Back in the late 1970s, an annoying little scribble kept popping up in the New York City subways. It read “SAMO” and was short for “same old shit.” It was the nom de plume of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Vandal-turned-neo-expressionist Basquiat dropped out of high school in 1978—one year before graduation. By 1982, he was a celebrity in a Manhattan art scene that cherished the work of graffiti-writers who painted canvases with abstract work. The original fad for graffiti-influenced work was short-lived in the 1980s. But even though Basquiat died in 1988, not long after the fad waned, his artwork legitimized what had been considered by society as only petty vandalism for decades.
In May 2007, an untitled piece of Basquiat’s work sold for $14.6 million.
Every since the early 1980s trend of graffiti-writers doing gallery work, the subject has been controversial. Some people think vandals shouldn’t be endorsed in any way whatsoever. And some graffiti-writers consider gallery work selling out. Other graffiti-writers consider it a way of maturing as artists.
Local graffiti-writer and canvas painter John Reno does both—he paints canvases and buildings.
“I figured, ‘I’m doing graffiti. Why not try doing a little canvas?'” says the 18-year-old artist.
Reno, like many graffiti artists, is skeptical of taking art classes.
“I haven’t had an art class since middle school,” he says, sitting outside a downtown café. “Why start now?”
For the artist, the streets of Reno were his classroom.
“With the graffiti, you have to know your colors,” he says. “You have to know your color schemes. You have to know what looks best … it’s out for everybody to see.”
And if graffiti was his classroom, hip-hop was his professor.
“I think hip-hop’s a really big influence, actually, like subconsciously,” he says. “I have to say quite a bit. It really pushed me to try this shit out. … I know the other artists I look at too … they all dig hip-hop, they all like graffiti.”
The different aspects of hip-hop come together on his canvas paintings, which he sells at various events throughout Reno. His paintings are simple, colorful and symbolic. Paintings of boom boxes, cassette tapes and headphones with thick black outlines and intense color schemes on top of spray-painted canvases reflect Reno’s connection with hip-hop culture.
He shrugged at the idea that his graffiti-writer beginnings might cause people to frown upon his work as a painter.
“I’m not trying to do this for them,” says Reno. “Graffiti is a big part of my art. I can’t take that out.”
It’s kind of like something SAMO once said: “I don’t listen to what critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”