Not shying away from the limelight, Basquiat was a notable public figure in the New York City art scene, crossing paths with the likes of Andy Warhol and Madonna.
Leading an exquisite life full of vibrant experiences, here are 9 intriguing facts about Basquiat.
1. Basquiat’s Father Was Haitian and His Mother Puerto Rican
Born on December 22, 1960, Basquiat was from Brooklyn and grew up in a multicultural household. His father Gerard was born in Port Au Prince, Haiti and his mother Matilde was born in New York but was of Puerto Rican heritage.
Basquiat spoke English, Spanish, and French and his background would prove to influence much of his work and life.
2. As a Child, Basquiat Was Hit by a Car
While playing in the streets of Brooklyn, Basquiat was hit by a car at eight years old. He suffered many internal injuries and was resigned to a hospital bed to recuperate.
In an attempt to lift his spirits, Basquiat’s mother bought him the medical textbook Gray’s Anatomy which detailed anatomical drawings. The book proved to be particularly influential to the young boy and he named his industrial art noise band Gray.
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3. Basquiat Dropped out of High School
As a 17-year-old, Basquiat dropped out of high school. In response to such a decision, his father kicked him out of the house during which time he lived with friends and panhandled on the streets.
He’d sell sweatshirts and postcards that he painted over and subsisted on a diet of cheap red wine and Cheetos.
His life on the streets surely influenced his interest in graffiti. He first gained public attention for his graffiti tag “SAMO” – short-hand for “same-old shit” created by Basquiat and his high school friend, Al Diaz.
“SAMO” was spotted throughout Brooklyn and lower Manhattan from 1977 to 1980 and the artists marked the end of its era when in 1980, tags declaring “SAMO is dead” started popping up on buildings in the area.
4. He Was Interested in Art from a Young Age
Basquiat was always interested in art museums and their exhibitions. He became a member of the Brooklyn Museum as a six-year-old.
His first exhibition at the DIY Times Square Show helped Basquiat gain momentum. Held in an abandoned massage parlor off 7th Avenue, his work was shown alongside artists such as Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, and Kenny Scharf.
Two years later, he became the youngest artist to show his work at Documenta in Kassel, Germany where his paintings were accepted with esteem. That same year he joined the Annina Nosei gallery where he produced his first American one-man show.
5. One of His Painting Became One of the Most Expensive Artworks Sold
In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum hosted an exhibit called “One Basquiat” which was fully devoted to a single painting. Called Untitled, this piece sold for $110.5 million at a Sotheby’s auction to the Japanese art collector, Yusaku Maezawa in 2017.
Untitled is considered to be a form of self-portraiture. The painting alludes to African masks with the skull figure representing death and lifelessness with contradictory vibrant colors, perhaps depicted the two sides of Basquiat himself.
6. Basquiat Was a Multifaceted Artist
Basquiat was more than a painter and graffiti artist. He participated in various art forms throughout his career.
Glenn O’Brien’s public access television show called TV Party featured Basquiat as a regular starting in 1979 and two years later, he was in the film called Downtown ’81 playing an artist like himself.
In the music scene, Basquiat produced the rap record Beat Bop in 1983 with Rammellzee and K Robb. He designed the cover of the album, too. He also appeared in Blondie’s music video for Rapture as lead singer Debbie Harry was an early patron of Basquiat’s art.
7. Andy Warhol Was a Lifelong Friend and Mentor to Basquiat
A 1996 biopic directed by Julian Schnabel depicted Basquiat’s life starring Jeffrey Wright as Basquiat and David Bowie as Warhol.
8. He Was a Troubled Person and Died of an Accidental Drug Overdose
Basquiat spent his money lavishly, buying Armani suits and painting over them, throwing hundred-dollar bills out the window, and drinking only the finest wines in the most luxurious hotels.
Fellow artist and friend Keith Haring even claimed that Basquiat “was all of a sudden becoming the thing he criticized.”
He certainly seemed to have enjoyed his commercial success and reveled in his mainstream stardom. Unfortunately, it seems that this success would ultimately lead to his downfall.
Basquiat only lived to be 27 years old. Addicted to heroin and perhaps disillusioned by his fame and fortune, he died tragically on August 12, 1988, in his Great Jones Street art studio.
9. Basquiat Left a Legacy
Basquiat once claimed: “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend” and it seems that he is correct in some sense. His unique artistic style and interesting life have become part of American pop culture as we know it today.
Rap music mogul and fellow Brooklynite Jay-Z famously compared himself to Basquiat in his song “Picasso Baby” with the lyrics, “It ain’t hard to tell, I’m the new Jean-Michel.”
Although he died young, Basquiat’s name lives on as a part of the infamous 27 Club alongside other popular figures in music and art who died too soon at age 27 – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Kobain, and Amy Winehouse.
Today, Basquiat’s work lives at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and elsewhere.