SAMO is a graffiti tag used on the streets of New York City from 1977 to early 1980. It accompanied short phrases, in turns poetic and sarcastic, mainly painted on the streets of downtown Manhattan. The tag, written with a copyright symbol as "SAMO©", and pronounced Same-Oh has been primarily associated with the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, but was developed mainly as a collaboration between Basquiat and Al Diaz, with help from a few friends. Diaz had previously been part of the New York graffiti scene,(he knew the first writer of sayings, FLINT.i..For Those Who Dare when they both attended the High School Of Art and Design) using the tag “Bomb I”. Later Basquiat took on the tag himself, creating some non-graffiti work on paper and canvas using that tag, just before and after killing off the SAMO graffiti by painting “SAMO© IS DEAD” around the streets of downtown in early 1980.
Basquiat claims the name was first developed in a stoned conversation with high school friend Al Diaz, calling the marijuana they smoked “the same old shit,” then shortening the phrase to "Same Old", then "SAMO". The character of SAMO was first developed by Basquiat, Diaz, and Shannon Dawson while they were fellow students at City As School high school. Basquiat took the lead in creating a character called SAMO, selling a false religion, in comics made in high school. The concept was further developed in a theatre-as-therapy course in Upper Manhattan (called “Family Life”) that was used by the trio as part of the City As School program. "Jean started elaborating on the idea and I began putting my thoughts into it," remembered Diaz. Basquiat, Diaz, Shannon Dawson and Matt Kelly worked on a comic style endorsement of the false religion, photocopied as a pamphlet “Based on an original concept by Jean Basquiat and Al Diaz.”
The City As School 1977-8 Yearbook includes a photo of the SAMO graffiti: SAMO@ AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STANDS…
“It started…as a private joke and then grew” Diaz and Basquiat would later tell The Village Voice in an interview. They took the joke out of the school, giving out small stickers with SAMO aphorisms or the SAMO pamphlet on paper on the subway, and writing down the phrases with marker pens as graffiti, often with an ironic copyright symbol attached. In 1977, while they were still students, Basquiat and Diaz started to put up the first SAMO© Graffiti in Manhattan.
Henry Flynt claims that Shannon Dawson (later of the band Konk) played a major part in the trio of writers in the first wave SAMO graffiti writers, but most accounts, including those of Basquiat, claim the writing was done by the duo of Basquiat and Diaz. When asked about other people, Basquiat said “No, No, it was me and Al Diaz.” Basquiat remembers writing the tag with marker on the subway on the way back from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where he lived as a high school student, but unlike most of the graffiti taggers of the time, SAMO was primarily written on walls, not subway trains.
Al Diaz graduated from City As School in 1978, and Basquiat dropped out of school and left his father’s home in Brooklyn to spend time homeless and living with friends in Manhattan in June of that year. From that point the SAMO graffiti took off in Lower Manhattan. SoHo, parts of East Village, and the area immediately around the School of Visual Arts were prime targets for the Graffiti.
The SoHo News noticed the graffiti, and published a few pictures of the idiomatic phrases with a query about who had done them. According to Henry Flynt, who photographed much of the graffiti, "The collective graffiti employed anonymity to seem corporate and engulfing. The tone was utterly different from the morose and abject tone of Basquiat's solo work. The implication was that SAMO© was a drug that could solve all problems. SOHO, the art world, and Yuppies were satirized with Olympian wit.".
By late 1978 the two were using spray paint to quickly get up larger phrases. “We would take turns coming up with the sayings” said Al Diaz. Many of these retained the same ideas as the comic strip SAMO of high school:
- SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS AND GONZOIDS…
- SAMO©…4 MASS MEDIA MINDWASH
But they also used it to make critical comments towards the art scene in SoHo and college students comfortably studying in art schools:
- SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE
- SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s$funds
Some of the comments seemed to look critically at consumer society as a whole:
- MICROWAVE & VIDEO X-SISTANCE
- “BIG-MAC” CERTIFICATE”
- FOR X-MASS…
One biographer noted that "while some of the phrases might seem political, none of them were simple propaganda slogans. Some were outright surrealist, or looked like fragments of poetry."
People began to notice the graffiti appearing on walls all over downtown, recognizing the strange phrases, but no one knew who did them. Basquiat and Diaz claimed they could sometimes do thirty on a busy day. Sometimes the SAMO© graffiti would refer to its own spread, as in a large, mural sized, multiple choice graffiti:
- WHICH OF THE FOLLOWING IS OMNIPRESENT?
- [ ] LEE HARVEY OSWALD
- [ ] COCA-COLA LOGO
- [ ] GENERAL MELONRY
- [ ] SAMO©...
Art critic Jeffrey Deitch called it “disjointed street poetry” and remembered that “Back in the late seventies, you couldn’t go anywhere interesting in Lower Manhattan without noticing that someone named SAMO had been there first.”
Later Basquiat would look back on this as just “Teenage stuff. We’d just drink Ballantine Ale all the time and write stuff and throw bottles…just teenage stuff” he told an interviews asking about SAMO. “Samo was sophomoric. Same old shit.” he explained to Anthony Haden-Guest. “It was supposed to be a logo, like Pepsi.”.
However, Diaz recognized the original intelligence in this work. “The stuff you see on the subways now is inane. Scribbled. SAMO was like a refresher course because there’s some kind of statement being made. It’s not just ego graffiti.”
In 1979, Henry Flynt began taking photos of the SAMO graffiti, not knowing who had done them. After first exhibiting the photos he got to know Al Diaz, and Shannon Dawson who helped him uncover who did which tag. He has published many of the SAMO graffiti photos on the internet.
By 1979 Basquiat had started to do graffiti on his own. Keith Haring had been following the SAMO graffiti and finally met Basquiat in 1979. He never mentioned Al Diaz. Haring remembers: “I still hadn’t met Jean- Michael—I had only heard of him. Well, one day a kid came up to me just as I was going into SVA, and he asked if I could walk him through, past the security guard. He wanted to get inside the school. I said “sure” and we walked through. I disappeared into a class. When I came out an hour later, I noticed there were all these fresh SAMO poems and tags in places they hadn’t been an hour ago. I put two and two together and realized that the person I had walked through was Basquiat.” “Later that day, I ran into him again and I asked him if the tags at SVA were his, and he said yes” and the two became friends. Basquiat then started hanging around with Haring and other SVA students Kenny Scharf and John Sex. Scharf said that in 1979 he would go out on forays doing wall drawings with Basquiat. “I would do Jetson and Flintstone heads and have them speaking in some foreign tongue” while Basquiat did his SAMO thing. Keith Haring would also join Basquiat in outdoor tagging.
Whereas Diaz always wanted his graffiti to remain anonymous, Basquiat craved the publicity.
Although Basquiat was to say there was “no ambition” in the work at all, it is striking to see the places the SAMO graffiti were targeted: around the SoHo galleries, and even up at the School of Visual Arts. Glenn O’Brien notes that “Ninety percent of SAMO graffiti was executed in the heart of the art neighborhood. He kind of stuck to SoHo… So that it was sort of advertising for himself.”
Towards the end of Basquiat’s life Becky Johnson asked him “Did you know that you were going to stop doing stuff on walls and start painting on canvas?” He answered “No. I was more interested in attacking the gallery circuit at that time, I didn’t think about making paintings, I just thought about making fun of the ones that were in there.” While this was true of Basquiat and Diaz in the early SAMO graffiti, soon Basquiat was trying to cash in on his graffiti fame and make the transition to the gallery world. Looking at his friends from SVA, Haring, Scharff and Basquiat would all make the transition from graffiti to gallery about the same time, but only Basquiat completely changed his style in order to do it.
In early 1980, Diaz and Basquiat had a falling out. Soon Basquiat was writing “SAMO IS DEAD” all over the streets of downtown. Some of the old phrases were still up at the time and written over with the news. As Jean was to put it later: “I wrote SAMO IS DEAD all over the place. And I started painting”
After noticing the “SAMO© IS DEAD” phrases, Keith Haring held a mock wake for SAMO at his Club 57.
However, there is not such a clean break between the collective SAMO© and the solo Basquiat. Around 1980 Basquiat began to take over the SAMO name, before killing it off. In the early 1980s Basquiat was often a guest on Glenn O’Brien’s underground cable TV talk show “TV Party,” where he was introduced as the person behind SAMO. Some of Basquiat’s early drawings, and paintings on canvas (79-80) were signed SAMO. His first one-person gallery show ( May 23 – June 20, 1981 in Modena, Italy) was even billed as an exhibition of paintings by “SAMO.” His early 1981 painting on canvas “Cadillac Moon” has the inscription in the lower left "SAMO©" crossed out, and the names "AARON" (for Henry Aaron), and "JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT" written in instead. Many of Basquiat’s paintings and drawings of 1980-81 include phrases originally used in the SAMO collaboration, along with others (like MILK©) in the same style. Such phrases cropped up occasionally for the rest of his career.
As well known and omnipresent as the graffiti were, they gradually disappeared from the street, either being painted over as common vandalism, or carefully taken down for resale when Basquiat’s art began to command high prices. In addition to Henry Flynt, Peter Moore, Martha Cooper, and Glenn O’Brien, are responsible for the few photos we have to document the original SAMO graffiti (the The SoHo News photos have been lost to history). Flynt, an artist and musician loosely connected to Fluxus and Neo-Dada art movements, photographed much of the graffiti, starting in 1979 without knowing who the graffitists were. When Flynt first exhibited his portfolio he got to know Diaz and Dawson who helped him confirm the authorship of every graffito. He has published many of these photos on the web. For the movie New York Beat (later released as Downtown 81) Basquiat was persuaded to walk through the streets of the Lower East Side recreating for the camera much of his earlier graffiti. These include "PAY FOR SOUP / BUILD A FORT / SET THAT ON FIRE" and
- THE WHOLE LIVERY LINE
- BOW LIKE THIS WITH
- THE BIG MONEY ALL
- CRUSHED INTO THESE FEET
These Downtown 81 images are the most common illustrations of Jean-Michel Basquiat's graffiti, but were not signed "SAMO" and differ in style from the real SAMO graffiti.
The SAMO graffiti is still being cited by contemporary street artists.
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