It’s April 1978, a warehouse party in New York, and a street guy wants to do some graffiti
We were in the middle of a party in my New York loft when this forlorn, waifish street guy with Mohawk hair came up to me and said, “I am SAMO and I would like to do some graffiti.” I’d never seen him before but he had this little spark in his eye so I handed him a can of spray paint said, “Do it!” And for the first time the world was introduced to Jean-Michel Basquiat.
It was April 1978 and I was holding the party as a launch event in my 5,000sq ft apartment called the Canal Zone for a couple of other graffiti artists. I identified with street art and felt the artists needed exposure. This event incorporated live music, the walls were set up for graffiti art with large, seamless rolls of paper and we had a video crew to film everything.
So they were on hand to record Jean-Michel as he sprayed Lee Harvey Oswald, Coca-Cola, General Melonry and finally SAMO, his trademark. The crowd went wild when they saw that. Up until that point no one knew who SAMO was but the cryptic messages and political agitation had caught the imagination.
As an artist, I had painted murals and tableaux and as a working-class kid growing up in 1950s Britain, I identified with Jean-Michel’s status as an outsider – for a while I was also on the streets. I also admired him because he did not stick to a formula. He did not even know the formula because he had no formal training.
I felt he was a bit like a beatnik and we really hit it off. He actually moved into my loft when he struck up a relationship with my assistant, Jennifer Stein.
Jean-Michel was a natural, very anxious to try things out. Unfortunately that’s why he got so heavily into drugs. He needed the adulation. Girls wanted to sleep with him. He was so charismatic, people would hang on to him and his few words. He became the fashionable artist but the fashion world helped to kill him, helped to destroy him.
His death launched a whole new set of careers. Now I don’t even have that first piece of art to remember him by. Just a few months after that show my loft burned down and all the art with it.