Born and raised in Brooklyn, Jean-Michel Basquiat broke into the graffiti scene in the late 1970s when he and friend Al Diaz tagged buildings with cryptic and fragmented poetry under the name SAMO, a pseudonym for “same old shit.” His rise to prominence didn’t take long – by the early ‘80s, he was participating in both group and solo exhibitions, dating then-aspiring singer Madonna, and befriending (and collaborating with) such names as Andy Warhol and David Bowie.
After making the shift from painting on buildings to canvases (and in the process, writing “SAMO IS DEAD” throughout the streets of Manhattan), Basquiat continued to incorporate elements of the graffiti scene’s influence into his work by integrating words into his paintings. He also referenced his former work by continuing to use motifs – most notably the crown – that had been prominent in his street art. Transitioning from graffiti to gallery work allowed him to explore various mediums, often all at once – his primitive style is almost chaotic in its integration of such elements as acrylic and spray paints, oil sticks, and letters and numerals to create one cohesive image. Basquiat’s work often explored social dichotomies (for example, poverty vs. wealth) and critiqued racist and classist systems, including the predominantly white art world itself.
Basquiat used art as a conduit for social commentary and change – he was forever sending messages to his viewers that were at once shrouded in mystery and deceptively transparent. By permeating a world that primarily catered to a certain demographic (i.e., white and privileged), he effectively became a voice of and for his generation.