United States • 1960−1988
Jean-Michel Basquiat (22 December 1960, New York, USA – 12 August 1988, New York, USA) is an American artist who started his career with graffiti and street art. At the same time, he practiced music, lived in the New York streets for several years. At the age of 22, he met Andy Warhol and became his ward. Basquiat became the first black painter to achieve popularity. But he lived only for 27 years due to drug addiction.

Creative features of the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat: his pictorial artworks in the Neo-expressionist style resembled both graffiti and rock art. Basquiat’s creation was much influenced by the book "Anatomy of Gray", which he read in childhood. The painter often used pure colours, squeezing them out of tubes directly on the canvas.

Famous paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat: Two Heads, Riding On Death, Hollywood Africans, Self-Portrait, Dog.

Jean-Michel Basquiat could be one of the headline illustrations for a book called Live Fast, Die Young. He was considerably the personification of the way of life characteristic for the members of the notorious “Club 27”. His fame flared quickly and unexpectedly, just as rapidly as it expired. However, unlike many of the same street children, Basquiat actually became an icon of neo-expressionism, one of the most outstanding representatives of contemporary art.

When the name of the elusive Banksy began to rattle in London, he was considered a unique phenomenon. Fans of Jean-Michel Basquiat fairly rebelled. He probably was not the first to become famous because of the street art, but he certainly was the brightest one. Paradoxically, Basquiat both brought art from the galleries to the city walls, making it available to everyone, and introduced his own rebellious street art into exhibition halls and museums.

The artist with his origin (his mother was a Puerto Rican, and his father was a Haitian) should have been born in New Orleans. However, in that case, he probably would have found himself in something else. For example, he would become a professional musician, as he always wanted. And New York of the 1970-80s was too loud, too messy, too insatiable and ruthless. There was too little magic in New York. Therefore, the artworks and graffiti were his incantations and conspiracies, and colours and heroin were his potions.


However, witchcraft is a capricious and insidious thing, demanding working in deep-hack mode. And it played a cruel joke to Jean-Michel Basquiat. The public refused to perceive his original, bright, sometimes frighteningly frank art, resembling rock paintings without reference to the origin of the artist. The politically correct term "Afro-American" appeared much later, so the painter was often called “the black Picasso”. The artist was very angry; he was peeved that his art was called primitive. He did not want to become just a tamed “black panther” among the New York beau monde.

But anyway, in fact, he became the first famous black artist. In 1982, he met Andy Warhol. Despite the huge difference in age and experience, they became close friends. And when they appeared together in public, the people froze and stared at the colourful couple: the aging Warhol, who looked like a plaster statue, and the young, surprisingly handsome, youthful Jean-Michel with hair sticking out like a crown (1, 2).

By the way, the crown was the distinctive sign of Jean-Michel Basquiat since the days of street art (1, 2, 3, 4). He never lied, he was totally aware of why he is engaged in art. Most of all, he dreamed of being famous. He seemed to have conjured himself this crown. However, the fee was too high.


When Jean-Michel was eight, he lived with his parents and two sisters in Brooklyn. At that time, he experienced something that changed his view of the world and the future concept of his art forever. The boy was hit by a car while playing in the street. He received multiple internal injuries and a fractured arm, and they had to remove his spleen. The process of rehabilitation took as long as one month, which, probably, seemed everlasting for the eight-year-old child. Mother brought him the famous book “Anatomy of Gray”, to entertain him somehow and to explain what happened to him.

The inner world of man impressed Jean-Michel to the core. Throughout his short creative life, Jean-Michel Basquiat would address this topic in his art. Bones, teeth and internal organs shine through the skin on his art (Fishing, 1981, Philistines, 1982, Self-Portrait, 1986). On one of his latest works Riding On Death, he depicted a man (most likely, himself) riding a skeleton. Their destination point is beyond any doubt.

By the way, it was Jean-Michel's mother to find such a non-trivial way to amuse her child for the time of recovery after the trauma, and cultivated love of art in him. She herself was a great admirer of painting, art and she took children to numerous New York museums. However, the same year, when Jean-Michel landed on a hospital bed, Gerard and Matilda Basquiat divorced, and a few years later the woman was put in a psychiatric clinic for treatment. This is where a cautious psychologist would certainly mention that mental illnesses are often inherited.


Jean-Michel escaped from his home at the age of 15 for the first time. He lived then with his father and sisters in Puerto Rico, where Gerard Basquiat was sent to work. At that time the boy was quickly found and returned home the same day. A couple of years later, already in New York, Jean-Michel lived on the streets for about two weeks, and at the age of 18 he left his father's house. For several years he ate and spent nights just anywhere: he found his crash pad at his friends’, sometimes he lived with his girlfriends, and very often he found himself in the street in the company of the same young outcasts. His art was about painting walls with mysterious and obscure phrases and signed them SAMO (according to the artist, this nickname was born under the influence of marijuana, meaning “same old shit”). In order to make some money, Jean-Michel Basquiat drew postcards and painted T-shirts (1, 2).

However, at that time, the main thing in his life was music. He adored jazz and bi-bop since his childhood, and he dreamt of building his own band. Already in 1979, he and his friends began to play a mixture of jazz, funk and synth-pop. Initially, they called their band “Test Pattern”, but Basquiat quickly renamed it into “Gray”, thus making his first curtsey to the notorious “Anatomy of Gray”. It was all over with SAMO. He was brilliant in his role; they started talking about the young street artist, they wrote about him and shot television stories.

Jean-Michel did not even quit music even when his group ceased to exist. For some time, he had a romantic relationship with Madonna, he worked with the Blondie group and David Bowie (who would later play Andy Warhol in a biographical film about the painter). According to his friends, the artist stormed himself with information from everywhere when he created his art. The studio was filled with jazz shouting over the working TV, and all available surfaces were covered with open books. Of course, the anatomical textbook was among them. Basquiat even dreamed that one day he would leave everything and go to Hawaii to open a small tequila factory and drink all day long, and play jazz in local taverns in the evenings.

Star Dust

The way that the painter had lived until he gained fame in the world of art, and the fact that he had lived on the street and had barely graduated from school, defined the way he was perceived by the New York high society. They actually considered him a savage. Not many folks knew that in four years the future artist already could write, and by the age of 11 he spoke fluently in three languages (English, Spanish and French).

This attitude, of course, left its imprint on the painter himself and his art. When he finally achieved the coveted glory, he became a real paranoid. He could only freely communicate with those people who had been with him for many years; the artist suspected all the others of selfish motives and attempts to use him. At the same time, in his huge loft, where he lived and worked, money could easily lie on the floor together with paintings and marijuana packages. Even when he became a millionaire, he did not even have in mind to keep his money in bank. He typically spent it immediately. He drank expensive wines, ate delicacies and wore exclusive suits by Armani, even while working on his art.

And certainly, most of his savings were spent on drugs. From "innocent" marijuana to cocaine. He got hopped up with amphetamines to work for 20 hours in a row, and then he shot up heroin to fall asleep. Some experts can even determine the substance which influenced him to paint individual artworks. But the peak of his drug craziness came after the death of Andy Warhol. At some point, the artist braced energies and quit drugs completely, but after only a few weeks the world of art has definitively lost him. Jean-Michel Basquiat was found in his loft dead from an overdose of heroin and cocaine.

Author: Yevheniia Sidelnikova
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