Art Culture

Revisiting Basquiat in the 2020s

CW: police brutality

Since his death in 1988 at the young age of 27, Haitian American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has become a legend in contemporary art. He knew very well himself what he was destined for, as he once said, “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend.” Well-known for juxtaposing concepts such as integration and segregation, wealth and poverty, or the inner and outer selves, his works are a culmination of his life and the realities of living as a coloured man in the United States. 

Born 22 December 1960 in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, Basquiat never formally finished his schooling, but what many do not know is that he was a precocious child. He spoke French, Spanish, and English fluently. By the age of six, he was a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum. Merely at the age of seven, he wrote a children’s book, illustrated by his friend Marc Prozzo. He had an unstable childhood, his mother committed to a psychiatric institution when he was only ten, and him running away from home at the age of 15. But Basquiat was resilient, never to be hammered down. Even at the hospital recovering from splenectomy, he absorbed the illustration in Gray’s Anatomy given to him by his mother, and body parts illustrations would be a recurring motif in his illustrious career. When his father kicked him out ten years later, Basquiat emerged a survivor, living off cheap red wine and 15 cent Cheetos bags, and selling his doodles on sweatshirts and postcards. This would only be the beginning. 

With his schoolmate Al Diaz, Basquiat created the graffiti tag “SAMO©” (pronounced Same-Oh). SAMO© was based on a character that Basquiat and Al Diaz created for the City As School high school newspaper and came from the saying “Same old sh*t”. They would spray paint buildings, lifts, and tube stations with phrases, or even multiple-choice questions such as: 

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[] SAMO©…

While the phrases hint at a larger political significance, underneath it was more of street poetry. Perhaps unconsciously, the graffiti were primarily concentrated in the artsy area of SoHo (New York City). Basquiat would sometimes criticise students who had the means to study art in these schools: “SAMO AS AN ALTERNATIVE 2 PLAYING ART WITH THE ‘RADICAL CHIC’ SECT ON DADDY’S $ FUNDS.” Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. In the early 1980s, Basquiat and Al Diaz fell out and Basquiat graffitied everywhere, “SAMO IS DEAD” and contemporary American pop artist Keith Haring, who was good friends with Basquiat, even held a mock wake for SAMO at Club 57. Albeit the death of SAMO©, the phoenix that rose from the ashes was Basquiat’s paintings. From 1980 to his tragic death in 1988, Basquiat would go on to produce more than 600 paintings and 1,500 drawings. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat Defacement/The Death of Michael Stewart (1983)
Image Credits Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York

In honour of Black History Month, I have chosen to present Defacement/The Death of Michael Stewart (1983). Michael Stewart was only 25 years old when he was caught by the police on 15 September 1983 for graffitiing the walls at First Avenue Station. A widely publicised case regarding police brutality, it is unclear even to this day what exactly happened following his arrest. But some facts remain clear: nurses at Bellevue Hospital, where Stewart was transported to following his arrest, testify that it was Stewart’s body was beaten brutally, Stewart’s family doctors’ autopsy revealed evidence of strangulation, and the six officers involved in this tragedy were acquitted by an all-white jury. Thirteen days after his arrest on 28 September 1983, Stewart passed away, shocking many, including Basquiat. 

“It could have been me,” Basquiat said to his friends regarding the incident, thinking back to his days of SAMO©. Unable to shake this incident from his mind, he took up his brush and painted Defacement in Keith Haring’s studio just days after Stewart’s death. In this painting, a black figure stands in the middle, juxtaposed against a white background. Two massive policemen, depicted as pigs, cower over the black figure, holding batons. The mouth of the policeman to the left is agape, with two sharp teeth, holding his baton over his head, ready to pounce. The blue identical to the colour of the policemen’s uniform is spread in wide strokes all over the piece, signifying a sense of movement: in this case the fact that the policemen have already been beating the subject. There are also splashes of orange, the same orange of the baton, all over, even on the black figure’s body. 

The first black woman, as well as the first solo black curator in the history of the Guggenheim Museum, Chaedria LaBouvier, pays tribute to this piece, “Defacement lacks majesty. It is devoid of the usual motifs of the sharply pointed crowns, copyright symbols and other signifiers of black achievement that Basquiat employs to address the traumas of racism, slavery, Jim Crow, failed and successful revolutions and colonialism.” Defacement, a word which means “the action or process of spoiling the surface or appearance of something” is perfect for this ironic situation in which the perfect system of justice we thought we incorporated into our societies through police force, legal systems, or the law fail us. The system is defaced, and Basquiat leaves a record of this, calling us to action, to stop accepting this reality. Regrettably, four decades later, police brutality is still our reality, as we can see from the tragic death of George Floyd last year. 

What stands out most for me in Defacement is a star outlined in black, shining to the left of the figure. It seems as if the figure is watching this star. While we may never know what Basquiat intended with this star symbol, I’d like to think that the star represents hope, a chance for us to fix this defaced system. 

Image: Jean-Michel Basquiat Defacement/The Death of Michael Stewart (1983)
Image Credits Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York