The literary graffiti of Jean-Michel Basquiat made a big dent in the NYC graffiti universe — and helped pave the way for its evolution into street art. This is the first post in a series that explores the past and future of street art and the invisible influence that Basquiat had in it’s formation.
NYC graffiti culture was exploding in the late ‘70s. The outlaw art form continued to spread like a virus as train-painting writers evolved the craft with increasingly complex lettering and the incorporation of more and more imagery into their productions.
Take one look at the collections of subway graffiti photos shot by photographers Jon Naar, Henry Chalfant and Martha Cooper, and you can see the steady progression of handstyles with each passing year. With all its vibrance and energy, it’s no wonder the first American art movement started by kids for kids, quickly garnered worldwide recognition, as their “wild style” creations were beamed around the world by broadcast media and books.
As pieces got more elaborate, even newspapers didn’t seem quite sure how to frame the phenomenon that transit agencies clearly just saw as vandalism. “Subway graffiti: ‘Art’ is a major headache,” proclaimed a newspaper headline in 1978.
This was the year that Ed Koch was sworn in as the 105th mayor of the City of New York, and as he was establishing himself as a fierce opponent of graffiti, graffiti pioneer DONDI White was blasting the entire side of a subway car with his Black Sabbath-inspired “Children of the Grave” piece, while LEE Quiñones showed that his aerosol skills extended beyond the transit system with the completion of his iconic Howard the Duck mural on a handball court at his old junior high school in Manhattan. Although illegal, Quiñones says the community liked it so much that the principal gave him “a handwritten permission slip” to paint another massive piece on the other side.
1978 was also the year that a 17-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with high school friend Al Diaz, started aggressively writing cryptic phrases all over Tribeca, the East Village, Soho, and the Lower East Side.
The slogans — ranging from simplistic observations on society to brutally sarcastic denouncements of the art world—were signed SAMO and sported a copyright symbol: SAMO© 4 the SO CALLED AVANT GARDE, SAMO© AS AN END 2 CONFINING ART TERMS, SAMO© AS A NEO ART FORM, SAMO© FOR THE SOCIALIZED AVANT GARDE, SAMO© MEDIA MINDWASH, SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STANDS, SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS.
Unlike the twisted and colorful letterforms that defined the graffiti of the time, the highly recognizable SAMO’s were easily legible and amusing, making them easier to digest than the traditional notions of graffiti that many New Yorkers associated with subways and getting robbed. “It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi,” explained Basquiat years after in an interview. Photographer Henry Flynt, who meticulously documented the various phases of SAMO and wrote an absorbing essay shedding insight on its history, also saw the tags as an ironic advertising campaign. The “collective graffiti employed anonymity to seem corporate and engulfing,” remarked Flynt.
Using markers and spray paint, Team SAMO’s facetious verbiage practically begged for unwanted collaborations from rivals and curious-Joes alike. The aphorisms proved to be quite interactive in that way, as people crossed out the phrases and added their own words. There was also lots of copycats. These forgeries only helped feed the hype.
Keith Haring said he was still attending SVA when he first started taking notice of SAMO. “It was the first time I saw what I would call a literary graffiti, one that wasn’t done just for the sake of writing a name or for making a formal mark,” said Haring. “For me, it was condensed poetry which would stop you in your tracks and make you think.”
Local weekly The Soho News published what is believed to be one of the first SAMO illustrations by Basquiat. It was dated October 5th, 1978. Journalist and weed activist Steven Hager came across the image (pictured below) “perusing” his photo files a few years ago:
According to Basquiat biographer Phoebe Hoban, the paper was so enamored by what she called SAMO’s “poetic vandalism,” that editors “even ran photographs of the graffiti, like a Wanted poster, trying to identify the writer.”
It was the Village Voice, though, who got the scoop two months later by enticing the enigmatic artists with a $100 reward for essentially outing themselves — no last names were used, but the article was accompanied by a photo. It was published on page 41 in the December 11, 1978 issue and on the contents page, teased as “the dialectic of a ubiquitous doodle.”
The reporter who broke the story, Philip Faflick, sarcastically summarized why the SAMO sayings stood out more than typical graffiti: “The best graffiti suddenly had more to say than just a nickname and a number.” He was of course referring to the older generation of writers from the early 1970s who typically incorporated street numbers into their tags, with names like TRACY 168, TAKI 183, and ROCKY 184.
As for SAMO’s origins, of course weed was involved. “We were smoking some grass one night and I said something about it’s being the same old shit,” dished Basquiat to Faflick. ‘Sam-O,’ right? ‘Imagine this, selling packs of SAMO(c)! It started like that — as a private joke — and then it grew.”
“The implication was that SAMO© was a drug that could solve all problems,” explained Flynt. “Soho, the art world, and Yuppies were satirized with Olympian wit.”
The genius of the SAMO effort was that it gave Basquiat a platform to fire shots at the art world, while making his unauthorized entry into it. “I think that the two similarities that Jean and graffiti in general had in common was that people wanted to harness a wild animal,” said LEE Quiñones in the early ‘80’s. “They couldn’t control him, and they couldn’t control graffiti. The art world was bland and they wanted something on their walls. Jean-Michel’s work is very anti-art world, you know. It’s almost like a curse. And people still love that. They love being cursed at.”
Basquiat hated the idea of being so beholden to the gallery system and the stuffy gallerists than ran them. “I wanted to be a star, not a gallery mascot,” said the artist in major 1985 profile by New York Times Magazine.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, Basquiat started drawing at a young age and was considered an early prodigy. At 6, his mother enrolled him as a “junior member” of the Brooklyn Museum, his “favorite” of all art institutions. Sadly, his mother struggled with mental illness and was checked in and out of treatment while he was growing up. His parents ended up getting divorced and by 15, Jean-Michel was skipping classes and taking acid in Washington Square Park. He eventually dropped out of school and never returned home, opting to sell drawings on postcards, t-shirts and “Mudd Club matchbooks” that he sold “for a dollar.” That’s the same amount Andy Warhol said he paid for a postcard after Basquiat followed him and curator Henry Geldzahler into a Soho restaurant. Geldzahler dismissed the artist as “too young.”
Basquiat spent a lot of time in the streets and told the Voice that he could average 30 SAMO’s on a “good day,” and that many of the phrases were site specific. Outside of Trash and Vaudeville, a legendary punk emporium that was located on St. Mark’s Place, a marker tag read: “SAMO © AS AN END TO VINYL PUNKERY.” Stuyvesant High was also trolled with the inscription: “SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO BOOSH-WAH YOUTH IMPERSONATION ‘60s PROTOTYPES.”
Some of the missives specifically targeted the spots the cool kids went. “They were always where there was going to be a great party some night,” remarked art curator Marc Mayer. “Suddenly there’s a SAMO graffiti on the wall next to the entrance to that private party. He knew where stuff was happening.”
A few months after unmasking SAMO in print, Basquiat appeared — sans Diaz — on TV Party, a late night public access show created by original Downtown denizen Glenn O’Brien (who just passed away at the age of 70, RIP). In the bizarre black and white footage, Basquiat sports a mohawk and corrects the baby-faced host on how to say the SAMO alias, an error that people still make ‘till this day.
“It’s Same-oh,” interjects Basquiat from the outset of the interview, as he nudges O’Brien. “It’s Mr. Same-Oh.” As awkward as the whole exchange looks, it didn’t detract the young artist from returning. “He came on TV Party and I interviewed him for the first time on April 24, 1979,” recalled O’Brien. “And then he just never left.”
Like most graffiti (and street art) partnerships, the alliance between Diaz and Basquiat was short-lived and they had a falling out months after SAMO made its media debut. Basquiat decided to announce the break up in a very conspicuous way. “I wrote SAMO IS DEAD all over the place. And I started painting,” he explained. According to author Eric Fretz, Keith Haring helped throw a “mock wake for SAMO at Club 57,” when he saw the obituaries on the streets. Despite the purge, Basquiat wasn’t able to fully shed the persona.
Art curator Dieter Buchhart cites 1981 as the official death of SAMO. He noted how that was the last year that Basquiat “continued to sign some of his works with SAMO©. It was only with the painting Cadillac Moon (pictured above) that Basquiat seemed to delete the pseudonym by crossing out SAMO© on the lower left and opposing it on the lower right with Jean Michel Basquiat.”
The previous year, Basquiat created a standout, SAMO-branded piece at the legendary “Times Square Show,” a group exhibition that included Jenny Holzer, FUTURA, Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring, and other still emerging artists that went on to become giants. Basquiat’s contribution earned him a press mention by Jeffrey Deitch. “A patch of wall painted by SAMO, the omnipresent graffiti sloganeer, was a knockout combination of de Kooning and subway spray paint scribbles,” wrote the gallerist.
Art critic Rene Ricard, who penned one of the most definitive magazine profiles on early Basquiat, praised the SAMO tags as well. “Jean-Michel’s don’t look like the others,” he said in Artforum (1981). “His don’t have that superbomb panache that is the first turn-on of the pop graffitist. Nor does his marker have that tai-chi touch. He doesn’t use spray but he’s got the dope, and right now what we need is information.”
By the time he was 27-years-old, Basquiat’s paintings were fetching around “$50,000 apiece.” Some might scoff at the amount, considering that one of his paintings sold for over $57,000,000 at auction last year, but in 1988, it represented meteoric success for an artist who couldn’t afford art supplies a decade earlier and literally made a name for himself in the streets. Unfortunately, lots of drug use came with that fame and fortune. Years earlier, Basquiat had reportedly perforated his septum from too much cocaine and he was also known to dabble in heroin. In 1988, a few months after returning to NYC from rehab in Hawaii, it was a deadly cocktail of both substances that ultimately killed him in what the autopsy report would label an “acute mixed drug intoxication (opiates-cocaine).” Basquiat was found in his loft at 57 Great Jones Street, when a concerned friend who had planned to attend a Run-DMC concert with him, didn’t hear back.
Despite this abruptly sad ending, Basquiat and his scrappy alter-ego SAMO still remain as an inspiration for young people. Next summer marks the 30th anniversary of his untimely death, and yet the fascination surrounding his life doesn’t seem to wane. Every month there seems to be a new Basquiat product, lawsuit, or exhibit that makes the news, feeding an already eternal legacy with more fuel. What is about this eccentric black painter that keeps us so thirsty? Is it his raw talent? Is it his unwavering confidence? His giving zero fucks?
“Since I was seventeen I thought I might be a star,” once said Basquiat. “I’d think about all my heroes, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendrix… I had a romantic feeling about how these people became famous. Even when I didn’t think my stuff was that good, I’d fave faith.”
Considering all the talent that was floating around The Factory, Fun Gallery, and Fashion Moda, it’s sort of remarkable that Basquiat not only rose above the noise, but also chose the soundtrack. He obtained a level of success while alive that most artists had to die to achieve. And he did it with a magic marker.