than his birth name — he was an inveterate letter writer, replying to correspondence from young graffiti artists.

His survivors include his mother, a sister, five children and seven grandchildren.

From the 1990s forward, Phase 2 brought his collage artwork to collaborations with the skate brand Supreme and designed album covers for the Rawkus and Definitive Jux labels. He continued to make art, selling privately and occasionally in galleries, including works on paper and robot-style sculptures influenced by his love of Japanese animation. He had been in the early stages of a documentary project with Grey and a book about his flyers with hip-hop historian Pete Nice.

But he was primarily concerned with preserving what he deemed to be the correct and proper history of aerosol art.

His writings, said Ket, of the Museum of Graffiti in Miami, “were militant and a call to action, a warning that people were being hoodwinked by the media, the gallerists, the collectors, other artists. He was our reality check.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company










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