Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist whose graffiti-style paintings made him an overnight celebrity in the New York art scene. Born in Brooklyn, he was a leading figure in Punk Art and Neo-Expressionism where the human figure reemerged in art. Historians regard him and his works as products of the countercultural movement of the 80s. Here are some interesting facts about this influential artist:
1. Basquiat came from a culturally rich, yet troubled family.
- His father was an immigrant from Haiti and his mother was an American of Puerto Rican ancestry. This combined heritage made him fluent in English, Spanish, and French.
- After his parents divorced and his mother was institutionalized for mental illness, he left his father’s care due to physical and emotional abuse. He spent the next years homeless, staying at friends’ houses, park benches, and abandoned buildings.
2. Basquiat and two graffiti artists created the persona named “SAMO”.
- Stylized as “SAMO©”, the tag stands for “Same Old Shit” and was used with messages they painted around the East Village, SoHo, and New York subway.
- SAMO gained popularity with the counterculture press for its anti-religion, anti-politics, and anti-establishment ideology. The project ended due to a quarrel, with “SAMO IS DEAD” as its parting message.
3. Basquiat’s street smarts and daring were instrumental in his rise to fame.
- Homeless, he supported himself by begging on the streets, and peddling postcards and sweatshirts featuring his art. Like most youth in his time, he also dealt with drugs.
- With the rise of graffiti art and Neo-Expressionism, Basquiat’s work finally gained traction in the Times Square Show, a landmark Punk Art exhibit. His first solo exhibition came two years later.
4. His style was shaped by his history, both urban and ethnic.
- He created collages using a blend of graffiti and African-Caribbean imagery (e.g., bones, skulls, arrows) with scrawled lines and thick daubs of color. This untrained, but instinctive gestural technique gave his art unique rawness and depth.
- Many of his works depict black celebrities such as writers, athletes, and musicians. He also often featured the griot, an oral storyteller in Western African societies.
5. Though very young, Basquiat’s talent captured the interest of Andy Warhol.
- He was the youngest artist to join “documenta,” an international exhibition of contemporary and modern art held every five years in Germany.
- Basquiat befriended and collaborated with Warhol, creating paintings in which the senior artist’s Pop Art was layered with graffiti. They also created “Ten Punching Bags (Last Supper)” in which they expressed how their art was being “beaten up” by critics.
6. He died after seven short years in the industry.
- Basquiat’s rise to prominence was accompanied with an equal rise to his personal struggles. He vacationed in Hawaii to kick his heroin addiction, but ultimately failed and died of an overdose.
- His life story has been the subject of several biographies and documentaries. Former friend David Bowie played Andy Warhol in the film “Basquiat.”
Through his talent and inner grit, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works went from downtown walls to international galleries. His works elevated graffiti as a recognized and embraced art form in contemporary art.