Al Diaz: After SAMO, Basquiat’s Old Friend Still Getting Up
For every artist who blows up in the limelight, there are countless others burning on in other places. Look no further than Al Diaz, a street artist whose creative cred stretches back to the 1970s, when he and buddy Jean-Michel Basquiat teamed up under the now iconic tag SAMO.
Snarky and sly, SAMO invaded the bohemian boomtowns of lower Manhattan with cryptic graffiti messages that taunted and tantalized the art world and its followers. “SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the ‘radical chic’ sect on Daddy’s$funds,” smirked one. “SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE” sneered another.
By the time Diaz and Basquiat revealed themselves in 1979, SAMO was already a legend. The duo split soon after (a final spate of tags at the time declared “SAMO IS DEAD”). Basquiat, of course, went on to blaze an indelible path through the art world until his sudden death in 1988 at age 27. And Diaz? He’s still getting up. The artist met me in downtown Brooklyn, where we spoke over coffee of his past and present work.
“We were pretty clever for our age,” Diaz says, unironically, of his work with Basquiat. It’s a ridiculous understatement, and a perfect snapshot of Diaz’s vibe. Incredibly chill and self-possessed, the native New Yorker has been taking life and art in stride since he sprayed his first tag in 1972. And while he never blew up like his former partner in crime, that’s just as well. “Basquiat was a different soul. He was born for fame. It was in his genetic coding.” Diaz shrugs. “That kind of attention never really attracted me.”
Neither did the rarified art world Basquiat was so famously determined to infiltrate. “It gave me the creeps. People were too touchy-feely, too friendly,” Diaz says, adding that the class elitism of the scene didn’t help. “I was a working class kid from the projects, and I was intimidated by it.” No surprise, then, that Diaz preferred getting up in the streets to courting the galleries. No coincidence, probably, that he’s still out doing his thing and, judging by his current WET PAINT work, burning as bright as ever. How much can you say with a sliced-up “WET PAINT” sign? For the past four years, Diaz has been smuggling the signs home to play Frankenstein, chopping and swapping the red letters to create cryptic, poetic messages that he plasters throughout the New York City underground. A few examples:
“We Waited In A Damp Tent, Ate, Paid, And Died.”
“Ten Men Entwined In A Tin Mine.”
“Eat An Empanada.”
“I think of the letters like objects,” Diaz explains. “You see them every day and you recognize them, even if you don’t take note of them.”
The WET PAINT messages range from whimsical to melancholy, striking a note somewhere between haiku and Dadaism. “Some of the statements don’t always make sense, but they don’t not make sense,” Diaz says with a grin. “It’s suggestive.” The alphabetical limitations stimulate his lifelong love of wordplay. “It develops a dexterity in your brain,” he says, adding that while he gets an extra letter by flipping the Ps upside-down, he draws a hard line at turning Ns into Zs.
WET PAINT has recently expanded into collaborations with street artist Jilly Ballistic, known for her subversive paste-ups of WWI and WWII-era images throughout the MTA underground. “I saw an article on her work,” Diaz recalls. “It was so disturbing and powerful. I emailed her immediately.” The two combined forces, pairing her images with his WET PAINT captions, which now incorporate the black-and-white bubble letters from MTA service announcement posters. The collaboration brings out Diaz’s radical side, with pieces explicitly addressing poverty, war and police brutality, but he’s careful not to get too bleak. “If I do a run of three kind of dismal signs, I have to do something funny. I try to keep it fresh.”
Looking at the cheeky, challenging epigrams of WET PAINT, it’s hard not to draw a direct line back to SAMO. And why not? For Diaz, every piece is part of an evolution. Contrary to what you might assume about a dude who spent the golden age of graffiti getting up with Basquiat, Diaz isn’t stuck in the past. “Everybody comes of age at the time they’re supposed to,” he says. “I did it later.” That’s not to say he’s forgotten a thing. In the middle of our interview, the song “MacArthur Park” comes booming out of the cafe’s sound system, causing Diaz to snicker. “Corniest song ever written,” he says. “Basquiat used to recite this all the time, just to be obnoxious.” Ah, memories.