local lore

The Williamsburg Building That Painted Over Basquiat

Were residents of a former factory living in the “Sistine Chapel” of SAMO graffiti?

The documentary photographer Dona Ann McAdams discovered this SAMO tag in the elevator shaft of 53–55 South 11th Street, a former factory where she had a loft, around 1979. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams
The documentary photographer Dona Ann McAdams discovered this SAMO tag in the elevator shaft of 53–55 South 11th Street, a former factory where she had a loft, around 1979. Photo: Dona Ann McAdams

South 11th Street comprises two short blocks between Kent and Berry Streets, right on the cusp of Hasidic Williamsburg. “It was pretty much a ruin when I moved in,” Jim Fleming says of 53–55, the six-story factory turned artists’ lofts where he has lived with his wife, Lewanne Jones, since 1982. Today, the building is generic mid-tier real estate; the once sprawling lofts have been converted, for the most part, to one- and two-bedroom apartments that rent for around $3,000 a month. The loading dock to the freight elevator that used to keep residents up at all hours has been cinderblocked over, but you can still see its outline through the paint.

What you can’t see, Fleming and Jones say, are the remnants of their building’s brush with New York art history. In the late 1970s, cryptic messages began to appear on structures around the city: “SAMO© AS AN END 2 THE NEON FANTASY CALLED ‘LIFE’” or “SAMO© AS AN END TO BOOSH-WAH.” In December 1978, The Village Voice revealed that Jean-Michel Basquiat and a collective of friends and collaborators were behind the graffiti. (The paper called them “the new wave of Magic Marker Jeremiahs.”) The tags eventually made their way to 53–55, where they were scrawled between the landings. The writing was small, with the full tag taking up about the length and height of a single brick. They were little curiosities, a story passed between residents over the years. Al Diaz, Basquiat’s former high school classmate and SAMO collaborator, disputes the authenticity of the tags, but lore had it that Basquiat came to the building with Andy Warhol, “but all of this stuff is potentially apocryphal,” Jones says.

The artist and archivist Henry Flynt, who created the first archive of SAMO graffiti and photographed the building around 25 years ago, once told Fleming he was “living in the Sistine Chapel” of incidental Basquiats. They didn’t last. After the building was sold in 2004, a renovation converted the industrial elevator into a smaller passenger elevator and stairwell, forever entombing each of the remaining SAMO tags in layers of paint and drywall. “When they put in the new elevator, it was like, ‘Oh, they’re so stupid!’” Jones says.

When Jim Fleming and Lewanne Jones moved into their Williamsburg loft in 1982, they noticed small SAMO tags on the walls of their freight-elevator shaft. Jones took this photograph of a tag around 1990, before developers painted it over and installed a passenger elevator around 2015. Photo: Lewanne Jones

Before the renovation, evidence of the past occupants was everywhere: boxes of shredded $1 bills in the basement, which Fleming, a publisher, used to package his books, and tubs of spindles. The SAMO tags got the most attention. There was once a much larger one in the same elevator shaft that read, in letters at least two feet tall, “SAMO© AS AN END TO IT ALL.” The documentary photographer Dona Ann McAdams, who lived in the building in the late 1970s, remembers leaving for a trip and finding the graffiti when she returned. “It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time because he hadn’t been discovered,” she says. At some point between McAdams moving out in 1979 and Fleming and Jones arriving in 1982, those large letters were painted over and the smaller tags appeared.

As the neighborhood around 53–55 was developed, new construction rising along the waterfront narrowed the building’s river views. In 2004, the complex that includes 53–55 was sold to Dov Land LLC and longtime tenants found themselves in a standoff with their new landlord. (“Through changes in the neighborhood and inflation and other market forces, the rental values have gone up,” a lawyer for Dov Land told the New York Times in 2006. “The landlord, like any landlord who owns a building, wants to maximize rental income.”) Buyouts and other tactics to drive tenants away worked — many of the artists left. The building was carved into two addresses, 53–55 and 65 South 11th Street, and the freight elevator that once served the entire building was turned into a passenger elevator for just 65. This, residents say, was the end of the SAMO tags. “People came to visit the graffiti,” Jones, an archival-film producer, says, but the landlords didn’t care. (The building’s property manager did not respond to requests for comment about covering up the graffiti.)

This is more or less how it goes in New York. Sometimes the losses are small; others feel impossible to miss. After a developer demolished 5Pointz — an abandoned factory complex in Long Island City that had become a graffiti mecca — to build luxury rentals, 21 artists won a nearly $7 million settlement for their work. There’s now a set of commissioned murals on the side of the building facing the 7 train tracks that attempt, and spectacularly fail, to replicate the authenticity of the sublime art-covered structure 5 Pointz once was.

Every now and then, some famous murals are saved from the wrecking ball, such as Keith Haring’s 1987 graffiti on a wall of the Boys’ Club of New York. Other times, they’re eaten by the same forces through different means: A Haring mural that was excised from an Upper West Side youth center was auctioned for $3.9 million in 2019.

Beyond their association with Basquiat, the SAMO tags at 53–55 and 65 South 11th Street were reminders of a time when 1,000-person parties would go on until 6 a.m. in abandoned warehouses by the East River and when artists and their neighbors, mostly working-class immigrants from Puerto Rico and Poland, could actually afford to live in Williamsburg and neighboring Greenpoint. The building today looks nothing as it once did. There are about nine renovated units on each level, the same amount of space that once held two artists’ lofts, like the one Fleming and Jones share, which still has its original wood floors and exposed beams.

At first, the couple was nonchalant about the graffiti, but the tags came to feel special as the years passed. The former elevator operator would proudly point them out every time someone new came in, and as word got around that there was a Basquiat in the building, people started to come just to see the tags. You didn’t have to pay $35 (or $65 to skip the line) to see a Basquiat; it was art history in the wild. “Those things were a dime a dozen back in the day,” Jones says. “Honestly, you know, you could see that everywhere.”

The Williamsburg Building That Painted Over Basquiat