Al Diaz on the history of graffiti, SAMO and Basquiat
Al Diaz is best known as one half of the infamous graffiti duo SAMO©; the other half was Jean Michael Basquiat. When they decided SAMO is dead, they both went on and became legends on its own with an entirely different path. We all know what happened to Basquiat, but Al had a whole life in between then and now. He is a street legend, and he has fully come back to art. At the moment he is working on his Wet Paint series, where he is cutting out letters from Subway signs, and he is busy bringing SAMO back.
We talked to this legend just days before “Basquiat: Boom for Real” opening at Barbican, and discussed all graffiti, Jean, life and rumors.
Kevin Heldman wrote an iconic article called “Mean Streaks,” for Rolling Stone magazine in February 1995, where he said, “The serious graffiti writers decry the commercialization of graf.” Judging by your career and the choices you’ve made, you probably feel the same?
Absolutely, there was a time you could get your teeth knocked out for writing a graffiti, and now they use it for advertising.
Which year did you start?
I started in 1971.
Who was on it at the time? Taki 183, Stay High 149, Tracy 168, etc.?
You got it. All the guys from Harlem & Washington Heights.
Al, why all the numbers?
Numbers usually related to the street or building # where the individual was from. Some guys used the #1 to assert they were the first to use that name, etc.
Most articles I’ve read in regards to the graffiti back then and where you guys were active, pointed out the Bronx, but you were a downtown kid, right?
This is the problem with the information that has been handed down. First of all, graffiti in NYC mostly started in Washington Heights, which is north Manhattan. Then there were people writing in Brooklyn (at the same time), people writing in the Bronx, etc. Those three were main at the beginning – Queens was not in the picture yet, as we are talking years 1969 -1970. There was a guy from Philadelphia called Cornbread, so some people argue if Graf started in Philly or NYC. Graffiti back then became like an organized activity, almost like a sport. There were black guys, Puerto Rican, Cubans, Dominicans, Greeks (Taki 183 is Greek American), most of the boys from the 170s were Greeks. Some Irish guys were doing it, like Tracy 168, some Italians, and all were mostly working class. The problem is that according to history everything starts in the Bronx, and everybody was a b-boy, but that is a lot of bullshit! Hip-Hop was not even invented when graffiti was starting, there was no such a thing as hip-hop! But to answer, The Bronx was just one of the neighborhoods as important as all the others, it happened all over!
How many times did you get arrested for doing graffiti?
One time for graffiti, but I’ve been in jail and arrested for other stuff. You also have to know that when I started, in the 70’s, it was easier to write graffiti, in the 80’s things changed, and it got tougher.
SAMO has been “dead” for years now, but you’ve brought it back when Trump got elected. Why now?
Just that – the fact he got elected. I’ve been doing signs (Wet Paint) for some time now, but with Wet Paint project I only have 23 letters, so I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to say when that happened. With SAMO, I was waiting for a reason to bring it back. There are people, like your generation, who never saw SAMO, and everyone is curious what that was all about, so I’ve been waiting for years for the right moment, and then it happened.
What did you do for all these years, though? It has been almost 40 years since you stopped with SAMO.
Oh man, I had an entire life.
And in 40 years, there was no moment as crucial as this election, for bringing SAMO back?
No. I was never inspired and felt the need to bring it back up until now. For me, it was a forgotten thing. I have never really thought about it other than people always bringing it up. But there was, well still is, so much interest for SAMO, so after the election, it finally felt appropriate for me to bring it back. I had something to say.
Were you ever sorry you did not pursue art career back then?
Not really. I did other things.
You once said, “I do not want to be remembered as the guy who knew the guy.”
Yes, because people always ask me about Basquiat, it gets a little bit old, but I’ve made peace with that. I knew him well, and we were friends, and I am one of the last few people around who are willing to talk about some of the stuff that happened.
The thing is, and I think quite a few who knew him would agree with me – as long as we are around we have to be very responsible in telling the story the way it actually happened. There are people that create myths. Jean was a flawed human; he had a lot of issues, he was not this wonderful person that was perfect. He had a lot of problems, including a drug problem which ended up killing him. He didn’t trust many people; he had a lot of personal stuff going on, he was a very hurt person.
How annoying must it be when people talking to you only talk about Basquiat?
People tend to talk about the past a lot, but whatever. It is mostly people who were not around that time, so I can actually serve as somebody who can talk about that stuff. People my age they don’t have to ask those questions because it’s pointless, they were there as well.
Did his death ever come as a surprise or you all saw it coming?
I haven’t seen Jean for about two years before his passing; he had removed himself from a lot of NYC people. He was living in LA a lot, traveling back and forth. I remember when one of our mutual friends said that he had seen Jean on the street in his pajamas, riding a bicycle, looking like a bum. That was depressing to hear, and that was maybe a month before he died. I was surprised, and it was kind of shocking when I got the news, no one is every ready for something like that. Even if you know somebody might die, you are not really ready for that, especially when they are that young, we were all young. But then again, he was not a very happy person, never had been.
You stepped down from the whole scene before his “momentum’” happened, right?
True. I would still see him, come to his place, we were still friends. But there were two years in between I haven’t talked to him, from 79 – 81 because he really pissed me off. He was doing a lot of fucked up shit, and I didn’t want to hang with him. Jean was not always a good friend. He was very selfish (me, me, me, me!), he was like a child.
I can’t really say, but my impression with people like him is that they are their best creation. The persona they create is their best work.
The hype, yes. The cult of the personality! That has happened with Jean, for sure, no doubt about it. Very talented, very fucked up, very self-centered human being.
Does your SAMO past inspire your SAMO present?
It’s a new time, and I am a grown up now. This is forty years later, and I am a lot more articulate. The spirit is the same and comes from the same place, but I am a stronger writer now.
Do you think your time is now, in regards to your career?
Absolutely, some of us bloom late. Basquiat was always very career oriented; I had no ambition like that when I was eighteen, there was no way in hell I was ever going to do what he did, I didn’t even like those people.
Do you think if you reached fame back then, in the way Jean did, you would also die?
First of all that would have happened already but it didn’t. Also, I didn’t particularly care for that sort of attention then
What about now?
Now, always (haha).
In 2009 you started with “Wet Paint,” why?
I like the signs. I like the way they look. They are all very strong, and I hate to see them being thrown away. I started collecting them, and once I had a hefty amount, I started cutting out the letters and playing with them, a bit like Scrabble.
What is your proudest moment?
If it were just one moment, that would be so pathetic. I am just glad I am still healthy and able to do things I love, that gives me a lot of pride. So it’s not that one minute of glory, its a continuation throughout all my life. You have to want to have moments, not just one moment.
When was the last time you got into trouble?
(Haha) What kind of trouble? I did drugs for a long time, so I was always going to jail for that. I haven’t been locked up in eight years. I’ve changed my life, I’ve been good.
What is the last book you read?
The history of Hannibal.
Did you ever read a book or an article about your time, with you in it, that was full of crap?
All the time (haha)!!!! It’s all bullshit, and there is always some bad information. Too many people go to Wikipedia to get their information. I’ve read books and articles with people stating SAMO solely means – same old shit – and that was never true! It comes from that expression, but it did not mean that because that was not what we were saying. That is also why I fell like its obligation for me to speak out. I always make the comparison – what if Napoleon would come back to life and read all the stuff that was written about him, he would be in shock and ask when did that happen!? But that happens with people who are that famous. You know that game telephone when you say something to one’s ears, and it travels through I don’t know how many people, and when it comes to the last one it is something completely different, well that.
Didn’t Jean-Michel write an essay about SAMO as a fake religion or something?
Yes, and that page is exhibited at the Barbican, you have to go and see the show, it is great!
Interview: Katja Horvat
Photos: Courtesy of the artist
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