Biography of Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

Why the artist remains relevant decades after his untimely death

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
ST. MORITZ, SWITZERLAND - 1983: Artist Jean-Michel paints in 1983 in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Photo by Lee Jaffe/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s biography includes fame, fortune and tragedy. The artist’s short life has not only inspired fellow artists but also films, books and even a makeup line. In May 2017, nearly 30 years after his untimely death, the groundbreaking artist was still making headlines. At that time, Japanese startup founder Yusaku Maezawa bought Basquiat’s 1982 skull painting “Untitled” for a record-breaking $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction.

No piece of art by an American, let alone an African American, had ever sold as much. The sale also broke a record for a work of art made after 1980.

After Maezawa bought the painting, the art collector and fashion mogul said he felt “like an athlete who wins a gold medal and cries.”

Why does Basquiat bring out such overwhelming emotion in his fans? His life story explains the ongoing interest in his work and influence on popular culture.

Upbringing and Family Life

Although Basquiat has long been considered a street artist, he didn’t grow up on the gritty streets of the inner city but in a middle-class home. The Brooklyn, New York, native was born on Dec. 22, 1960, to Puerto Rican mother Matilde Andrades Basquiat and Haitian American father Gérard Basquiat, an accountant. Thanks to his parents’ multicultural heritage, Basquiat reportedly spoke French, Spanish and English. One of four children born to the couple, Basquiat grew up partly in a three-story brownstone in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Northwest Brooklyn.

A brother, Max, died shortly before Basquiat’s birth, making the artist the eldest sibling of sisters Lisane and Jeanine Basquiat, born in 1964 and 1967, respectively.

Young Basquiat experienced a life-changing event at age 7. A car hit him as he played in the street, and he needed surgery to remove his spleen.

As he recovered from his injuries, Basquiat read the famous book Gray’s Anatomy, given to him by his mother. The book would later influence him to form the experimental rock band Gray in 1979. It also shaped him as an artist. Both of his parents served as influences as well. Matilde took young Basquiat to art exhibits and also helped him become a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum. Basquiat’s father brought home paper from this accounting firm that the fledgling artist used for drawing.

The car accident wasn’t the only event that rocked his life as a boy. Just months after the car struck him, his parents separated. Gérard Basquiat raised him and his two sisters, but the artist and his father had a tumultuous relationship. As a teen, Basquiat sporadically lived on his own, with friends and on park benches, when tensions with his father flared. Worsening matters was that his mother’s mental health deteriorated, resulting in her periodically being institutionalized. Gérard Basquiat reportedly kicked his son out of his home when the teen dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High. But being completely on his own led the young man to make a living and a name for himself as an artist.

Becoming an Artist

Completely on his own, Basquiat panhandled, sold postcards and T-shirts and may have even turned to illicit activities, such as selling drugs, to support himself.

But during this time, he also began to draw attention to himself as a graffiti artist. Using the name “SAMO,” a shortened version of (“Same Old S---t”), Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz painted graffiti on Manhattan buildings. The graffiti contained anti-establishment messages such as “SAMO as an end to the 9-to-5 ‘I Went to College’ ‘Not 2-Nite Honey’…Bluz…Think…”

Before long the alternative press took notice of SAMO’s messages. But a disagreement led Basquiat and Diaz to part ways, leading to one last piece of graffiti from the duo: “SAMO is dead.” The message could be found scrawled on buildings and art galleries alike. Street artist Keith Haring even held a ceremony at his Club 57 in light of SAMO’s death.

After struggling on the streets during his teen years, Basquiat had become a well-received artist by 1980.

That year, he took part in his first group exhibition, “The Times Square Show.” Influenced by punk, hip-hop, Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Leonardo da Vinci and Robert Rauschenberg, among others, Basquiat’s cutting edge work featured a mashup of symbols, diagrams, stickmen, graphics, phrases and more. They also mixed media and tackled subjects such as race and racism. For example, he depicted both the transatlantic slave trade and Egyptian slave trade in his works, references to the TV show “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” known for its anti-black stereotypes, and an exploration of what it meant to be an African American policeman. He also drew upon his Caribbean heritage in his art.

“Basquiat lamented the fact that as a black man, despite his success, he was unable to flag a cab in Manhattan – and he was never shy of commenting explicitly and aggressively upon racial injustice in America,” according to the BBC News.

By the mid-1980s, Basquiat was teaming up with famed artist Andy Warhol on art shows. In 1986, he became the youngest artist to exhibit work in Germany’s Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery, where about 60 of his paintings were shown.

After surviving homelessness during his teen years, Basquiat was selling art for tens of thousands of dollars as a twenty-something. He sold works for as much as $50,000. Immediately after his death, the value of his work skyrocketed to about $500,000 per piece. As the years went on, his work sold for millions. Altogether he created approximately 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings, the BBC News reported.

In 1993, Newsday writer Karin Lipson summed up Basquiat’s rise to fame:

“The '80s, for better or for worse, were his decade,” she wrote. “His canvases, with their masklike, slyly ‘primitive’ images and scribbled words and phrases, were found in the most fashionable collections. He frequented the downtown club scene and the uptown restaurants, wearing Armani and dreadlocks. He made gobs of money...Friends and acquaintances knew the downside, though: his stormy dealings with art dealers; his extravagant ways; his anguish over the death of friend and sometime-collaborator Warhol, and his repeated descents into drug addiction.” (Warhol died in 1987.)

Basquiat also resented that the largely white art establishment viewed him as a noble savage of sorts. Website the Art Story defends the artist against critics such as Hilton Kramer, who described Basquiat’s career as “one of the hoaxes of the 1980s art boom” as well as the marketing of the artist as “pure baloney.”

“Despite his work’s ‘unstudied’ appearance, Basquiat very skillfully and purposefully brought together in his art a host of disparate traditions, practices, and styles to create a unique kind of visual collage, one deriving, in part, from his urban origins, and in another a more distant, African-Caribbean heritage,” Art Story posits.

Death and Legacy

In his late 20s, Basquiat may have been on top of the art world, but his personal life was in tatters. A heroin addict, he cut himself off from society near the end of his life. He tried unsuccessfully to stop abusing heroin by taking a trip to Maui, Hawaii. On Aug. 12, 1988, after returning to New York, he died from an overdose at age 27 in the Great Jones Street studio he rented from the Warhol estate. His early demise put him in the fabled club of other famous people who died at the same age, including Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. Later, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse would die at 27, spawning the name the “27 Club.”

Eighteen years after his death, the biopic “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright and Benicio del Toro, would expose a new generation of audiences to the street artist’s work. Artist Julian Schnabel directed the 1996 film. Schnabel emerged as an artist during the same time as Basquiat. Both rose to fame as Neo-Expressionism and American Punk Art gained prominence. In addition to Schnabel’s biopic about his life, Basquiat has been the subject of documentary films such as Ego Bertoglio’s “Downtown 81” (2000) and Tamra Davis' “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child” (2010).

Collections of Basquiat’s work have been exhibited in several museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art (1992), the Brooklyn Museum (2005), the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2015) in Spain, the Museum of Culture in Italy (2016) and the Barbican Centre in the United Kingdom (2017). While he and his father reportedly had a rocky relationship, Gérard Basquiat has been credited with increasing the value of the artist’s work. The elder Basquiat died in 2013. And according to DNAInfo:

“He tightly controlled his son’s copyrights, methodically poring over movie scripts, biographies or gallery show publications that wanted to use his son’s works or images. He also devoted countless hours to stewarding an authentication committee that reviewed submitted pieces of art purporting to be by his son. ...Chaired by Gerard, the committee reviewed hundreds of submissions each year, determining whether a painting or a drawing was a true Basquiat. If certified, the piece of art’s value could skyrocket. Those deemed phonies became worthless.”

After Gérard Basquiat’s death, family friends poked holes in the notion that the father and son were estranged. They said the two had regular dinners and characterized their arguments during Basquiat’s adolescence as typical parent-teen squabbles.

“People have this idea that Jean-Michel didn’t like his father or was resentful, and it’s a mistake,” art gallery owner Annina Nosei told DNAInfo. (Basquiat’s first one-man show was held at Nosei’s gallery.) “Teenagers fight with their parents all the time. … [Jean-Michel] loved his father. The nature of the relationship was an enormous respect between them.”

Basquiat’s two sisters also appreciated their sibling and his artwork. When fashion mogul Maezawa bought the Basquiat painting “Untitled” for $110.5 million in 2017, they were thrilled. They told the New York Times they knew their brother’s work was worthy of the record-breaking sale.

Jeanine Basquiat told the paper that her brother sensed he would one day be famous. “He saw himself as someone who was going to be big,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lisane Basquiat said of her legendary brother, “He always had a pen in hand and something to draw on or write on. He got into the zone, and it was a beautiful thing to watch.”