Originally published on WordRiot.org. Click Boom For Real below to watch a video!
SAMO Is Dead
I was born at home in a Brooklyn ghetto. After arriving late, our Taína midwife passed this Nigerian belief to my Ecuadorian mother: wherever the placenta be buried, there would my soul return after death. Uncertain of where to inearth my eutherial twin in the pits of East New York, she stowed it in a freezer until the summer of ‘88, when Jean-Michel Basquiat OD’d, a riot went on in Tompkins Square Park and the Burkina Faso filmmaker Gaston Kaboré shot Zan Boko, ‘the place where the placenta is buried’, about a farming family’s resistance against urbanization from the wealthy of Ouagadougou. Then came the blackout.
Imagine the stink of afterbirth three days into a power outage in August. A moving bruise making its way from the kitchen in waves. Naturally, my moms ended up chucking that shit down the tenement chute, Tupperware and all. Knowing that I’d be dawdling away the whole of eternity in a Brooklyn landfill with my other half, pursuing a life of long-term travel in my corporeal days seemed like the thing to do. Soon after turning 15, I ran away from the studio apartment where my older sister, younger sister, her father, my mother and I all slept on two mattresses on the floor divided by a three-panel ‘Chinese’ partition, leaving behind a note that read ‘’I’M DONE WITH CAPITALISM, I’M MOVING TO CANADA.’’ Then Portland, then China, then Ecuador.
Then back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn. Brooklyn.
Basquiat grew up middle-class in Park Slope and East Flatbush. He is almost always classified as ‘an American artist’ even though his moms was a black boricua from the BK and his father a Port-Au-Prince native with Ivorian roots. He sends a drawing of a gun to J. Edgar Hoover the same year his mother is institutionalized. By the age of 11, he could fluently speak, read and write French, Spanish, and English, and synthesized all three into the written language he so famously coded into his paintings, teasing the globe like a Rubik’s cube.
Jean-Michel spent his early teens in Miramar, Puerto Rico, where he becomes the victim of rape. Soon after returning to Brooklyn, his father catches him having sex with another guy and, after trying to kill him, kicks him out. He’s 15. Basquiat is arrested in Washington Square Park and brought back home, but after throwing a cream pie in his high school principal’s face two years later, drops out and lives on the streets full-time. He hustles: sleeps with men for money, loads up on All of the Drugs and sells postcards to tourists. He sleeps in parks, boys’ homes and girlfriends’ beds and forms one half of the street art project SAMO (Same Old Shit) along with City-As-School friend Al Diaz. “I thought I was going to be a bum the rest of my life,” he once said. His noise band, Gray, plays at the Mudd Club a lot.
At 20, he is invited to join Anina Nosei’s SOHO gallery and works in a studio for the first time. Artforum runs Rene Ricard’s The Radiant Child, an interview which brings Basquiat to international acclaim. While achieving maximum success in the great white art world, he becomes a millionaire. A junkie millionaire, actually; two important requisites if you’re looking to get paranoid. At 25, he takes his first and last trip to Africa for a show in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire and befriends Ivorian painter Ouattara Watts. They plan a trip back to the country together for a shamanic ceremony meant to save Basquiat’s soul from addiction, but he backs out at the last minute. After dying of a heroin overdose at age 27, he reaches legendary status.
In Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Phoebe Hoban writes about the late artist’s Brooklyn burial, where a CitiBank spokesman delivered the eulogy:
Blanca Martinez, Basquiat’s housekeeper, was struck by the alienated attitude of the mourners. “They were all standing separately, as if it were an obligation,” she says. “They didn’t seem to care. Some looked ashamed.” People began to leave the cemetery before the body was buried. Ignoring the objections of the gravediggers, Martinez tearfully threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin as they lowered it into the grave.
Boom For Real
I wasn’t a good Ecuadorian girl. Simple stuff like getting out of bed and readying for school were always quantum tasks that earned me the belt each time. Getting whipped across the back to the tune of that old NY1 theme song (with the sax) was my morning routine for years. Mami really blew up when I turned 12 and totally refused to return to school, leaving algae-colored bruises all up and down the right side of my body like I’d passed out on a lakebed somewhere. Her guilt eventually worked in my favor and I was permitted to stay home most of the year under the condition that I care for my new baby sister. By now I know I’m gay but think nothing of it.
We lived like nomads in Jackson Heights, Queens, moving every time rent became beyond unaffordable for my single, working, immigrant mother of three. When it got real bad, we were sent to live with our grandparents in Orlando, Florida, shuffling between the two states annually for the next couple years. The summer house had plenty of cubbyholes to hide from my grandfather’s wandering fingers, but results in an all-consuming claustrophobic. After getting into art school down south, I drop out and move back to New York.
The Lower East Side became my stomping grounds, when we all still called it Loisaida. I’d wander around talking to strangers in Tompkins Square Park, checking out the free punk matinees at ABC No Rio and reading zines at Bluestockings or St. Marks Bookshop. I knew no one my age. Finally, I drop the anti-capitalist Canada bomb and hitchhike upstate, starting at the Co-Op City projects in The Bronx where I’d been crashing. It is illegal to drop out at 15 or something and the cops are after my moms for neglect. After court, I’m forced back into high school in the hood, but take the train into the LES instead. When a blank report card arrives home, I’m kicked out. The thing about sleeping in Washington Square Park is them damn sprinklers.
We try homeschooling, then City-As-School, an alternative set up where you accumulate credits through internship programs around town, though a few hours of class a week is mandatory. My poor record disqualified me for fall enrollment so summer school became the only option – half in class, half at the New York Botanical Garden in The Bronx. I never went to class, but always showed up to the garden on time, eager to dig like I had a hot date with the earth. I take up graffiti, get arrested a few times, join a band and move away.
A new shopping mall, two apartment complexes and a park are built on a 297-acre landfill in East New York, Brooklyn. It is home to retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Staples, Marshalls, the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, Boulder Creek Steakhouse, Target, The Home Depot, and BJ’s Wholesale Club. But it turns out that the landfill in question – Fountain Avenue – ceased receiving refuse three years before my birth, meaning my soul will probably be rerouted to Fresh Kills in Staten Island.