Beyond SAMO: The Ancient Street of New York City

This is the Part 2 of our series that explores the past and future of street art and the invisible influence that Basquiat had in its formation.

When a young Basquiat was still channeling his alter ego SAMO and tagging sardonic slogans all over Manhattan’s gallery-clustered neighborhoods, there were other artists, with no graffiti training, who were also installing public art, but never really considered sneaking into train yards or tunnels to get up. They were familiar though with the power of promoting their self-authorized work in the public space, having seen how influential train-bombing teenagers, and their peer, Jean-Michel, had become.

At the time, graffiti was all the rage and getting a lot of media attention, mainly to the dismay of the MTA and the NYPD. In 1978, Sanford Garelik, then-chief of the Transit police, told a reporter that “art books” were glorifying an otherwise criminal act and making it sound too damn sexy. “It’s been romanticized a great deal and has been tremendously distorted,” said the cop. It was reported that he “specifically objects to art books that have celebrated graffiti as ‘street art’ and groups of artists that have encouraged graffiti writing.”

With all the creative carnage resulting from the detonation of subway graffiti and the streets of New York already being inundated with layers of ink and spray paint, you can only imagine how frustrated Chief Garelik must have been when creative talents such as Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Richard Hambleton and John Fekner also started adding to the landscape. The amount of art that went up during this era can only have been rivaled by the advertising poster craze of the late 1800’s that blanketed buildings and landmarks — the nerve!

Come take a look at some of the self-authorized art that New Yorkers would have come across during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The visual output of these artists —as well as their techniques—helped establish a foundation and a blueprint for a subculture that would bubble up to become one of the most influential art movements in the world.

KEITH HARING

Keith Haring is by far, considered one of the most influential (and successful!) of the early street artists. Born in Bumblefuck, Pennsylvania, he moved to New York in 1978 and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. Fascinated by graffiti and public art, one of his first projects involved cutting up New York Post headlines and rearranging them into fake news. By 1980, he took advantage of the black matte paper lining unused billboard spaces in the subway stations and started drawing on them with chalk. It was a series that would last five years, resulting in hundreds of drawings, Like Basquiat’s SAMO, who he credits as an inspiration, he could knock out dozens of his signature pieces in a day. It wasn’t before long that Haring met Basquiat — it’s actually a funny story — and started collaborating on the street with him. Haring soon graduated to doing murals.

In 1986, he illegally painted his “Crack Is Wack” mural on the wall of an abandoned handball court at 128th Street and Harlem River Drive. “As usual, I didn’t ask permission, and I just brought my ladders and paints and, within a day, I had painted this mural,” he recalled in his autobiography.

The City ended up fining him $25, but after an unknown vandal altered it to read “Crack Is It,” they buffed it with gray paint and invited Haring back to repaint it.

They must have finally realized just how famous he was, because according to the New York Times, “Parks Commissioner Henry J. Stern called up the artist and invited him to paint another mural, offering him eight sites, the paint and the use of a van.”

JOHN FEKNER

Photo courtesy of John Fekner

Born in Queens, John Fekner started working in the streets much earlier than many of his peers. “I did my first large letters outdoors on a park house building in big letters ITCHCYCOO PARK when I was 17 or 18 in 1968,” recalls Fekner, “which was announcing and marking my place (a cement playground) as a place to hangout.” He drove a yellow cab in the early 1970s and became very familiar with graffiti. “When i was a taxi driver in ’72, TAI 183 was certainly visible; just like the word PRAY at every phone booth. Early graffiti I saw included STAY High 149, PHASE2, and BAMA.”

One of Fekner’s most notable projects took place in the summer of 1980, when he stenciled phrases like “Broken Promises,” “Decay,” “Last Hope” and others on dilapidated buildings in the South Bronx to point out the neglect and according to the artist’s website, “call attention to inadequate housing, poor services and the deplorable social problems afflicting the neighborhood residents for the past two decades.”

RICHARD HAMBLETON

Photo by Richard Hambleton

When he was 22-years-old, Canadian-born artist Richard Hambleton launched a highly ambitious conspiracy to fuck with people. He called it Image Mass Murder and it involved him creating faux “crime scenes” of murder victims on the streets of cities in Canada and the United States. To make it look real, he would paint chalk lines around “volunteers” laying on the ground. He would then splash the outlines with red paint.

According to writer Christopher Dewdney, who reported on Hambleton’s endeavor in 1982, the artist “executed 620 of these outlines” between 1976 and 1979. He targeted major cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto, and Calgary, among others, 15 in all. “It was a time when people feared to leave their homes, anticipating mugging, rape, murder at every street corner,” wrote Peter Frank and Michael McKenzie about interventions in their 1987 book New, Used and Improved.

With the success of that campaign, Hambleton then moved on to his next project, “Shadowman,” which was also likely designed to cause anxiety for passersby.

By the time Ronald Reagan became president, Hambleton had painted dozens of life-sized silhouettes on corners and in other unsuspecting places. They started popping up on the streets of New York City and People literally took notice. In 1984, the magazine reported:

“After dark in Manhattan an army of silhouettes looms in half-lit doorways or stands against walls of burnt-out buildings. One night a black shadow appears in a new spot, and startled passersby mistake the shape for an attacker. Up close they can see it’s only a smudge of thin, black paint. Like some 450 similarly painted figures that now enigmatically stand guard around Manhattan, this one is unsigned.”

“I painted the town black,” he told the tabloid. Even Basquiat famously drew on one of the shady figures. For some graffiti writers, Hambleton’s street art was the first they encountered. “Richard Hambleton’s shadow men could be seen throughout Lower Manhattan’s parking lots and stood out amongst all the tags,” wrote graffiti historian Alan KET in the intro to his book, Street Art: The Best Urban Art from Around the World.

JENNY HOLZER

In the late 1970’s, artist Jenny Holzer started hand-typing spoofs of advertising clichés onto paper, xeroxing the originals, and then plastering the copies on the streets of Manhattan. Like SAMO, she flooded the public with witty one-liners that were meant to interrupt the viewer and make them think: A LITTLE KNOWLEDGE CAN GO A LONG WAY, A LOT OF PROFESSIONALS ARE CRACKPOTS, A MAN CAN’T KNOW WHAT IT IS TO BE A MOTHER, A NAME MEANS A LOT JUST BY ITSELF, A POSITIVE ATTITUDE MEANS ALL THE DIFFERENCE IN THE WORLD, A SENSE OF TIMING IS THE MARK OF GENIUS, A SOLID HOME BASE BUILDS A SENSE OF SELF.

In addition to the wheat-pasted posters, Holzer printed her truisms on t-shirts and stickers, and installed them on movie marquees. By 1982, Holzer had elevated her “Truisms” series onto the Spectacolor LCD billboard in Times Square, allowing the “installation artist” to broadcast her sayings in a digital barrage to a much bigger audience. Keeping up with technology and staying true to the continuing evolution of her work and broadcast medium, the acclaimed artist eventually moved onto projections and has exhibited her work, that got its start on the streets of New York, on cities all across the world.

Years later in a a glowing New York Times profile that referred to her an “impresario of language who makes words into visual spectaculars,” Holzer explained the motivation behind her work. “I want to make art that’s understandable, has some relevance and importance to almost anyone” she told the paper. “And once I’ve made the stuff, the idea is get it out to the people. I want them to encounter it in different ways, find it on the street, in electric signs and so forth. I like fooling with different presentations and modes. I like to make it turn purple and go upside down.’’


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