Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Graffiti King

Jean-Michel-Basquiat Untitled-1982
  Anyone with the slightest interest in street art or the New York art scene will know about Jean-Michel Basquiat. Popularly referred to as the Graffiti King, Jean-Michel Basquiat played a huge role in the transition of graffiti art from a clandestine street activity associated with gangs and vandalism to mainstream postmodernist art enjoyed by people from different walks of life.   

His Story

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn back in 1960. He was the eldest of three children in an immigrant family where his mother was of Puerto Rican descent and his father, a Haitian. As a child, he was a first learner and in no time had started to display a natural gift for art which, fortunately, was supported by both his parents and teachers. However, after turning seven, he was hit by a moving car in an accident which he describes as his earliest memory. He sustained serious injuries, which called for splenectomy and to add insult to the injury, it was around this time that his parents separated. At the age of 15, Jean-Michel ran away from home and was forced to sleep rough in Washington Square Park for several days, during which he got arrested and returned to his father, whom he was staying with after the parents split up. Not long afterward, he quit school and left home for good, where he was forced to start selling t-shirts and other items to make money.  

The Start of Graffiti Art

Before the age of 16, Jean-Michel and his buddies, Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson, had already gotten into spray painting and were always spraying cryptic sayings on buildings and subway trains around lower Manhattan. They signed these street paintings with the name SAMO© (Same Old Shit). The gang discovered that the street paintings had become a highly effective publicity tactic, and in December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the graffiti.  As proof of how rapid this style of art was becoming popular, the following year, some examples of his painting were displayed in an ‘alternative’ Lower East Side gallery, and Henry Geldzahler, the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs in the city and a well-connected early observer of the contemporary art scene who had become curator of 20th Century Arts at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art took notice.  In that same year, Jean-Michel started making regular appearances on the live cable TV show TV Party hosted by Glenn O’Brien and also co-founded the rock band Gray, which played in several notable nightspots. At this point, he had been noticed by two highly influential personalities in Henry Geldzahler and Glenn O’Brien. The latter even invited him to star in his movie, Downtown 81, originally entitled New York Beat. It was during this time that he was introduced to Andy Warhol. On top of the film, Jean-Michel Basquiat participated in The Times Square Show, a group exhibition organized by Collaborative Projects Incorporated and Fashion Moda. In 1981 his painting was warmly reviewed in the influential magazine Art in America and then became the subject of Rene Ricard’s profile, The Radiant Child, in Artforum magazine. This exposure helped him generate even more publicity.  

Basquiat Style of Painting

After all the exposure, from his debut in film to being the subject of “The Radiant Child,” Basquiat had developed his energetic and highly marketable brand of painting. Some called it shocking; others called it expressive, while others said it was ugly.  Regardless, it had started to gain a lot of controversies all over New York and, to some extent, the whole country. To Jean-Michel, that didn’t matter. His intention was to get the message out, and he did it the best way he knew, through visual art. It was a mélange of tribal art, street symbols, ancient Egyptian motifs, pictograms, logos, collage, text, and other junk art, as well as references derived from the Henry Dreyfuss Symbol Sourcebook and Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks.  His message was always something relating to anti-bourgeois, anti-racist, anti-police, African-American and illustrated with iconographic imagery of black consciousness and the ghetto.  

Impact on The Art Scene

Unfortunately, Jean-Michel Basquiat passed at the age of 27 after a heroin overdose, but that didn’t take away his legacy. He will forever be remembered as the King of Graffiti, as the man who revolutionized the art scene through his visual artworks and also as one of the very few artists who use their media to advocate for police reforms, fight racism and highlight the problems that society faces in general.  

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