Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Provocative American Artist

Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat (December 22, 1960–August 12, 1988) was an American artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent who first came to fame as one half of a New York City graffiti duo known as SAMO. With his mixed-media renderings that featured a mashup of symbols, phrases, diagrams, stickmen, and graphics, along with depictions of racism and class warfare, Basquiat rose from the streets of New York City to become an accepted member of the upper echelons of a 1980s art scene that included the likes of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. While Basquiat passed away as the result of a heroin overdose at age 27, his work continues to hold meaning and find an audience today.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

  • Known For: One of the late 20th century’s most successful American artists, Basquiat’s work was a social commentary on the vast racial and social divisions in American culture.
  • Born: December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York 
  • Parents: Matilde Andrades and Gérard Basquiat 
  • Died: August 12, 1988 in Manhattan, New York
  • Education: City-As-School, Edward R. Murrow High School
  • Important Works: SAMO Graffiti, Untitled (Skull), Untitled (History of the Black People), Flexible
  • Notable Quote: “I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.”

Early 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 in a three-story brownstone in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Northwest Brooklyn. His brother Max died shortly before Basquiat’s birth, making him the eldest sibling to sisters Lisane and Jeanine Basquiat, born in 1964 and 1967, respectively.

At age 7, Basquiat experienced a life-changing event when he was hit by a car while playing in the street and lost his spleen as a result. As he recovered during a month-long hospital stay, the little boy became fascinated by the famous textbook "Gray’s Anatomy" given to him by his mother. The book has been credited as an influence in the formation of his 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 his drawings.

His brush with death wasn’t the only traumatic event to impact Basquiat's childhood. Not long after the car accident, his parents separated. Matilde suffered from ongoing mental health issues that required periodic institutionalization, so his father was given custody of the children. The artist and his father developed a tumultuous relationship. As a teen, Basquiat sporadically lived on his own or with friends when tensions flared at home. Gérard Basquiat reportedly kicked his son out when the teen dropped out of Edward R. Murrow High School, but in many ways, this forced independence was the making of the boy as an artist and a man.

Becoming an Artist

Having to rely solely on his own wits and resources spurred Basquiat to earn a living and make a name for himself as an artist. The teenager panhandled and sold postcards and T-shirts to support himself. During this time, however, he also began to gain attention as a graffiti artist. Using the name SAMO, short for "Same Old Sh*t," Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz painted graffiti on Manhattan buildings that contained anti-establishment messages.

Before long, the alternative press took notice of the pair, which led to a heightened awareness of their artistic social commentary. An eventual disagreement led Basquiat and Diaz to part ways. Their last joint graffiti message, “SAMO is dead,” was found scrawled on countless New York building facades. SAMO's demise was given a send-off ceremony by fellow street artist-turned-media-phenom Keith Haring at his Club 57.

Artistic Success and Racial Awareness

By 1980, Basquiat had become a well-received artist. He participated in his first group exhibition, “The Times Square Show,” that year. A second group exhibition at the non-profit PS1/Institute for Art and Urban Resources Inc in 1981 was his break-out turn. While the exhibition showcased the work of more than 20 artists, Basquiat emerged as its star, which led to an article being written about him titled, “The Radiant Child” in Artforum magazine. He also had a semi-autobiographical role in the film "Downtown 81." (Although shot in 1980-1981, the film was not released until 2000.)

Influenced by punk, hip-hop, Pablo Picasso, Cy Twombly, Leonardo da Vinci, and Robert Rauschenberg, as well as his own Caribbean heritage, Basquiat's message focused on social dichotomy. He depicted both the Egyptian and transatlantic trade of enslaved people in his works. He referenced “Amos ’n’ Andy,” a radio and television program set in Harlem known for its anti-Black people stereotypes, and explored the internal struggles and implications of what it meant to be an African American policeman in America. In an article for BBC News, Daily Telegraph art critic Alastair Sooke wrote, “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.”

By the mid-1980s, Basquiat was collaborating with famed artist Andy Warhol on art exhibitions. In 1986, he became the youngest artist to exhibit work in Germany’s Kestner-Gesellschaft Gallery, where about 60 of his paintings were shown. But the artist had his detractors as well as his fans, including art critic 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.”


In his late 20s, Basquiat may have been at the pinnacle of the art world but his personal life was in tatters. He was addicted to heroin, and toward the end of his life he cut himself off from society. After making an unsuccessful attempt to stop abusing heroin by taking a trip to Maui, Hawaii, he returned to New York and died of an overdose at age 27 in the Great Jones Street studio he rented from the Warhol estate on August 12, 1988. Basquiat's death garnered him a spot in the dubious "27 Club," whose other members include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and later, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. They all died at age 27.

“The '80s, for better or for worse, were his decade,” wrote Newsday scribe Karin Lipson in 1993, summing up his rise to fame. “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 (who died in 1987), and his repeated descents into drug addiction.”


Eighteen years after his death, the biopic “Basquiat,” starring Jeffrey Wright and Benicio del Toro, exposed a new generation to the street artist’s work. Julian Schnabel, who emerged as an artist at the same time as Basquiat, directed the film. In addition to the Schnabel’s biopic, Basquiat was the subject of the 2010 Tamra Davis documentary, “Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child."

Basquiat's body of work encompasses approximately 1,000 paintings and 2,000 drawings. 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 Basquiat and his father had their differences, Gérard Basquiat has been credited with maintaining the integrity of his son's work as well as enhancing its value. (The elder Basquiat died in 2013.) According to DNAInfo, “[Gérard Basquiat] 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 [and] devoted countless hours to stewarding an authentication committee that reviewed submitted pieces of art purporting to be by his son...If certified, the piece of art’s value could skyrocket. Those deemed phonies became worthless.”

By the time Basquiat reached his 20s, his artwork was selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Pieces that sold for as much as $50,000 during his lifetime jumped to about $500,000 after his death and continued to escalate. In May 2017, 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 commanded such a record-breaking price. Basquiat's work and his life continue to inspire creative forces across a wide variety of genres including music, literature, art, clothing design, and more.


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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Provocative American Artist." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2021, September 2). Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Provocative American Artist. Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Provocative American Artist." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 4, 2023).