Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Friend Gives Exclusive Interview and Presents New Book about The Artist

In this Exclusive Interview with Tom Zatar Kay we talk about his new book: ‘JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT “THE KING”: My Friend SAMO – Late 1970-80s’ as well as The One And Only – Jean-Michel himself! His life. His art.

The book features many interesting stories about Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tom’s lifelong friend who he calls SAMO, his interactions with celebrities and contemporary artists of the time. It contains exclusive photos that Tom has taken of people and artworks during his friendship with Jean-Michel.

With no page numbers, the book is intended to become art in itself, containing many pages that can be cut out and framed. Tom also written it to be a historic record for all hard core SAMO fans, a timeless collector’s edition of a high-profile artist who will be remembered forever. It has been purchased by Columba University, various libraries, and leading contemporary professionals from around the world. And now, without further ado, here’s our Exclusive Interview with Tom Zatar Kay.

“Untitled” by Jean-Michel Basquiat | MutualArt
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When and how did you meet Jean-Michel Basquiat, a.k.a SAMO?

In late 1978, on the street lower east side things were just like that, it was great fun and we hit it off, art, poetry, intelligence, vibe tribe, cannabis, many mutual friends. Everyone knows everyone in the scene.

Why did you decide to author a book about him? What are you hoping the readers will take away from this publication?

The takeaway is: stop the hate, work hard, go make your own original art, party, be happy, have fun.

The motivation for this book came from seeing photos of a long-lost video shoot I produced with friends which blew my mind and made me happy to know that I now have these amazing exclusive images of my old friend SAMO to work with. I loved turning them into my art by utilizing intense image processing and special effects, and turning them into 44 different portraits, works of vibrant art incorporating different sides of SAMO’s personality. As an artist I have written 30 plus books over the years, and I felt that a SAMO book about those booming times had to be told.

“Tom, we appreciate the opportunity to get acquainted with your work–particularly the dynamic and eclectic color composition of your images. It is really exciting to see these archival images of Basquiat, an artist who has become so central to our understanding of African-American art history.”

– The Studio Museum in Harlem

It was a personal cathartic thing. I was feeling SAMO energy again and thinking  about our friendship and experience and how his art exploded from when he was homeless and not a junkie. And then I realized  it was more than just SAMO. It was an exciting time to be an artist in New York City and SAMO represented to me a friend making it big in the art world. So my book became a bigger story about all the other people who were part of our Mudd Club scene. I had great fun collecting cool SAMO stories many of which are included in the book. I try to capture the spirit of the times.

The book was a cathartic experience and my way of trying to express to the world what SAMO was really like. 

The best books about SAMO were written by his friends who loved him. I give tribute to everyone in my book for they all are “Kings and Queens” to me.

I get asked, “What was he like? It must have been incredible to know him.” This is what my book is all about. He was magical and cool, yes, it was incredible, creative times.

What stories stand out in your mind that best evoke Jean-Michel’s character and spirit?

In my car on the lower east side SAMO and I are talking and smoking a few joints and the moment with me looking him in the eyes after he showed me some art and saying,  “You are going to make it big,” and then two years later me giving him a big hug at his opening, SAMO, being one of the youngest artist to ever be included in the Whitney Bicentennial, and me whispering in his ear, “I told you were going to make it BIG.” Makes me happy to think of that moment.

The two of us up at his loft speaking about words, letters, his poetry, his funny messages all interwoven into all of his art. Shocking, primal, deep, tribal, political poetry art with angry potent statements and bright colors. We were having a great time together laughing about how funny his letters were in his Big Art. He was happiest letting all his energy go into timeless masterpieces.

SAMO and I are in a Group Art show together at Club 57 Gallery. I show him my work, it’s a political statement about war, and called “Eye for an Eye,” and he just points out to me that my artwork has a skull and lots of blood dripping from the person’s eyes and SAMO gives me a big BOOM. SAMO had a thing about skulls, I think it’s a voodoo magical check on reality, and we all are going to die – spot on for today’s doomsday reality. In a world without art there cannot be peace.

After being Jean-Michel’s friend for so many years, what would you like to tell the world about SAMO?

I believe SAMO was on the autistic spectrum, he was neurodivergent for sure. He showed many of the traits, such as being socially awkward and always having to create, reading and speaking at a very young age, and damn just look at his art that’s of a mind possessed with superpower energy. 

He was a precocious, exceptionally bright gifted child who learned to read and write by the age of four, fluent in French, Spanish and English, and an avid reader of all three languages. This shows Hyperlexia which is one part of being on the autistic spectrum – neurodivergent.

As a dyslexic artist and inventor myself, from experience, having a spectrum of abilities lends to creativity and being awkward. SAMO always said he liked children’s art,  he had a child-like innocence, beaming love and compassion but in your face instantly if you were a fool of any type, a true master of his own domain .

Once SAMO made it he helped all of his old friends and SAMO loved helping total bums by giving them money, something he personally understood from the other side.

Why do you think his art has had such an impact and what does it stand for?

His art was mesmerizing, brilliant, profound, and activist. It had a message. It stands for whatever effect it has on the viewer.  It was strong – poetry, words, cartoons, colors which were fully politically relevant. SAMO’s art grabs you and makes a statement. SAMO art is angry art, unfortunately we still live in an angry world. SAMO was addicted to his iPhone 20 years before it even existed. I have many images in my head of SAMO staring down into his box, a hand computer intensely.  Today I see people doing the exact same thing. It is just like his art, politically potent and relevant right now booming his message on the Internet of your mind.

What qualities did you most admire about SAMO? 

He could speak in expansive terms. I miss speaking with him. I miss dancing to jazz with him talking shit. I miss his miracles and vibes. He was a member of my tribe. He was cool, great taste in music, did not give a fuck about what people thought. He was doing his thing. A very deep human, infinitely smart and funny in his cynical way when he was not in a junky stoop.  I loved the ways he was a booming bad ass. A real punk in art action. He was a revolutionary and such a nice human to hang out with always interesting.

What lessons did you learn from Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life?

All artists suffer for their art in order to help change what’s wrong with the world. We experience SAMO and learn just by reading his art and feeling the message, booming timeless inspirations.

SAMO died from a drug overdose – if you are going to do junk, always have a friend nearby to administer Naloxone so if you OD they can save your life!

Don’t do Junk. Heroin – it kills.

If someone wants to shoot up there is nothing you can do to stop them.  Junkies can not stop junk alone they need help

What was his impact on you personally?

I lost another Martian brother and friend and feel it is my responsibility to tell everyone about his art, message and spirit. I personally see SAMO as a positive evolutionary force of nature in action.

What do you see as the underlying message of his life and art? What do you think his legacy is?

You create your own art, speak your truth, don’t be a bigot, don’t hate, love. Be punk and fearless, be kind, have compassion, don’t pass judgement .

What impact do you think Jean-Michel’s art had on our society and the world?

To me SAMO became a important piece of art history, and I felt a calling to try to express what he was like. He was an artist; I am an artist. Society needs art as a way to evolve as a species. To me SAMO was one of society’s most important artists and he knew that very well.

To me SAMO represented a future being, a higher way of thinking, a type of artistic  energy, all great awakened kundalini humans have in common, a type of classification I call “Godtism”.  SAMO was living in two worlds, the one of present reality, another of Utopia and he like all great artists was trying in his own way to enlighten Humanity. To me he was a part of today’s cybergod movement and the most important thing I am doing, next to being an artist and a good parent.

Everything today is art. The Internet is the paintbrushes of our new reality. You could be sure SAMO would have a very big voice today on the Internet. Look at what’s happening right now in the world and how this keyboard is reaching your eyes though the Internet. 

A big Boom and Love to the Sisters of the “King”:  SAMO’s two strong, funny and intelligent, humans, both of whom reminds me of their brother. They act just like him.  The way the carry themselves, their soft voice and movements. I love what they are doing with the project: ‘Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure’

SAMO was a force of nature still living in his art and its messages.

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3 replies »

  1. Out of hundreds of articles & interviews about Jean Michel, his friend Tom Kay captures the true vibe & spirit of the artist, his brief iconic moment in time and the “Boom For Real” SAMO ‘Ethos’…homeless prince to punk rock big time – art star just because he dreamed it & went for it…NYC was a magical place then, & Jean’s magic was a key part of the scene…Basquiat’s ‘truth became his art’ & now the entire world is aware of it’s power…BOOM!

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