Jean Michel Basquiat Famous Graffiti Artist.

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In the late 70s and early 80s, New York City was Mecca to Runaways, aspiring models, artists, and actors. In the ’70s and ’80s, New York City was highly affordable. The city was almost bankrupt, and the crime rate was ramped up.

In 1978, Basquiat (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988) was seventeen years old; his father kicked him out of his home for smoking pot and Acid in his room.

Basquiat, with his best friend Al Diaz, went to Manhattan with nothing but their youth. Together, they assimilated into the underground world of the bohemian life of runaways. They wrote enigmatic epigrams;  graffiti poetry appeared everywhere on the walls of SoHo signed SAMO.

Who is Jean Michel Basquiat?

Basquiat was born in Park SlopeBrooklyn, New York City; he was the second of four children to Matilde and Gérard Basquiat. He had an older brother, Max, who died before Jean Michel’s birth, and two younger sisters. Basquiat was a precocious child who learned to read and write by age four. And was fluent in French, Spanish, and English and was an avid reader in all those languages.

Basquiat was seven years old (1968) when his parents divorced. His father was an accountant, born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and his mother was from Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. His father had guardianship of his children. He was only ten years old when his mother was committed to a psychiatric hospital, and she spent the rest of her life in and out of mental institutions.

Basquiat’s mother had an essential role in his love of art. He registered as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art; he became fond of paintings and sculptures.

From 1974 to 1976, the Basquiats family moved to Miramar, Puerto Rico. When they returned to Brooklyn, Jean Michel Basquiat attended Edward R. Murrow High School. He struggled to deal with his mother’s instability and to fit in.

By age 15, Basquiat was smoking pot and Acid; he ran away on and off from home; every time, he was returned to his father by the police. During his escapades, he slept on park benches, in shelters, or empty cardboard boxes.

Samo is Born.

In 10th grade, Basquiat was enrolled at the  City-As-School in Manhattan; the school was home to artistic students who had difficulty with authority and conventional schooling. He was known to be unruly, refusing to do his assignments, yet he signed up to write and illustrate the school newspaper.

Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz created a secret word as an abbreviation for the phrase “Same old shit.” saying SAMO©, Basquiat and Diaz began designing and developing the SAMO character. They collaborated on a series of illustrated short stories with the tagline SAMO for his school paper.

In May 1978, Basquiat and Diaz took the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan to escape and party; they sprayed graffiti on Lower Manhattan buildings. Their graffiti signed SAMO was different from other graffiti artists; theirs were poetic, activist, and satirical slogans such as “SAMO© AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO GOD.” this attracted the pedestrians to stop and read.

In June 1978, Basquiat was expelled from City-As-School for biting the principal, soon after his father kicked him out of the house. He worked for the Unique Clothing Warehouse in NoHo while continuing to create graffiti at night. On December 11, 1978, The Village Voice published an article about the SAMO graffiti.

In 1979, the famous Canal Street Party was televised by the public access television show TVParty hosted by Glenn O’Brien. Jean Michel Basquiat, AKA Samo, was introduced to a broad audience for the first time.

Basquiat was also a musician and writer. It is at the Canal Street Party where Basquiat met Michael Holman; together, they founded the Noise Rock Band Test Pattern, later renamed Gray. He also collaborated with Arleen Schloss; he used her open space called A to create his “MAN MADE” Clothing line of upcycled painted garments. Patricia Field carried his clothing line in her boutique in the East Village.

Jean Michel Basquiat
Jean Michel Basquiat Samo Graffiti

Basquiat In the 80s

Basquiat had his first public group show of paintings and drawings in 1981 at the MoMA PS1 New York/New Wave exhibition. Rene Ricard’s article “Radiant Child” in Artforum magazine brought Basquiat to the art world’s attention.

At 21, Basquiat became the youngest artist to ever take part in Documenta in Kassel, Germany. Bischofberger gave Basquiat a one-person show at his Zurich gallery in September 1982 and arranged for him to meet Warhol for lunch on October 4, 1982. 

While selling postcards in SoHo, Basquiat spotted Andy Warhol entering W.P.A. restaurant with art critic Henry Geldzahler. He went in and sold Warhol a postcard titled Stupid Games, Bad Ideas. Warhol recalled, “I took a Polaroid, and he went home, and within two hours, a painting of him and me together was back, still wet.” The painting, Dos Cabezas (1982),

Jean-Michel Basquiat Dos Cabezas (1982),
Jean-Michel Basquiat Dos Cabezas (1982),

Basquiat star is rising

In November 1982, Basquiat’s solo exhibition opened at the Fun Gallery in the East Village. Among the works exhibited were A Panel of Experts (1982) and Equals Pi (1982). In early December 1982, Basquiat began working at the studio space art dealer Larry Gagosian had built below his Venice, California home. There, he commenced a series of paintings for a March 1983 show, his second at the Gagosian Gallery in West Hollywood. In Los Angeles, Basquiat painted Hollywood Africans (1983), which portrays him with graffiti artists Toxic and Rammellzee.

In 1983, at 22 years old, Basquiat made a lot of money, and his painting was selling fast; he was the youngest artist to participate in the Whitney Biennial contemporary art exhibition. Basquiat reunited with Warhol through a familiar friend, and by August, Basquiat moved into Andy Warhol’s Studio at 57 Great Jones Street in NoHo.

Basquiat and Lee Jaffe went on a trip throughout Asia and Europe that summer to decompress from all the stress and demands put on him as the celebrity machine he had become. When he returned, he discovered his friend and artist Michael Stewart had been killed by transit police, who had to put him into a coma; deeply affected, thinking that this could have been him, he painted Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983).

Basquiat was aware of the discrimination against black people and the invisible glass ceiling of making him the best black artist when he wanted to be the best artist. Climbing to celebrity status, Basquiat left behind his original best friends, girlfriend, and those cheering him on.

Jean Michel Basquiat joined Mary Boone’s SoHo gallery; some of the works were an homage to the 1984 Summer Olympics with Olympics (1984), Taxi, 45th/Broadway (1984–85), and Zenith (1985).

Basquiat and Warhol

Contrary to what the media claimed, Andy Warhol was a true friend to Basquiat; he advised and guided the intricate world of global success, fickle art critics, and the international art world. At 24 years old, Basquiat was a millionaire, keeping his cash at home, buying Armani suits, and a habit of a thousand dollars in cocaine.

They collaborated on a large body of work. Their joint exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery was unsuccessful and dismissed by the critics. Some art critics panned Basquiat as Warhol’s mascot. Jean Michel Basquiat was very hurt, discriminated and fell into depression, causing the breaking up of their friendship. Basquiat and Warhol did not see each other again. When he heard of his death, Basquiat fell into a deep depression, and his drug consumption was out of control.

He used heroin to focus, knowing galleries and collectors expected masterpieces every time. By 1988, the need to constantly create for his worldwide show, with the pressure to produce and meet datelines, to be in the spotlight, and to continually be a target of criticism, took its toll on him. He battled the exploitative nature of the art industry and the pressures of being a black man in the white-dominated art world.

Basquiat took several sabbaticals, traveling worldwide to clear his mind; he attempted sobriety several times. However, despite his efforts, Basquiat died at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose at his home on Great Jones Street in Manhattan on August 12, 1988. He was found unresponsive in his bedroom by his girlfriend, Kelle Inman, and was taken to Cabrini Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

Basquiat produced around 1,500 drawings, about 600 paintings, and many sculptures and mixed media works in his short but prolific career.

Basquiat Art.

Basquiat’s art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, painting, marring text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection with his experiences as a black in society. His work attacks power structures, racism, colonialism, and support for class struggle.

Final Words.

Jean Michel Basquiat wanted to be a successful and famous artist, regardless of ethnicity. Too young to handle fame and fortune. No conscient that with success came loneliness, isolation, and paranoia of being used, he trusted and wanted to be accepted as a great artist, the next Warhol.

The death of Andy Warhol was traumatic; he mourned him deeply. He also mourned his lost innocence. Like so many before him, quick fame and fortune destabilize talented youth when millions of dollars are in question. After his death, a legend was born of rumors, gossip, and pure inventions. Today, his work is sold to private collectors for hundreds of millions.