Al Diaz, Basquiat’s Graffiti Partner, Has Resurrected the SAMO© Tag for His First-Ever European Collaboration

The Distassi Art gallery will present the first-generation street artist's work in Europe for the first time.

Al Diaz.
Al Diaz.

When teenage graffiti artists and high school classmates Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz began to tag SAMO© on buildings throughout Lower Manhattan in the late 1970s, the pair set off a ripple effect that would have long-lasting effects on each of them.

Basquiat (left) and Diaz (right) tagged together throughout the late 1970s.

Basquiat (left) and Diaz (right) tagged together throughout the late 1970s.

SAMO©—a shortened phrasing of “same old shit” used colloquially by Diaz and Basquiat—first developed as a comic book character that doubled as a made-up religion while the two were still students at City As School High School in the West Village.

Soon enough, they expanded their reach tagging SAMO© (with its wry copyright symbol) along with cryptic phrases throughout SoHo and near the School of Visual Arts, often using it as a signature following political or surreal commentary that poked fun at the art world.

Diaz at work on his "WET PAINT" collages.

Diaz at work on his “WET PAINT” collages.

The SAMO© story is a long, convoluted one,” Diaz told artnet News. “JMB [Basquiat] gave our often-used slang word, same ol’, a new purpose as the name of an imaginary religion/cult/product. I was a seasoned graffiti artist and I saw the possibilities it had as a ‘Jesus Saves’-type of graffiti campaign, so we began to spread it around as a private joke,” he says, referring to the famed New York graffiti slogan.

Diaz (left) and Basquiat (right).

Diaz (left) and Basquiat (right).

Diaz, who is currently being promoted for first time in Europe through Distassi Art’s spotlight program, gave up the tag after a falling out with Basquiat, who infamously ended their collaboration by tagging “SAMO© is dead” throughout the city. But Diaz unexpectedly returned to the tag after Trump’s election in 2016. “My current work deals mostly with present-day life on this massively screwed up planet of ours,” he surmised.

His two new works, Tolerate Civilization and Because War is just a 3 Letter Word, both from his “WET PAINT” series, feature SAMO© tags. These works are currently being offered as a archival pigment prints through Distassi Art. Though made in the studio, these works remain rooted in the urban environment, incorporating imagery from signs and advertisements found in the New York City subway.

Al Diaz, Because War is just a 3 Lettered Word (2019). Courtesy of Distassi Art.

Al Diaz, Because War is just a 3 Lettered Word (2019). Courtesy of Distassi Art.

“I am a first-generation graffiti artist,” he says. “I began appropriating public wall space when I was 12 years old in New York City, that’s 1971.” (His pre-SAMO© tag, Bomb One, was famously included in Norman Mailer‘s book The Faith of Graffiti in 1974.)

Al Diaz (far right) and friends in high school circa 1975.

Al Diaz (far right) and friends in high school circa 1975.

“The ‘WET PAINT’ series shows the artistic evolution Diaz has gone through since SAMO©, whilst still remaining true to his original tone,” said gallery director Boe Distassi. “He’s cut out individual letters to create clever, surreal, and sometimes poignant anagrams, eventually re-hanging them in subway stations.” Collage has long been a mode of expression for DIaz, who dates his first collages “back to the third grade.” 

Al Diaz, Tolerate Civilization (2019). Courtesy of Distassi Art.

Al Diaz, Tolerate Civilization (2019). Courtesy of Distassi Art.

As for Diaz, his thoughts on the series are characteristically irreverent. “My inspiration for the ‘WET PAINT’ series are the signs themselves: highly visible, well-made signage.”


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