The 70’s and 80’s were a seminal period for New York street art, with a number of noteworthy artists emerging at the time. Amongst them was Al Diaz. Originally, Diaz cut his teeth on the New York subway aged 12 - tagging trains as ‘Bomb-One’. It was a competitive pursuit; with each kid attempting to outdo the other by plastering their name across the city. Diaz found this to be unfulfilling, and wanted to turn his hands to something more significant.
This took Diaz to the chapter that he is perhaps best known for - his ‘SAMO©’ works. A collaborative project with long-time friend Jean-Michel Basquiat. Joyously provocative, the graffiti was social commentary told with wit and humour. SAMO© was equal parts poetry, sarcasm and political activism. It was instantly recognisable and could be seen all over the walls of lower Manhattan between 1977 and 1979. In his own words, “We were doing something completely new to graffiti culture, but not to the planet. To us it wasn’t so different from people writing political statements on the walls of ancient Rome.”
As the 80’s rolled around Basquiat and Diaz began to drift apart. Jean-Michel found his way into Andy Warhol’s inner circle and began his rise to infamy amongst the art world, whilst Diaz preferred to operate behind the spotlight. Unfortunately, during this period both young artists suffered from an addiction to heroin. Ultimately, this looming shadow took Basquiat’s life prematurely, an event that shook Diaz. Eventually, in the mid 90’s, he retreated to Puerto Rico in order to re-align his life, get sober and find some steadiness.
It was in 2011, after visiting rehab following a relapse, that Diaz began to find his artistic footing again. He collected a number of wet paint signs from the New York subway and cut the letters up; re-forming them into a collage of sorts that he would then re-display across train stations. SAMO© also saw a rebirth during the 2010’s, as a push-back against the election of Donald Trump; a way for Diaz to voice his political displeasure with the same irreverence as he did in the late 70’s.
In the last few years Diaz’ stock has risen exponentially; whilst he was already a respected name in the minds of street art fans, he is now gaining mainstream momentum. There is significant demand for SAMO© and WET PAINT works; as outlined by the numerous galleries that have exhibited various works by Diaz across New York. An exciting live collaboration between Diaz and UK based artist Schoony took place in Manhattan at ‘NYC via LDN’, hosted by Distassi Art and Contra Galleries. A SAMO© tag was added to Schoony’s ‘Boy Soldier’, alongside WET PAINT lettering to create a unique one of one work.
The Distassi Art team