Same Ol’ Shit, and Other News


On the Shelf

A sample of Basquiat’s work with the tag SAMO©.


  • I’ve been thinking of getting a tattoo, but all the good ones are taken. Part of the genome sequence of a polar bear? Taken. Abraham Lincoln holding a boom box over his head like John Cusack in Say Anything? Taken. Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes peeing on the Chevy logo? Taken. And now the poet Morgan Parker, whose work has appeared in The Paris Review, has just claimed the mother of all tats. Amanda Petrusich went with her to get it: “Parker had saved a photo on her phone of the tattoo she wanted to get, a graffiti tag that read ‘samo.’ In the nineteen-seventies and eighties, the tag was ubiquitous on the walls and in the stairwells of downtown New York City, often painted by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and his collaborator, Al Diaz. The word is a phonetic shortening of the phrase ‘same ol’ shit’ and thus implies a certain kind of psychic exhaustion … It took about fifteen minutes before the tattoo artist wiped the last streaks of blood from Parker’s skin. She admired his work. ‘It’s me reminding myself that I’ve always been this person,’ she said later, looking at it. ‘It becomes this kind of affirmation, and I like the idea of taking something that’s in the vernacular, and yet it’s hard to define. It’s a word that’s written on the soul. It’s a thing that we know deeply.’ ”
  • Yo Zushi on Leonora Carrington, the artist and novelist who left behind a privileged life in England to pursue the creative life—and, oh, while she was at it, she eluded the grasp of the Nazis, too: “Her life was an extended refutation of convention … In this centenary year of her birth, Carrington, who died in 2011, is at last receiving the attention she deserves. Her shorter fiction, compiled in The Debutante and Other Stories, reveals an imagination that could transfigure horror into enchantment, and the human into the bestial. Yet her most significant achievement is her paintings. In Self-Portrait (1937–38), a wild-haired Carrington sits on a chair in front of a rocking horse, communing with a hyena. We see in the window behind her a real white horse, running free; our eyes are drawn to it by the room’s outlines. Surrealism prided itself in defying logic, but there is a logic here—one of emotional sense, if not literal meaning. Her life was made of multiple escapes. With that galloping horse, how vividly she evokes a longing for freedom.”

  • Did you hear the one about the failed artist? He ended up becoming a critic and telling other artists when they’d failed. Jerry Saltz, well aware of the conventional wisdom that critics are just failed artists, remembers his own foray into art making—and how his failure shaped him as a critic: “When I teach today, I often judge young artists based on whether I think they have the character necessary to solve the inevitable problems in their work. I didn’t. I also didn’t understand how to respond to an outer world out of step with my inner life without retreating into total despair. Oscar Wilde said, ‘Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation at all.’ Artists have to be self-critical enough not to just attack everything they do. I had self-doubt but not a real self-critical facility; instead I indiscriminately loved or hated everything I did. Instead of gearing up and fighting back, I gave in and got out. But I learned so much about being a critic.”
  • If you watch only one dusty old basketball-instructional video this year, make it Homework Basketball, Barrett Swanson says: “Homework Basketball, which was released in 1987, started with lessons on the fundamentals, like shooting and dribbling. But as the videos went on, [Pete] Maravich began to initiate his young viewers into a more esoteric set of skills. ‘I’m also going to teach you today how to do the creative—the more advanced—type of pass, the artistic type of pass.’ The video then furnished a bevy of drills whose names sounded like dance moves that you would execute only at a wedding: ‘Different Strokes,’ ‘Scrambled Eggs,’ ‘The Laid-Back.’ Alone in the penumbral glow of the gym, Maravich pirouetted across the hardwood, schooling invisible foes with breakneck sleights of hand. Again and again, I rewound the trick-shot sequence, watching as Maravich leapt into the air and looped the ball between his legs before completing a reverse layup.”
  • Nathalie Léger’s essay “Barbara, Wanda” appeared in our Fall 2016 issue. Natasha Lehrer, who translated the piece from the French, speaks about her process: “There is something very deceptive in the limpidity of Léger’s prose. It’s extraordinarily precise. She switches registers very rapidly, like jump cuts in a movie. The elegance and meticulousness of her language has a kind of rigor that is perhaps harder to translate than more obviously ornate language … I work in multiple drafts. I do the first draft quite quickly, just to get something fairly literal down on the page. Then I work through it first with the French alongside, then without it, then I turn back to the French and go through it sentence by sentence, honing it. I might go through the text like this ten times or more—until it feels right. I do ceramics for pleasure, and I think there is something similar in the process: you work on a piece of pottery, slowly, carefully, going over and over it, until at a certain point you feel that it’s right, it’s ready, it’s alive. And I have the same feeling with translation—you work on it until there’s a point where you can feel that it’s ready to go out into the world. It lives.”