Feature

Basquiat: Making His Mark

A tarp from the artist’s early years hints at his limitless ambition

Words by
Julia Price
Published on
May 10, 2020

SoHo, July 1979. Edvins Strautmanis, an abstract expressionist painter of the New York school, has hung a large, plastic tarp to protect the rest of his family’s apartment from flecks of paint flying off the giant canvases he energetically paints on his studio floor. Fellow artists make frequent appearances at the family dinner table in their 4000-square foot loft, but it’s his young son, Vincent, who brings home an 18 year old Jean-Michel Basquiat to crash on the couch.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979. Basquiat tagged this piece while it still hung between Edvins Strautmanis’ art studio and living space in SoHo.
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Imagine Basquiat as an outsider just out of high school, staying with friends and selling postcards to get by, brimming with vision and ambition that will soon catapult him to fantastic heights of artistry and celebrity. Imagine him in the Strautmanis loft, looking at Edvins’ studio. Is he inspired? Jealous? Amused?

A 19-year-old Basquiat painting the town in the film Downtown 81.
New York Beat Films, LLC

What we know is that, at some point, Basquiat tagged the tarp separating the studio and living space with his tag SAMO©, in lurid orange taxi-cab yellow paint. The elder Strautmanis was reportedly furious and replaced the tarp with a fresh one. His son, however, saved the portion of the tarp with the tag, along with a collage Basquiat gave him. That collage, entitled “He Was Crazy,” was exhibited and sold at the Nahmad Gallery, and later featured in the documentary Radiant Child. The tarp, along with several of Edvins’ paintings, is now being offered for auction as part of Vincent Strautmanis’ estate, through SAMO©, a contraction of short for “Same Old Shit,” was a collaboration between Basquiat and high school friend Al Diaz. Their ubiquitous and often poetic tags covered SoHo and the Lower East Side starting in 1978, proclaiming SAMO© as a faux-pharmaceutical cure for the spiritual and cultural ailments of Bohemian New Yorkers. “SAMO© AS AN EX-PRESSION/ OF SPIRITUAL LOVE…” called one. “SAMO.../ AS AN ALTER-/ NATIVE TO/ BULLSHIT/ FAKE HIPPY/ WHACK/ CHEER......” taunted another. As Basquiat’s focus turned to the art scene, he tagged many SoHo galleries, studios, and art schools, staking an early claim on the world he would later take by storm. “SAMO© AS AN/ ALTERNATIVE 2/ "PLAYING ART”/WITH THE "RADICAL?/ CHIC'' SECT ON/ DADDY'$ FUNDS.../ 4•U…” read one of these, skewering the ability of the rich to dally in the arts without struggling financially.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled (SAMO© Tarp), 1979 (details). Flecks of paint from the tarp’s original incarnation as a protective curtain are still clearly visible under Basquiat’s tag.

Omnipresent as the tags were, they were documented by photographer Henry Flynt, who exhibited the photos before he was even aware who was responsible for the graffiti itself. Local media outlets such as the Village Voice also pursued the artists behind the pseudonym, the mystery of their identities adding to their allure. As Basquiat's personal ambition and desire for recognition grew, he used the project to bolster the beginnings of his own celebrity. Basquiat appeared alone as “SAMO” on public access television show TV Party, and at other nightlife events in the city. His friend “Fab 5 Freddy” Braithwaite noted of SAMO©, “The whole objective of graffiti is fame… like, I’m gonna take control of that space, and people gonna know me.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1982, seen here at an exhibition of the artist’s work at the Brant Foundation in 2019, sold for: $110.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2017, the highest price ever realized at auction by an American artist.
Andrew Sroka

By 1980, Basquiat announced the end of the SAMO© collaboration by writing “SAMO© IS DEAD” all over SoHo. By 1981, he’d had his first solo show, and was well on his way to conquering the New York—and global—art scenes. Three decades after his untimely death in 1988, he holds the record for highest price realized at auction by an American artist, $110.5 million for an untitled 1982 painting sold at Sotheby’s in 2017.

Imagine again, then, the moment before. Imagine a tarp, hanging between Basquiat and another artist’s success.

Imagine a young man making his mark.

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