The exhibition Illegal features never seen pictures of SAMO© graffiti taken by Franco Marinai.

Foto: Franco Marinai 1979, Graffiti by SAMO© New York

Behind SAMO© is the artist Jean- Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz with their first conceptional street art project in New York in the late 1970s. Franco Marinai has published in his magazin MAH! - a limited edition artist’s magazine, only 18 copies! - featuring 12 dustgrain copperplate photogravures of never seen before graffiti by SAMO©.

Franco Marinai in conversation with KP Flügel

We have met in Saarbrücken at the end of the vernissage of the exhibition Illegal. You are with your magazine MAH! part of the exhibition with your photos of graffiti works of Samo©.

I’m not a graffiti artist. I am part of the exhibition because of some pictures that I took in New York in 1979. They were featuring graffiti done by SAMO© and not too long ago Ulrich Blanché, the curator of the “Illegal” exhibition discovered that some of them had never been seen before. So he invited me to show them. That’s the reason I am here.
I am not a street artist.



Fotos: Franco Marinai, Samo© (Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Al Diaz) Art Ridicule/ Art Laceration/ Art Rape Art Sin/ (Art CCorps) TM marker Graffiti, New York 1979

Franco Marinai, Samo© (Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Al Diaz)Wise UP, Marker Graffiti, New York 1979

But you are a photographer?

I started out as a photographer when in the attic of my family house in Florence I discovered some chemicals that had been used by my grandfather to do photography. I was fourteen then. When I went to New York I became a filmmaker. Now I’m a printmaker and a publisher of limited edition prints as well as the artist’s magazine MAH!

You are from Italy, when did you come to the United States and to New York?

I came to the United States in 1978 after I graduated from the University of Florence in Political Pcience. I had been told I was going to win a Fulbright scholarship. So I decided to go to America to find out the best university to go to. I just fell in love with New York and I just remained in New York. Never got the Fullbright because it is assigned only to people who are outside of the United States.

Franco Marinai

 How would you describe the atmosphere in New York at that time? The surroundings, the culture. And what had fixed you to take out your camera and to shoot?

It was simply fantastic. I was really mesmerized by the people and the life in the streets of New York. I would spend hours and hours sitting in a cafe on Second Avenue in the East Village, just looking at people passing by. For me it was an incredible entertainment. In fact, when I started making films, the first movies that I made, I placed the camera in a window a few stories high and photographed people going by,
panning, following them until they met someone going in the opposite direction and then I would follow them till they met someone else going the other way and so on and on, back and forth… Because that’s how I felt. Everyone was a star. The energy and the vitality in the streets made me feel a great sense of freedom. Everyone seemed very free to express themselves and they did it very creatively.
Then I took to the streets myself and photographed everything in sight, like photographing in great detail objects on the the asphalt and on the sidewalks, like cigarette butts, beer caps, coffee cups, trash, tickets, chewing gum…
I made hundreds of slides. With those slides a friend invited me to participate to the inauguration of the Pyramid Club, in the East Village, in 1979.
In those days I also took the photographs of SAMO©’s graffiti and other street artists’ works. New York was so vibrant, mesmerizing, dangerous too. There was so much energy and I felt that anything could happen. It was just fantastic.

Where have you seen the pieces of SAMO© the first time? 

I saw them in the East Village in Tribeca. Well, in Soho about the same time, in 1979. I was living on Second Avenue and I was going around Soho and so many of those images, I think they’re coming from there, from Mercer Street, Green Street, Spring Street, Wooster… The last picture I took of SAMO© I think it was on Green Street. It’s the picture with the graffiti that says SAMO© IS DEAD. I find it interesting because it features the brush which Jean-Michel Basquiat left on the ledge on the wall.

And the development of the culture? In New York in the 70s and beginning the 80s, there were some clubs like the CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. These were clubs where punk bands were playing. Then together with graffiti hip hop becomes popular. Which kind of music did you like?

I never went to Max’s Kansas City. Did go to CBGB. On Bleecker Street, very close to CBGB there was also this building occupied by the Yippies where often there would be jam sessions and anyone would be let in for free. Went there. Of course I liked The Ramones, Three Teen Kill Four, Laurie Anderson, Phoebe Legere.
But actually I was more interested in the filmmaking scene and in venues like the Collective for Living Cinema, the Kitchen, the Anthology Film Archives, Millennium, the Pyramid Club, 8BC…

Have you ever met Jean-Michel Basquiat? 

No. …..but in 1979 we rented the loft where I still live when I am in New York from Andy Warhol Enterprises. It was the original Factory, but too small for his purposes he rented it out to photographers. When the top floor was vacated, my wife and I moved in and we made a loft bed where the darkroom used to be.
So in the 80’s Jean-Michel Basquiat became a neighbor of ours. He was living around the corner, also a property of Andy Warhol, but we never met him. Only the year he died, on the Fourth of July, we were having a party on the roof and we saw Basquiat on the roof nextdoor. He was all by himself and shooting fireworks into the air. We invited him over but he didn’t respond. He passed away the following month.

Like in the case with Andy Warhol and Basquiat, especially in the early years I spent in New York, when the climate was much more fluid than now, I had the opportunity to encounter many art celebrities but these encounters never “jelled”. I call them near misses, and maybe it was good that way. So it happened with William Burroughs, John Giorno, Allen Ginsberg, Laurie Anderson, Taylor Mead, Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia, Jack Smith, Schnabel, Nam June Paik, Shigeko Kubota, Noguchi, Kyong Park, Shirin Neshat, actually Shirin she’s still a friend…

When have you seen the graffiti, the artwork of Samo and the artwork of the other graffiti artists? What have you thought the first time when you have seen the pieces? Did you get flashed? Where you interested in reflecting more the graffiti scene or how long have you took/taken photos of the graffiti scene?

I saw the graffiti when I was taking photographs in the streets of New York. I wasn’t really interested in the graffiti, per se, as a separate art form. But I did like the energy and the political orientation, because I was really into finding out voices that would speak against the bad policies of the government. They seemed like genuine, authentic interesting voices speaking up with wit and humor, promising something positive to happen or something. I’m still looking for that. Nowadays not much happening in that way. Not much humor or creativity. Things seem getting worse. But back then,there was still some hope. In those days, maybe because of the crisis, maybe because New York City was almost bankrupt and there was not so much police, things would be much more fluid? Nowadays things seem locked down, the repression is brutal, freedom, fun and originality fading out, even in street art.

In the press information concerning the MAH! edition I read that the never published before photos were discovered by Ulrich Blanchė, curator of  the exhibition Illegal. You never have published the pictures before?

It’s a good detective story. Ulrich is the detective. In 1979 I invited Aroldo, my brother, to New York. After a few months he went back to Florence and began to cover the walls of Florence with a stencil depicting a frogman, also featured in the “Illegal” exhibition.
It was quite a scandal in Florence! A few years ago Isabel Carrasco, a street art expert, found that Aroldo was the first Italian street artist. After Carrasco had raised Ulrich Blancė curiosity about Aroldo’s experience in New York, at Ulrich’s request he was shown some contact prints of negatives I had shot in New York in 1979. In short that’s how Ulrich realized that some of the photos depicting SAMO©’s graffiti had never been seen before.

How was your impression on behalf of the exhibition Illegal? How were your feelings when you have seen all these pictures and objects? 

I think it is a remarkable selection of images and objects that reflect the great passion and sensibility of the curator. Almost as if he was showing his own private collection. It might not be comprehensive, there may be some exclusions, but the focus is well maintained and the catalogue is ceretainly a milestone in the appreciation of this ubiquituous art expression. I was really impressed by the work of the sprayer from Zurich and wish I could see more. Fantastic work, really.

Franco Marinai was born and raised in Florence. After receiving a doctorate in Political Science, in 1978 he moved to New York City where he turned to filmaking doing experimental Super8 and 16mm showing them in all the mythical venues of the so-called New York no-wave cinema and internatioinally. He won several awards (First Prize at the AnnArbor Film Festival,Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts) but in 2004 dropped filmmaking to embrace printmaking and to poroduce artist’s books in limited editions. A few years ago he started Two Cents Press a printmaking and letterpress artist residency and publisher located in a remote hilltop village in the Metal Hills in Tuscany where he also tends to the production of extra virgin olive oil. His works are in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress in Washington; the Antology Film Archives, the Center for Book Arts, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City, and in the Italian National Library in Florence.