10 Things to Know About Jean-Michel Basquiat

photo of jean-michel basquiat

“I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.”


1. Basquiat learned anatomy because of an accident

At age 7 Basquiat was hit by a car and his injuries were serious enough that he spent a considerable amount of time in the hospital. His mom brought him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy so he could learn about his own body as he healed. Anatomical imagery later became an integral part of his artwork. 

2. Basquiat was very smart despite his rough childhood

Basquiat’s father was violent and his mother suffered from mental illness. She was institutionalized on and off, but she encouraged her son’s art from an early age and took him to museums. He could read and write by age four, wrote a children’s book at age seven, and was fluent in three languages by age 11.

However, Basquiat’s parents divorced when he was seven and his father moved the family to Puerto Rico for a few years before returning to New York. By the time he was a teenager he was struggling to cope with the instability in his life. He started doing drugs and running away until he finally dropped out of school and left home at 17 for a life on the streets.

3. He loved music

Basquiat was a regular on the party scene and was a DJ at “punk-art spaces, like the Mudd Club”. In 1979 he met Michael Holman and they started a band that was later named “Gray” (remember the book?). In 1980 he was in the Debby Harry music video (Rapture) and she was the first person to buy one of his paintings. Basquiat also loved jazz, which is represented throughout his body of work.

4. He was a mysterious figure

Who is SAMO?? It was the question everyone was asking in the late 1970s in New York. Basquiat was known for his graffiti art early in his career and collaborated with school friend Al Diaz on a project called SAMO (“Same Old Shit”). “They created an “ideal religion” they named SAMO, and set about spray painting its tenets across the city.” 

SAMO Graffiti
SAMO Graffiti

“SAMO was part of the slang back then where you would hear an elderly Black guy talking to each other and say, ‘Hey what’s up?’ And that the other guy would answer, ‘Samo, Samo.’ As in other words, the same old s*** or the same old thing, whatever, and that’s really where we borrowed that from.”

— Al Diaz

5. He got famous FAST

At age 20 Basquiat sold his first painting and soon after he was making serious money from his art. Within a few years he was rubbing elbows with the art elite, wearing Armani suits, and riding in limousines. He was friends with other major artists of the time, but was very close to Andy Warhol. Warhol became a sort of mentor to Basquiat and they collaborated on a few projects.

baquiat warhol collaboration painting
Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol. GE/Skull. ca. 1984-1985.

6. His art is Neo-Expressionist

Neo-Expressionism is an outright rejection of traditional composition. It’s characterized by texture, contrast, and intensity in both color and emotion. Basquiat’s work is a reflection of the speed and intent with which he created. He handled layers of personal and political meaning with a creative intelligence that produced emotional depth in even the simplest of forms.

basquiat self portrait 1984
Self Portrait. Jean-Michel Basquiat. 1984.

“Neo-Expressionism is characterized by a rough handling of material, which is exactly the way Basquiat approached his art.”

7. He made a LOT of art

Basquiat made more art in his few years as a professional than most artists do in a lifetime. In addition to graffiti, sculptures, and mixed media he left over 1500 drawings and 600 paintings. He was constantly drawing with whatever was available and wasn’t afraid to experiment.

8. His art is deep

Basquiat’s paintings often have layers of meanings. Symbols like the crown take on on different meanings in different paintings and the symbolism of his work is still debated to this day.

jean michel basquiat trumpet painting
Trumpet. Jean-Michel Basquiat. 1984.

For example, his painting Trumpet features a black man wearing a crown and playing the trumpet. The crown is a common theme in his work, representing “the importance of the intellectual over the superficial”. In this painting the crown is black, expressing his view that black people need to follow a path of intellectualism to achieve greatness.

The trumpet represents his love for jazz music and honors his favorite musicians. But the subtext of the crown and the trumpet is the the pervasive racism minorities must face and the barriers they must overcome in order to be successful.

9. Success didn’t shield him from racism

Basquiat dealt with a lot of racism, especially on the art scene. His blackness was seen first, adding a sort of “novelty” and primitivism to his work in the eyes of certain collectors. Some critics devalued collections if there was a Basquiat piece in it. There is even a story that a prospective buyer went to his studio and gave him a bucket of KFC. The buyer was kicked out and the artist dumped the chicken on their head from the second floor. These anecdotes a just the tip of the iceberg. When it came to his craft, Basquiat didn’t want to be seen as a black artist – he wanted to be seen as a great artist.

Basquiat Defacement 1983
Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart). Jean-Michel Basquiat. 1983.

10. Basquiat left a lasting legacy

Basquiat died of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988. His life was short, but his impact was powerful. The layered meanings of his symbolism are still debated, but the context of his art is still relevant today. Despite the progress of civil rights since the 1980s, Basquiat’s experience as a black man in a white-dominated space might not be much different if he lived today.

But it’s not just Basquiat’s art that continues conversations and inspires new artists – they way he lived his life, the way he thought, and the way he rocketed to success from the streets keeps inspiring young artists to pursue their dreams. He’s been the subject of movies, books, graphic novels, poetry, and music.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a fascinating human being. People were, and still are, drawn to the vibrant energy he brought to this world.

“I don’t listen to what art critics say. I don’t know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

— Jean-Michel Basquiat