The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Jean-Michel Basquiat and SAMO©


Jean-Michel Basquiat’s journey from obscurity to fame is one marked by talent, rebellion, and the transformative power of art. Born in New York City on December 22, 1960, to a Haitian immigrant father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s introduction to art came through his mother, who exposed him to both the visual arts and writing. By age seven, Basquiat had written a children’s book, but as he grew older, life became increasingly challenging.

A year after writing his book, Basquiat’s parents divorced, and he and his siblings were raised by their father, Gerard, while their mother, Matilde, was hospitalized for mental health issues. This tumultuous family life turned Basquiat into a rebel. As a teenager, he began using marijuana and LSD, eventually running away from home after being caught by his father and dropping out of high school to attend the alternative school, City-As-School.

City-As-School, a public school with unconventional standards where participation mattered more than grades, became a haven for artistic students like Basquiat. The school produced many famous artists, including Adam Horovitz of The Beastie Boys, Princess Nokia, Julia Fox, Mos Def, Malik Yoba, Dante Ross, and Basquiat himself. It was here that Basquiat’s SAMO© project began.

As a sophomore at City-As-School, Basquiat befriended fellow student Al Diaz. Along with Shannon Dawson and Matt Kelly, they formed a tight-knit group. SAMO© originated from a conversation between Basquiat and Diaz while they were high, referring to the marijuana they smoked as “same old shit.” This phrase was eventually shortened to “SAMO,” and Basquiat began incorporating it into his art.

Initially, SAMO© appeared in a school magazine as a character name. It soon evolved into a “religion” promoted through photocopied pamphlets distributed within the school. These pamphlets, credited to Basquiat and Diaz, featured phrases like “SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO PLASTIC FOOD STANDS.”

After graduating, Basquiat and Diaz took SAMO© to a wider audience through graffiti. Diaz, a first-generation graffiti artist, had been tagging walls in New York City since he was 12. Together, they created SAMO© graffiti across SoHo, a neighborhood known for its artist community. Their work, simple yet impactful, often featured phrases like “SAMO©...4 MASS MEDIA MINDWASH,” “SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD,” and “SAMO© SAVES IDIOTS AND GONZOIDS.”

SAMO© graffiti carried a rebellious spirit, acting as an “alternative religion” for those disillusioned with society. The messages were political, propagandistic, poetic, and often surreal. Basquiat described SAMO© as “teenage stuff,” involving drinking, writing, and rebellion, but he and Diaz knew it was a powerful medium for critique.

SAMO© graffiti appeared so frequently that some speculated it was a CIA psychological operation. In a 1978 interview with The Village Voice, Basquiat and Diaz confirmed their productivity, creating up to 30 graffiti pieces a day. Their identities as SAMO© artists were publicly revealed a year later, with Diaz’s identity uncovered first during an exhibition of SAMO© graffiti photos by Henry Flint and Basquiat’s identity confirmed by fellow artist Keith Haring.

Haring, who met Basquiat through the New York art scene, identified him as a SAMO© artist after helping him enter the School of Visual Arts. This introduction led Basquiat to integrate into the School of Visual Arts circle, ironically, the same group he had often criticized. As Basquiat’s solo career took off, his relationship with Diaz strained, leading Basquiat to “kill” SAMO© in 1980 and focus on painting.

Basquiat’s painting career was marked by significant success, but his life was tragically short. In 1988, at the age of 27, Basquiat died of a heroin overdose. His death elevated him from star to legend, culminating in a Basquiat painting selling for $110.5 million in 2017.

In 2016, following Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, Diaz revived SAMO© with new works titled “Tolerate Civilization” and “Because War is Just a 3-Letter Word.” In “Tolerate Civilization,” Diaz wrote, “SAMO©... 4 THOSE OF US WHO MERELY TOLERATE CIVILIZATION...” Thus, SAMO© returned, perhaps not as a savior but as a poignant reminder of Basquiat’s enduring legacy and the enduring power of art to challenge and inspire.