Al Diaz / SAMO©

Street-Artist-Pioneer and Wordsmith Extraordinaire

November 18, 2021
EDUCATED
Acrylic paint on canvas digital prints
60 x 48 x 2 in 152.4 x 121.9 x 5.1 cm
Copyright Al Diaz

Street-artist-pioneer and wordsmith extraordinaire, Al Díaz co-created the most storied tag of all time, SAMO©, with his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Al Díaz is a first-generation New York City graffiti artist who continues to create, exhibit and share his experiences as a key figure in the counterculture art scene from the city's graffiti heyday.  His Signage studio paintings are verbalisms of unadulterated poetry from a life of observance on the street; hand-crafted by way of utilizing posters and public announcement notices lifted from the city’s subways and station houses. The creation of which are dictated by availability in both the content of said posters/notices and the materiality of which they are made or designed. The MTA's "Service Change Alert" posters along with the likes of "Wet Paint" signs become the templates from which to work and arrange his own lexicon. Surprisingly, amongst the MTA's arsenal of signage, the letters H, O, U, Y, X, K, and V are nowhere to be found. "That's where the art comes in," says Al.  "The challenge to create something new with limited means." By his own rules, he can never write 'shit', it must be 'fecal' —for there is no 'h' in the underground.  "It becomes a mental game."  One that unravels as satirical as Banksy, these works are poignant messages that question our world order by way of street-savvy chutzpah and farce. Genius in simplicity. Brilliant in richness and depth. 

Al Diaz grew up in the housing projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.  A Puerto Rican kid from immigrant parents, Al came of age in the 1970s when the city was on the verge of bankruptcy and drugs were destroying an entire generation. But along the way,  he learned to love words from listening to Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, and from reading Charles Bukowski. And even after a drug dealer took a bat to his head in 1987—breaking his jaw in two places, cracking a bunch of teeth, and left on the street for dead—Al found comfort in words and pushed forth by writing words and letters in his black-book sketchpads and did so with all sorts of scripted fonts that he’d practice over and over again even as the heroin took full control of his life. Yet somehow he'd still read Bukowski to find a word or a passage to hang on to. And hang on he did. He's been clean for nearly a dozen years now. And he's still a walking thesaurus. A brilliant wordsmith in an era that capitalizes on using less and less words and where they seem to carry less gravitas than ever before, less veritas—and meaning. Not so for Mr. Diaz. He might mince letters to make his art but he never minces words when crafting his everlasting poetry. —de la Haba

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© copyright 2021 Gregory de la Haba
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