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Phor Robinson has the whole hood standing in the middle of 87th and University Avenue, like he's about to shoot a music video. "Marynook, to be exact. This is where I grew up," he says, before taking us on a walking tour.
Phor actually has made a video in Marynook. Chicago videographer Xavier Williams, aka scene staple A Zae Production, came here to film parts of the clip for Phor's 2017 summertime favorite "Chi Town"—an airy rap track with straightforward bars and a catchy chorus that's easy to sing along to.
On an ordinary day, though, Marynook is a quiet subdivision in the Avalon Park neighborhood, full of modest suburban-style homes with backyards and driveways. It's worlds away from the fast-paced glitz and glam of the VH1 reality show Black Ink Crew: Chicago, where most people who've heard of Phor got to know him—he works as a tattoo artist in Ryan Henry's 9 Mag shop in Pilsen.
- Morgan Elise Johnson
- Phor in front of what used to be his grandma’s house in Marynook. His “87” chain represents nearby 87th Street as well as his birth year, and “NMOL” stands for “No more ordinary lifestyle.”
Now in its fourth season, Black Ink Crew: Chicago is largely responsible for Phor's celebrity, but it doesn't capture who he is. He's an all-around artist, he says, and he wants people to respect him as such. "I always tell people, when you look at me, think of an artist. Don't just think 'rapper,' because everything I do is art," he insists. "I'm always creating something, no matter what it is."
Phor was an introverted kid, playing video games and writing battle raps in his grandma's basement. For today's visit, however, he's in full-on performance mode—he's brought an entourage of more than a dozen, including his Black Ink Crew: Chicago costar Donald Brumfield, who's also his biological brother. There's a Maserati in the street, and Phor wears a couple of iced-out chains with his birth year ('87) and his motto (NMOL, which stands for "No more ordinary lifestyle").
As we walk from 87th and University to his childhood home near 85th and Avalon, Phor can barely answer a single one of our interview questions without people driving by waving at him, rolling down their windows to dap him up, or getting out of their cars altogether for a photo op.
As we sit talking on the porch of the house at 8595 S. Avalon, its current owner, Tasha Anchondo, pulls into the driveway. "Hold on one second, please. This is personal," he says. He jumps off the porch to hug Anchondo, who's surprised to see him back on the block. When he shot the "Chi Town" video, Anchondo wasn't home, and only later heard about it from neighbors. This is the first time they've had a chance to talk, and with Anchondo's permission we walk through the house to help Phor relive childhood memories.
"This is my grandmother's house. She took us in after my mother and father didn't work out," Phor explains. "Years ago, we got evicted. We had to move to the suburbs eventually, but at one point we had to stay in hotel rooms for a while. It was my difficult times but, you know, it was what it was. We pushed through."
- Morgan Elise Johnson
- Phor’s leg tattoos
Phor made a name for himself in these parts years ago, he says, before the suburbs—and way before the bright lights of reality-TV fame. He was known first as a rapper: "I had a childhood friend named Aaron who went by the name Phase One," Phor remembers. "He started making beats, and he stayed on University Avenue. He was really good at freestyling about anything he saw. I was so inspired."
Phor was 14 or 15—he remembers picking up the pen around the time Nas ethered Jay-Z in 2001, during the final rounds of their legendary beef. Without Aaron, Phor says, he wouldn't be the songwriter he is today. "I really didn't know the formula for rap like that, but I took that motivation that he gave me and I started taking it seriously," he adds. "I try not to make hits. I try to make anthems, like, stadium music. My formula is different."
Phor also grew up drawing—a neighbor he remembers only as Mr. Harris, who was a painter, taught him perspective and dimension and how to hone his skills. "I used to draw and put all my drawings in a big-ass Aldi's bag and hide it in my mama's closet," Phor says. "It was so sacred. I used to draw all video games."
That led to Phor painting custom designs on gym shoes as a student at Thornwood High School in South Holland.
"I didn't have a job. Moms was only giving, like, maybe $5 to $10 a day for lunch. I couldn't get fly, so I started designing clothes and designing shoes," he says. "People would bring me their new Air Force 1s, and I used to go crazy. Anybody who got a pic can tell you. I had every school on lock, even after high school." He says that at age 20 he signed a contract with Nike, but it happened so fast he wasn't sure what he was getting himself into—and that when it expired, he didn't renew it.
From there, it was a short step into tattooing. On New Year's Eve 2008, he was hanging out in the Indiana basement of his friend Jet, who had his own tattoo gear—and who still does Phor's own tattoos. Don says everyone there encouraged Phor to pick up the needle: "Stop painting shirts. Stop painting shoes. Just get into tattooing."
Morgan Elise Johnson
- Morgan Elise Johnson
- Phor (right) and his brother Don reminisce with friends on the block.
Phor remembers Don being even more direct. "My brother was like, 'Tat me.' I'm laughing or whatever, like, I ain't gonna tat you," he says. "My homie had the equipment already there, so I did one of the designs that I did on a shirt on his arm." He points to the ink on his brother's forearm.
"I'll never cover it up or change it," Don says.
Phor's rapping, though, is the core of his art. It's the biggest reason he stands out on Black Ink Crew: Chicago—he's the only musician in the cast, and his songs get played on the show. He likens himself to Paul Wall, the flashy Houston rapper who designs grills and makes chopped-and-screwed hip-hop. Phor operates independently of any record label (he's managed by Chicago hip-hop collective Private Stock), though he says he's met with reps from the majors who've asked him to end his tattoo career to go all-in with music.
"In my head I'm like, I'm going to do it my way," Phor says. "So basically, if I was to go on tour, if I gave one fan a chance to meet and greet with me and just get one tattoo from me, no matter what it was or how good it was, they had a chance to win something to take with them."
He's been ramping up the amount of energy he devotes to his rap career, and plans to drop a mixtape every year—so far he's released Lightning Bug in 2016 and Butterfly in 2017. He says he's written 200 songs, and on Instagram he's now posting what sound like freestyles, set to popular R&B beats—he has nearly 380,000 followers, and he's calling the series #StricklyPhorInstagram. He's also working on a song with Los Angeles-based superproducer London on da Track, who saw him perform at the WGCI Big Jam at the end of last year.
"I know a lot of people that get on reality TV and then become rappers. I never tried to become—you know, it was already in the pudding for me," Phor says. "With tattooing, it's a service. Music is, like, my getaway drug. That's therapy for me. When I tattoo, I listen to my music—so I [kill] two birds with one stone as I tattoo." v