Al Diaz In Toronto, Jean-Michel Basquiat In Montreal
Forty-five years later, SAMO© still matters. So does an accurate retelling of the story. That’s a big part of why Al Diaz chose to resuscitate graffiti art’s most famous byline in 2016. That, and his revulsion at the election of Donald Trump.
In doing so, Diaz himself resurfaced, a groundbreaker who’d gone underground. Diaz was a pilar of New York’s nascent graffiti art movement of the 1970s. In conjunction with Hip Hop, the two artforms would take hold and blossom in the ‘80s, both feeding off the same energy in the same place at the same time, evolving from subculture to the culture.
Cultural Goods Gallery, a new gallery and artistic hub in Toronto, presents its inaugural exhibition, “FROM SAMO©… TO SAMO©… EVOLUTION OF STREET: ART & TYPE,” featuring Diaz and running through December 17. Meanwhile, through February 19, 2023, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts hosts “Seeing Loud: Basquiat and Music,” an exploration of the artist’s deep interest in music and how that interest prominently found its way into his work.
SAMO© Takes New York
From 1978 to 1979, Al Diaz (b. 1959, New York City) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) transformed graffiti writing under the shared pseudonym SAMO© which stood for “same old shit.” Previously a competition between “taggers”–graffiti writers–for taggers, SAMO©’s spray-painting fragments of irreverent slogans on buildings around SoHo and the School of Visual Arts was intended for the general public. A difference which may seem subtle, but was in fact transformative.
“It wasn’t your conventional tag which is generally someone’s nickname or it represents that person,” Diaz told Forbes.com. “It was a product we were trying to have people believe existed. It was a gag ad campaign. It was not a person. It was a product. It could be a drug. It could be a religion. It could be anything that could change or improve your life, that was the spoof about it.”
This wasn’t simple graffiti, marking territory, signaling prominence to other taggers, this was conceptual art. SAMO© was broadcasting using the limited tools available to them. The urban landscape as billboard. A clear forerunner to Banksy. The snarky snippets today reading like tweets.
“SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD, STARTREK, AND RED DYE NO. 2,” one of them stated.
Diaz likens SAMO© to political speeches held at the Roman Forum, not that any of this was on his or Basquiat’s mind at the time.
“We couldn’t articulate that what we were doing was playing with or experimenting with hype or manipulating the (media),” Diaz said. “It definitely changed the game and I only realized that much later in retrospect.”
SAMO©’s lasting influence proves all the more remarkable when remembering that Diaz and Basquiat were teenagers when they created the brand, the acronym an inside joke between the pair who met at an alternative high school in Brooklyn Heights. New York at the time was also rife with graffiti, but SAMO© broke out from the noise creating an undeniable buzz, all in the days long before social media, all in America’s biggest city where there’s never a shortage of compelling topics for people and the media to discuss and comment on.
And for how short-lived it was.
The duo split up in 1979 for a variety of reasons.
“We had been two close friends (with) two big egos and then that article in the ‘Village Voice’ came out and I was unhappy in a sense because I thought (SAMO©) was over,” Diaz explained. “Once we got outed, there was no reason to keep going. The jig is up, right?”
The December 11, 1978 “Village Voice” article Diaz refers to gave his and Basquiat’s first names, along with their ages, some background details and featured a photograph of the duo. Later, Basquiat would definitively end their collaboration by tagging “SAMO© is dead” throughout the city.
Basquiat went on to establish himself as one of the most in-demand contemporary artists in the world by 1982-83, the first to take street art into fine art galleries. He was a celebrity, hanging out with Andy Warhol. Today, he is unquestionably the most famous visual artist of the past half-century, arguably the most culturally influential and famous American artist of all time.
“Jean-Michel was more aware of (personal branding), he was more into selling himself so I believe that he used (SAMO©) as a stepping stone for introducing himself,” Diaz said. “We had some sort of local fame, it wasn’t anything big, but it was enough to get into the art scene and say, ‘I’m the guy who did SAMO©,’ and people would be, ‘Oh, I remember that. That’s cool.’ It was a springboard for his career. For me, it was just another thing we had done.”
Diaz’s comment strikes at a key distinction between himself and Basquiat. Diaz was a graffiti writer through and through. He began “appropriating public space” at age 12; by 15 he was a prolific and influential, first-generation subway graffiti artist working under the name “BOMB One.”
Basquiat’s background was fine art. He was a serious student of art history. His mother enrolled him as a Junior Member of the Brooklyn Museum when he was six. Racist stereotypes of Black artists, bigoted opinions of street artists, general dismissal of very young artists all played a role into making Basquiat out to be some sort of wild, untrained, uneducated artistic street genius–undoubtably a genius–but a genius owing more to a fantastic roll of the genetic dice than intensive and intentional study and practice on his part. The truth is, Basquiat took art damn seriously, and while a brilliant natural talent, he worked at his craft.
For Basquiat, graffiti–SAMO©–was a means to an end. For Diaz, it was the ends.
Over the years, as a result of Basquiat’s colossal fame and Diaz’ receding from the New York art scene, the SAMO© story increasingly became a one man play.
“Jean-Michel used it as a springboard for his career and it actually ended up skewing the narrative,” Diaz said. “It becomes, ‘He’s SAMO©,’ and over decades (this misconception) got more and more annoying. Due to Jean Michel’s cult of personality, they give him all the credit. I was tired of that.”
Setting the Record Straight
By 2016, Diaz had had enough and seen enough. Had enough of himself being written out of one of art history’s most important stories and seen enough of the mess America had become culminating in the Trump presidency. The time was right for bringing back SAMO© to address both problems.
“I wanted to explain to an entire generation that didn’t know what SAMO© was; they seem to think that it was Jean-Michel’s nickname or something,” Diaz explained. “I felt like I needed to clarify that by actually doing SAMO© graffitis for a whole new generation so they could see what it was.”
In doing so, he’s also lightened his personal load.
“It was bothering me,” Diaz admits. “I would be a very bitter person if I had been reading about how (Basquiat) was the only member of (SAMO©) in present day, but I think I’ve managed to change that narrative.”
With that mission accomplished, Diaz’ creativity has led him into text-based work where he cuts out and rearranges letters from New York City subway system service change posters and wet paint signs creating poignant collaged anagrams. After focusing on music and personal artmaking in the ‘80s, struggles with substance abuse and working construction left him totally absent from the art scene. While he never stopped creating, Diaz is finally back in galleries, back in the conversation.
He rightly feels a sense of paternalistic pride for how the movement he helped spawn in the ‘70s lives on in today’s street artists, still amazed by, “How this subculture, a delinquent subculture perpetrated by kids from 12 to 16, becomes this huge thing.”
The most popular form of visual art in the world, which graffiti writing and street art has become.
“It was not about (the art world), it was competitive–male oriented–almost a sport, and it evolved into a creative thing because basically you want your name to look nicer. That’s what motivates the creativity,” Diaz recalls of the early graffiti days. “It wasn’t intentional; I think that that’s how great things happen, this huge cultural influence occurs because it was never planned. If you plan it, it won’t happen.”