Growing up in Brooklyn of the 1960s, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat had many influences and inspirations. He revealed a creative streak early on as he began to express himself through his SAMO personality. This was his graffiti tag and the name through which he originally gained ground in the New York art scene as early as his teen years.
He would begin to generate buzz around his work by quitting high school and building a business in which he sold his original designs on postcards and sweatshirts from a sidewalk location in New York.
After generating lots of attention and interest through his hoodies and his graffiti, he quickly entered the art world for real during the mid-1980s. It was then that he began a collaboration with pop art sensation and superstar Andy Warhol.
Before that, however, he had already taken a place firmly in the emerging art movement known as Neo-Expressionism. This was reflected in his style that is often described as a “fusion of words, symbols, stick figures, and animals,” in bold a bright hues. This style almost immediately caught on in the art-loving public of 1980s New York.
Soon after, Warhol approached him and the pair worked on a show that emphasized cartoon figures juxtaposed to corporate logos. This style was reminiscent of his ironic graffiti but had already evolved into something more. Soon, it would take him in different directions – creatively and literally.
The Artist Emerges
Though he is often noted for saying: “I am not a black artist, I am an artist,” his work would come to be a reflection of his racial pride. Specifically, his crown motif paintings that strove to celebrate black people as royal, saintly, or majestic.
One artist said that this motif, with its three-pointed crown, was a reflection of Basquiat’s three “lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong…”
On the heels of his great success in his collaboration with Warhol, he began to take his art around America, and then the world. He visited Africa and Europe, enjoying success upon success.
Sadly, this was not enough for him to remain free of inner torments. Earlier in his career, Basquiat had started to alarm friends through his heavy use of drugs and alcohol. He began to display paranoid behaviors and was soon isolating himself from society, including friends.
Addicted to heroin, and desperate to be free of it, he went to the Hawaiian Islands in 1988, and there he claimed to obtain sobriety. Upon returning to New York a few months later, however, he began to once again use drugs. Sadly, he died of an overdose in the summer of 1988 at the age of 27.
Legacy of an Artist
Basquiat's death did not halt the rise of his popularity or the adoration of his work. As one source noted, his career was very brief, but he must be “credited with bringing the African-American and Latino experience into the elite art world,” as well as the pop art world.
Others agree, and this can be seen in the record-setting prices for which is work has sold in the past few years. In May of 2017, his “Untitled” (which is a painting of a skull that Basquiat completed in 1982) sold for an astonishing $110.5 million.
Untitled by Jean-Michel Basquiat
Using “social dichotomies, appropriated text and images, and …historical elements,” in his work, Basquiat managed to convey his modern criticism of the world around him.
Self-expression through art is a defining feature of his work, and whether it hangs in a museum or is displayed proudly on a hooded sweatshirt, it says something to everyone who sees it. Be inspired and inspiring when you wear art inspired by this remarkable artist.