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JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT - BIOGRAPHY
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on the 22nd of December in 1960 in Brooklyn, New York and died on the 12th of August in 1988 of a drug overdose in his Manhattan studio. His death, like a rock star, helped to make Jean-Michel Basquiat a legend, but only because he had already reached unquestionable fame through his work as a graffiti artist and an innovative painter. In addition to his tragic death, he is most known for his loose and unencumbered painterly graphic style so often associated with street art that started to gain such notoriety in the 1980s. As well, his subject matter provocatively positioned and layered imagery, iconography and text that addressed issues of race, culture and heritage.
Born to a Haitian father, Gerard Basquiat, and a Puerto Rican mother, Matilde Andrades, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s heritage would prove to be a pivotal influence in his work as an artist. He was the oldest of three children; his siblings were both girls, Lisane and Jeanine, four and seven years younger than he, respectively. He was considered an extremely bright and gifted young boy; he learned how to read and write by the age of four (in general), and was reading, writing and speaking English, French and Spanish by the age of eleven. His artistic ability was recognized at quite a young age by his mother and his teachers and was greatly encouraged. His mother would take him into Manhattan to see art and enrolled him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art and thus he was exposed to various artistic disciplines and practices very early on.
When he was just eight years old he was hit by a car, which proved to be quite traumatic as he endured many internal injuries and had to stay in the hospital for a full month. His mother brought him the infamous drawing book, Grey’s Anatomy, which kept him thoroughly occupied during his recovery. Sadly, not too long after his recovery his parents separated and his mother would be in and out of mental institutions. Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with his sisters, were raised by their father. They remained in Brooklyn until 1974/75 when the family moved to Puerto Rico for a short time. At this time, Jean-Michel Basquiat made his first attempt at running away, but was rather immediately picked up by the police and returned home.
He attended the progressive City as School program that centered very much on culture. He was intrigued by comics and cartoon drawing as well as graffiti and along with a few school friends, Al Diaz and Shannon Dawson, first developed the character cum tag SAMO while still in high school. He never graduated, as the story goes, Jean-Michel Basquiat was pushing the envelope at school and during a school event he apparently threw a pie in the face of the principle and ran out. He soon then ran away from home again, this time remaining on the streets or “couch-surfing” at friends for a couple years. During these next couple years Jean-Michel Basquiat and friends would take SAMO public, tagging throughout the city images and poetic texts that were more often sarcastic and humorous - and political.
There are varying stories about the development of SAMO; apparently, the acronym originally became a stand-in for the turn of phrase “same old shit”, which is how they referred to the marijuana they smoked. SAMO became a character in a comic book that Jean-Michel Basquiat created in which SAMO sold a false religion. SAMO also showed up in one of their theatre classes called the Family Life. Soon photocopies were being made and passed around to “sell” the false religion. SAMO also started showing up as graffiti on subway walls and buildings in SoHo and the East Village, particularly around the School of Visual Arts. The tag now included the infamous and ironic copyright symbol “©” and was clearly targeting the art audience in more ways than one.
SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT-GARDE
SAMO as an alternative 2 playing art with the radical chic sect on Daddy’s$funds
Yet, it was not only in response to the art world, but the world at large (and many will say that it was Al Diaz who was more interested in the latter and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the former). SAMO© played with and provoked issues of consumerism and pop culture, advertising, marketing, memory, history, etc. as in one of their tags that came across as a survey playing with their own notoriety:
SAMO© had become infamous to the area by now and was written up in the SoHo News and the Village Voice. Soon to be famous students, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, became fans and began to take their art to the streets. Ironically, it is perhaps this exchange that helped to facilitate Jean-Michel Basquiat’s transition from the walls of the street to the canvas and the white walls of the gallery. It is said that Al Diaz was more committed to graffiti and anonymity while Jean-Michel Basquiat was more committed to “art” and publicity. During this period of transition of SAMO©, around 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat started tagging more on his own and started drawing and painting on paper and canvas. Soon it would be seen throughout the streets of New York that SAMO© was dead; Jean-Michel Basquiat and Al Diaz apparently had a falling out and the former started tagging over SAMO© tags, “SAMO© IS DEAD” yet began to incorporate it in his more ‘proper’ art work with one of his first solo shows even publicized as being authored by SAMO©.
While some of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early work shared similarities with SAMO©, and some were even signed SAMO© (sometimes then crossed out as in Cadillac Moon), his work changed quite a bit. He retained some qualities of his “graffiti style” but developed a more heavy-handed and ‘painterly’ style. The young emerging artist continued to play with popular culture and iconography (in that “pop” sense), and as his career as a painter developed he began to investigate collage and montage styles, imagery from heritage and tradition as well as themes and subjects that addressed his heritage and a new tradition.