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The Graffiti Art That Spoke Like a Poem that the City Writes to Itself.

No matter how much society tries to ignore these people, Jean-Michel Basquiat's incredible artwork emphasized those who never had their voices heard before - people from different cultures, races, religions, or genders.

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I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life. - Jean-Michel Basquiat

The One Artist Who Managed to Blend Politics, Poetry, Graffiti, and Artistry in his Art

In an age of mass production, Jean-Michel Basquiat's work was a breath of fresh air. He wasn't an uneducated black from the ghetto with his graffitis. He was an intensely ambitious middle-class young man. Privately educated by his mother, he could read by the age of four. She took him to see modern art and he early on spent every minute drawing.

His work largely focused on race relations, power, and money but he was constantly getting inspired by multiple sources. He would paint while watching trash tv, reading, and listening to music (loved David Bowe and Miles Davis).

His artistic pursuit leads him into borrowing from writers, rappers, African art, jazz music, Picasso, from the daily news, and his own Haitian and Portorican heritage.

Combining words and images from pop culture to street life for commentaries on issues concerning race class history he also created striking but controlled paintings that were quickly lauded by critics as being accomplished in both spontaneity and skillful execution.

The art world was not colorblind. It was white-washed and Basquiat tackled this problem with his paintings, which depicted the black experience in America.

SAMO Early Years (1978-1980)

Photography of Jean-Michel Basquiat by Lee Jaffe
Photography by Lee Jaffe

In the 1970s, New York was a hotbed for music and culture. During this time period, when rap music was first being created and other prominent cultures were beginning to form. One famous artist who took part in this blossoming movement is Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In 1978, Basquiat would team up with Al Diaz old schoolmate in Lower East Side of Manhattan, and spark controversy using their acronym SAMO on all their graffitis. It meant something like the "Same old shit".

The duo earned its fame as artists because they were making graffiti that was thousands of times more sophisticated than anything anyone had seen before. While they were painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan, they soon realized that the best graffiti had more to say than just a scribbled nickname or phone number; it was also an expression of who these people were as artists.

SAMO graffiti by Al Diaz in NYC
Al Diaz putting up a SAMO tag in NYC | Image from cherokeestreetgallery.com
JM Basquiat teenager in NYC
Late teenage years of Jean-Michel Basquiat | Image via Youtube

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a fascinating, revelatory artist who broke through the mainstream and elevated spray paint to new heights in his day. His paintings were largely responsible for elevating graffiti artists from mere vandals into genuine New York gallery scene contenders.

His art is a reflection of the life he led as an African-American man living in poverty.

His paintings often feature contrasting themes such as wealth versus poor, integration, and segregation within society at large. But also inner vs outer experience which comes from his own personal struggles with racism when going out into public places like stores or restaurants.

First Painting sold by Jean-Michel Basquiat

When he moved to the East Village because he was too poor to buy canvas he would paint on the walls, napkins, furniture, windows, and adorn any available surface. He would paint on postcards that he would sell on the streets for dollars. This is when he spotted Andy Warhol in a restaurant and introduced himself for the first time.

Fame & Recognition as a driving force

One of the driving forces behind his success is that, after being rejected by his father and not receiving any fame or recognition in life, he desired to be accepted. Fame gave him this acceptance with money, and a lot at that!

Madonna & Jean-Michel Basquiat dating

Madonna & Basquiat

Before she was famous Madonna had a short but passionate and influential relationship with Jean-Michel Basquiat. Hanging around her crowd in the Hollywood scene gave him a feel for recognition.

cadillac moon painting from Basquiat