Combining their interests in art, Diaz and Basquiat, along with some other students, started a newspaper named Basement Blues Press. It was here that SAMO© was conceived, through an article that Basquiat was working on for the Spring 1977 issue about an ideal yet imaginary religion that he called SAMO. The feature details a fictional dialogue between Harry Sneed and Quasimodo Jones – sat in the American food chain Papaya King, Sneed talks of a desire for “modern and stylish” enlightenment. Jones tells Sneed about various religions, but is enamoured by the idea of “SAMO”, “a guilt free religion”. A few days after the article was published, Diaz and Basquiat printed out flyers that featured fictional testimonials from people who claimed that converting to SAMO changed their lives. “We thought it was hilarious”, laughs Diaz, “we were just kids.”
The reactions were enough for the friends to keep going with it. Taking the word, “SAMO” – which initially stood for “Same Old Shit” – and turning it into a medium for them to vent frustrations, personal jokes, whatever they wanted, through graffiti. By 1978, SAMO© had begun to appear on walls across the city. “There was a famous graffiti artist that always wrote, ‘Pray and Jesus Saves’ and all these kind of religious things, and I thought we could go about it in that style. We just kept elaborating on it. In a couple of weeks, it was like ‘SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD’.” They wrote it on a church on West Broadway, although there is no visual documentation of it now: “Back then, in the 70s, you’re not really thinking, ‘Oh, let’s save this for posterity. That was not really on the agenda,” adds Diaz.
“We were commenting on whatever we were dissatisfied with, or thought was funny – whatever! Consumerism, religion, politics. This was all from the mind of someone who was 17 and 19-years-old – we were very young minds.” However, they soon dropped the “Same Old Shit” reference, “because ‘Same Old Shit’ is an alternative to nothing, so it didn’t make any sense.”
Diaz and Basquiat managed to remain completely anonymous until 1978 when they sold their story for $100 to the Village Voice for an article titled “SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?”, written by Philip Faflick.
“Who the hell was this guy Samo©?”, wrote Faflick, describing the pair as school drop outs. “Does SAMO© in fact provide an alternative?” he asked them, to which they responded, “No way”. “SAMO© is just a means of bringing it out”, explained Basquiat, “a tool for mocking bogusness”. The article also revealed the attention they received at the time, as people wrote their own responses to SAMO©. The positive: “SAMO© CALL HOME AT ONCE! MOTHER NEEDS YOU”, and the less so: “DEATH TO SAMO©”. All of it, they admitted, was taken as a compliment. People even began to believe SAMO© was the CIA – hence the article’s title, “SAMO© Graffiti: BOOSH-WAH or CIA?”. Basquiat added, “We can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls”. Faflick ends with the observation that the pair’s social circle were wary about them speaking with the press, with the writer ominously noting they “were worried that a taste of fame would go to their heads”.
Not long after the Village Voice article came out, things changed. Basquiat appeared on Glenn O’Brien’s off-the-wall TV show, TV Party, with his head half-shaved (reportedly so no-one knew whether he was coming or going) and called himself SAMO©. Diaz was not present. “That was a period when Jean had some kind of ego trip, really strongly,” reflects Diaz, adding that after by 1979 there was a period of about two years when they didn’t speak. “He had picked (SAMO©) up and I’d dropped it. I was playing music Downtown and I couldn’t care less about SAMO© at that point. It was just like ‘fuck the whole thing’. I got a little pissed off because Jean was becoming SAMO©. I was like, ‘oh, he’s calling himself SAMO©’. So yeah, there was animosity between us for some time. Like, ‘Now you’re SAMO©. Oh, I get it.” He laughs. “But it was not like I was telling him to stop doing that though. I was at a different stage.”
While Diaz was making music, Basquiat was fast garnering a following and friendships amongst the art crowd, with people such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. As his solo career began to take off, around the early to mid-80s he stopped signing his work with SAMO©, instead using Jean-Michel Basquiat. “I think SAMO© really opened his eyes to the whole 15-minutes of fame thing,” says Diaz. “I believe it was very instrumental – that little flash in the pan we had.”
“He immersed himself very quickly. I mean, he immersed himself. He went from 0 to 90 in two seconds. That’s what he was doing – he was like, ‘I’m an artist’. Actually one night I bumped into him on the street and we hadn’t spoken in a long time – I think he was working on the film Downtown 81.We ended up hanging out and dropping some LSD together. This is when Jean turns and confides in me, saying, ‘Al, I know I’m going to be a famous artist. Not just any artist, a famous artist’. And then he told me he was going to die young. He certainly did both of those things. He had this all very planned in his head. He was very certain about what he was doing. He was very focused and determined and deliberate about his whole everything. That was what he was going to do and that’s what he did.”
By 1983, Basquiat was a phenomenon. His works had appeared at PS1 (in 1981s notorious New York/New Wave), the Larry Gagosian Gallery, the Whitney Museum, alongside others, and he had begun to dabble in film – his first role being the never-released New York Beat. “In 1983, I would stop by Jean’s loft and was kind of privy to his painting career and him becoming an international star. But after 83, he started becoming really busy and lost touch with a lot of his older friends. He was constantly travelling and on the move, so I would see him every now and then, maybe once a year.”
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