Why Have a Picasso When You Can Have a Basquiat?

Jean-Michel Basquiat/JacquelineKato /Wikimedia/Creative Commons ShareAlike 4.0


Jean Michel Basquiat’s work was both countercultural and revolutionary. Channeling his Afro-Caribbean heritage into masterpieces, he honed in on Black people as the protagonists in the majority of his paintings.

By modernizing images of traditional African art and infusing them with elements of Black spirituality, he created very complex pieces with multiple layers of meaning and depth.

It is often said that great art is polarizing and forces people to form an opinion or take a side. Basquiat’s pieces are a prime example.

Emerging out of the New York graffiti scene, he became notorious for spraying “SAMO” all over the city, which stood for “Same Old Shit” and was a direct act of rebellion against America’s oppressive systems.

The acronym underlined his anti-government, anti-establishment, anti-religion, and anti-politics sentiments and gained him fame within the underground NY art scene. As Basquiat evolved into a canvas painter, he provided social commentary on the world around him and sought to uncover deeper truths about individuals as a whole.

To that point, much of Basquiat’s work was him trying to discover what it really meant to be a Black man in America. He overcame a family background where his mother battled mental instability and his father was abusive. His troubled family life led him to homelessness in his late teens, peddling paintings on the back of postcards for change.

Much like a Picasso, Basquiat’s pieces are highly recognizable. Using his signature crown images, doodling, Biblical and pop-culture references, as well poetry and childlike figures are characteristics that are distinct in his artwork.

Slave Auction (1982), History of Black People (1983), Irony of the Negro Policeman (1981), Charles The First (1982) and Obnoxious Liberals (1982) are just a sampling of his body of work.

What you will find in these pieces is Basquiat’s struggle with his identity that led him to critiquing racism, colonialism, and capitalism as he felt those existing systems were deeply at odds with who he believed himself to be as a person.

Basquiat’s story has a tragic end with a heroin overdose at age 27 often attributed to difficulty navigating his newfound fame and depression.

Since his death, some of his highly coveted pieces have sold for upwards of $100 million and have become must-haves for athletes, celebrities, and art collectors alike.

Also, if you are a rap fan, then it is highly likely that you have heard Basquiat’s name dropped in songs by Jay-Z, Kanye West, J.Cole, Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, Nas, and many more. He is hands down the most referenced painter in hip hop music and continues to live on as a young icon in popular culture.

It would be irresponsible to not comment on the irony of this success since his death, given the fact that he was labeled as a misfit and mere street artist by critics while he was alive.

His art spoke against so much in society and it makes you wonder whether the people buying his work now even understand the symbolic meanings and themes he was experimenting with.

If you want to know more about Basquiat’s journey and hear his nuanced perspectives on society directly from his mouth, check out his documentary titled “The Radiant Child.”

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