A Conversation With Graffiti Artist Pioneer Al Diaz

July 12, 2022

Al Diaz (b. 1959) is a first-generation graffiti artist that lives and works in New York City. Diaz is the son of two Puerto Rican immigrants and spent the majority of his formative years residing in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. Here his interest in the arts was able to flourish through the community’s diverse melting pot and vibrant art scene.

“Boosh-Wah or CIA” 2021 by Al Diaz. Courtesy of Artist

Al Diaz’s Relationship With Graffiti Art 

Diaz began to show an interest in art from a very young age which led him to pursue an education at the Manhattan High Scool of Art and Design. Diaz at the young age of 12, began to hone his creative aspirations through graffiti

MP: What were some of the early inspirations for your work Did your upbringing affect you in any particular way?

AD: When you grow up bilingual, language becomes a part of your value system. There is room to switch from one to the other- two flavors to play with. This led me more prone to being attracted to language and graffiti was more like a communication than an art form

MP: Because you began doing graffiti at such a young age, I am curious to know who was your audience and what message you wanted to convey at 15?

AD: Our audience was each other – that’s the other thing about graffiti culture- it was primarily a boys club and what we tagged and bombed was meant to stay within our group at first. You could think of it as a glorified pissing contest. The first real motivating element was to be known and to get around, being able to say “oh look there is my name, there goes my name”. 

There was also a lot of comradery and adventure that went along with graffiti back then. We were going down into the subway tunnels and other places that were definitely not considered safe for a kid but it brought us a lot of joy. 

One of the members of Al Diaz’s crew was prominent artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. The two of them met when Diaz had transferred to New York City As A School, an alternative high school located in the West Village.

AD: We bonded through our love of language and experimented a lot with it in our early collaborations. And it was about 1975 that we had come up with SAMO. And many people confuse SAMO as a commentary on “same old shit”, but it was more of a ritualistic expression.

MP: How do you define the difference between street art and graffiti as a pioneer in the movement?

AD: Graffiti is a language and form of communication. Street art is just visually more appealing Some street art is more palatable, nothing wrong with that – it is just commerce. 

I also think that graffiti is more of an attitude. Graffiti is a community all have similar experiences and history. Graffiti also offered an opportunity to reinvent yourself – helped build character. Street art is so much different than that, but it also uses the same tools, I guess that’s why there

Diaz’s Artistic Style 

Currently, Diaz works and resides in Brooklyn where he is working on a variety of different word pieces specifically focusing on what he calls the “subway alphabet”. Lettering for his massive murals and small artworks are acquired through the New York City MTA notices posted in the subways and wet paint signage. 

“Nostalgia” 2021 By Al Diaz. Courtesy of Artist

This is a unique take on Diaz’s previously mentioned interest in language and his ability to make do with a limited amount of letters. According to him, he has all of the English alphabet with the exception of the letters X and Y. It is far to hope that these subway lines will exist someday, however Diaz still manages to improvise on his art. 

AD: You have to become a thesaurus of sorts, if you don’t have the letters to say something – you find another way to convey what you want to say either through abbreviations or by coming up with different words. 

“All We Need” 2020 By Al Diaz. Courtesy of artist

Exhibition History & More 

Al Diaz has been shown and privately collected internationally including in Beyond The Streets (Los Angeles, 2018), Urban Art Fair (Manhattan, 2017), Art Miami Scope, and more. Diaz has also sat on panel discussions regarding graffiti art including at the Brooklyn Museum, The New school, Christie’s Education, and the Museum of Modern Art

Additionally, a notebook that he made with Jean-Michel Basquiat and friends is in the private collection of Yale University’s. As well, Al Diaz is the author of Samo…Since 1978, an autobiography of sorts to help illustrate and clarify the SAMO writings found throughout New York City in the late 1970s.

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