I took this photograph of Jean-Michel Basquiat in 1979 in the Mudd Club, a venue for music, art, film, dance and other cultural events in lower Manhattan. I taught photography by day and went out every night to CBGB’s, Max’s or the Mudd Club to hear music by bands which were mostly comprised of men. I was confounded by the male species and was photographing “Bad Boys,” exploring the dynamic of a woman photographing men. There was a palpable electricity in the cultural milieu of NYC at that time. Rock musicians and artists alike were graduating from art schools. Painters were making films. Writers were doing performance art. Sculptors were creating installations. Artists were acting in films, making music and generally collaborating with each other. My “Bad Boys” photographs were to become my photo book “Punks, Poets and Provocateurs: NYC Bad Boys 1977-1982,” published by Insight Editions in 2015.
In 1977, it was in this milieu that graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat teamed up with Al Diaz, another high school student, to invent a philosophycum – a religion called SAMO. SAMO first appeared in a satirical sketch in the school newspaper, where it was introduced as a faith in which “we do all we want here on earth and then rely totally on the mercy of god on the pretense that we don’t know anything.” A fellow student said “Now that I found SAMO I found the truth.”
Eventually, Basquiat quit school and introduced the SAMO texts to the inhabitants of the Lower East Side and the SoHo art world. He spray-painted such SAMO sayings as “SAMO as an end 2 Vinyl punkery” and “SAMO as an alternative 2 placing art with the ‘radical chic’ set on Daddy’s $funds,” all over lower Manhattan. He primarily thought himself a poet and wordsmith whose original concerns were literary. The SAMO phenomenon climaxed with his finest poems, including “The whole livery line bow like this with the big money all crushed into these feet” and “Pay for soup / Build a fort / Set that on fire.”
Basquiat’s biographer Phoebe Hoban wrote “the SAMO sayings were a distilled version of the themes he would repeatedly return to in his later work: racism, materialism, capitalism, pop culture, mortality.” Basquiat appropriated images from books like the Bible or anatomy texts, making them part of his own invented vocabulary. He “combined and recombined these idiosyncratic symbols throughout his career: the recursive references to anatomy, black culture, television and history are his personal hieroglyphics.” The SAMO project ended with the epitaph “SAMO IS DEAD” inscribed on the walls of SoHo buildings in 1979.
Basquiat’s paintings exploded on canvas in 1981 when he began to establish himself as one of the best artists in the world. Wearing a new Armani suit, elegant shirt, and tie—but with bare feet—he would paint with ferocious conviction.