Jean Michel Basquiat: the man, the artist, the legend

The Art Syndicate Staff writer: Constanza Ontiveros Valdés

“I’m not a real person, I’m a legend.” -Basquiat


Basquiat’s name is attached to the short and tragically ended career of a young self-taught artist that tasted sudden fame and whose celebrity skyrocketed after his death. His life has been featured in documentaries and movies, museums put together blockbuster exhibitions of his works, collectors fight to buy a Basquiat, and art people are often heard saying “I met once with Basquiat.” But, aside from all this buzz, one should ask why is Basquiat a cultural phenomenon whose influence continues to be seen in art and pop culture?


Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, in 1960, the son of a multicultural middle-class family, his father from Haiti, his mother of Puerto Rican descent. His childhood was not an easy one, but Basquiat proved gifted since an early age and grew up to be a cultured and articulated yet troubled teen. At 17 he flew to NYC where he lived in the streets and started mingling with the big apple´s avant-garde scene which, at the time, gathered punk, graffiti and counter-cultural practices. To get by, he sold sweatshirts and postcards with his drawings and couch surfed. As time went by, he started a music band and got his name known by appearing on TV and starring in a never-released film next to Blondie´s Debbie Harry. He also met no other than pop artist Andy Warhol with whom he shared a tight friendship.


But, how did Basquiat turn into an art star? His rise to fame had to do, in great part, with a graffiti project started in 1978 with his pal Al Diaz. Under the pseudonym SAMO, short for “same old shit,” the duo spray-painted walls nearby art galleries around SoHo and East Village with poetic yet sarcastic and powerful texts and logos that were noticed by the art scene. After Basquiat revealed he was behind SAMO and declared its death, he was invited to exhibit his works and centered his practice on painting and drawing.


Especially due to his focus on the human body and emotion his art was linked to Neo-Expressionism and many saw the influence of artists like Jean Dubuffet or Cy Twombly in his works. Basquiat also developed a vocabulary of symbols and motifs, mainly a crown placed over the head of his characters, alternating them with brief yet powerful phrases that carried statements about injustice, slavery, politics, and race. This broke with minimal and conceptual art and slowly marked the art world acknowledgment of the subcultural scenes as part of the mainstream. Importantly, the crowds loved him and he turned into a celebrity with all the pressure this entails.


Now, one should remember this was the 80s when not many black American artists had gained international traction or were represented by top art galleries, so Basquiat opened doors for the future recognition of artists of color, and also contributed to turning street art fashionable and, even if stereotyped, accepted by art critics. However, during his lifetime, his works or his life were not free from clichés and racism. More so, Basquiat did not shy away from luxury, something that raised eyebrows in the art world but nowadays is more common. To this day his legacy of more than 1000 paintings and 2000 drawings continues to inspire contemporary artists and pop culture, and his short life -sadly ended with a drug overdose at age 27- is a source of speculation and endless stories. It seems as if Basquiat’s words came true: he is a legend.

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