Who Was Basquiat? 30 Years After Artist's Death, He Is More Popular Than Ever
The artist died at 27 of a heroin overdose.
"His genius broke through ... barriers."
“He was the North Star.”
"A Tupac icon in the art world."
Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose at his downtown Manhattan apartment on Aug. 12, 1988, at the age of 27. But 30 years later, his legacy is seen and felt more than ever.
He didn’t just leave his mark on the city that never sleeps, but his work continues to be an integral part of pop culture, appearing in museums and on skateboards, and incorporated into clothing brands like Uniqlo, Reebok, Billabong, Stance and Sean John.
“You see Basquiat’s work popping up in fashion, you see him being called out in music," columnist Michael Musto told InsideEdition.com.
Last year, Basquiat's piece "Untitled" sold for a record $110.5 million, making it one of the most expensive works by a U.S. painter and African-American artist ever.
Basquiat's name is constantly being called out in rap lyrics from artists such as Jay-Z, Danny Brown, Kanye West, Rick Ross, Nas, and J. Cole. Rick Ross and producer Swizz Beatz even have Basquiat tattoos.
"He wasn’t a flash in the pan," Musto said. "He wasn’t just an ‘80s phenomenon. He’s somebody like a [Pablo] Picasso or an [Andy] Warhol whose name and work is going to resonate probably forever."
Basquiat was born in Brooklyn in 1960 to a Haitian father and mother of Puerto Rican descent. He rose to prominence in the 1980s as a Manhattan street artist and member of a punk band before eventually landing his work in local art galleries.
“Graffiti was a form of resistance and spoke truth to power and is artistic freedom – that is the basis for hip-hop,” art critic and historian Antwaun Sargent told InsideEdition.com. “His success also corresponds with hip-hop as a cultural movement. Hip-hop was happening in tandem with [Basquiat’s success], and he was a big part of that community.”
"A lot of the underground people were making it big in the mainstream. So it was everybody’s dream to sort of be an artist, or a performance artist or a drag queen, and become an overnight celebrity," Musto added.
Basquiat and fellow artist Al Diaz were a part of the graffiti duo SAMO in the early 1980s. They would plaster their tag on the walls of buildings in downtown Manhattan in an effort to get noticed.
“For me, the wall symbolizes the people and when you put a piece on the wall you want to have a connection with people walking by,” contemporary artist Bradley Theodore told InsideEdition.com. “I think for street artists, for artists that want to become street artists you want to become a person accepted by the people as opposed to an industry."
He added: "I bet you the industry would have to accept you because if a half-million to a million people like your work and are raving about you, there’s no industry that can ignore it."
Basquiat also followed Warhol, his idol, around the city in an effort to get noticed. Warhol would later help his protege get into galleries and fund his projects.
“Andy Warhol was like the pope of the downtown scene," Musto said. "When he walked into a room, you knew you were in the right place. Everyone wanted his validation. … So for Jean-Michel Basquiat, it meant everything to have the benediction of Pope Warhol.”
Once Basquiat began getting his work off the crumbling and decaying walls of downtown Manhattan and into the prestigious galleries of SoHo, his star rose in the art world. His work commented on social issues like economic inequality, slavery, white supremacy, police brutality and race relations.
“You create art for the time and it was an accurate reflection of the time he was living in,” Sargent said. “In his work he is showing that time – it shows the chaotic nature of the time.”
“In the '80s, black culture was becoming much more noticed by the white mainstream, thanks to things like hip-hop music and breakdancing, and I think Jean-Michel was part of putting a spotlight on black culture in a way that the art world usually didn’t pay attention to because they can be racist," said Musto. "But his genius broke through those barriers and they had to take notice of him."
“When I think about him, I think about his impact on culture and impact on black artists,” Sargent added. “His path opened the door in the immediate sense on artists that came after him because they looked at the possibilities of what a career could be. … He was the North Star."
Basquiat’s influence can be seen in the work of Theodore, who said the late painter was someone he admired greatly.
“I look at him as a person that was true to himself,” he said. “He’s kind of the guardrail to the art industry in terms of techniques and painting. My techniques follow the concept of 'do what you want, paint what you feel' – that is what he’s brought to my world.”
The young artist died at the height of his career amid battle with addiction, just over a year after Warhol passed away.
“This was a time when so many artists were dying of AIDS and it was not something manageable. It was a death sentence. And then, out of nowhere Andy Warhol dies. He wasn’t supposed to die,” Musto said. “Jean-Michel died of a heroin overdose and it seemed to put the lid on a certain scene for quite some time. It cast a pall.”
But since his death, Basquiat has only found more fame.
“When an artist dies, their value goes up,” Sargent said. “It has something to do with no more work being made and out of scarcity. … It adds to the myth and prestige around Basquiat.”
“He’s like a Tupac icon in the art world," said Theodore, referencing the young rapper who was murdered in 1996. "Like, no matter where you’re at, people know Tupac. ... So Jean-Michel is like that Tupac icon in the art world. He was a [rebel], he was a poet, he was a creator and he died a little too soon.”
“Basquiat is still incredibly popular, probably more so than ever, because he brought exotic and fascinating elements of different cultures together into works that made statements,” Musto added. “Stuff that used to sell for a few thousand now sells for millions and millions and I f***ed up by not getting one.”
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