Noted for his graffiti street paintings under the name pseudonym ‘SAMO’, Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Brooklyn. His father was Haitian-born Gerard Basquiat. His mother, Matilde Andradas, had been born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican parents. He had two sisters (born in 1963 and 1966) also born in Brooklyn.
When only a small boy, Jean-Michel Basquiat began drawing, inspired by the cartoons and Hitchcock films he watched on television. He also loved to read comic books and Mad Magazine, with its Alfred E. Neuman character. His mother encouraged this interest in art, and when he was only seven he produced a children’s book with a friend, Mark Prozzo. When only eight, Jean-Michel Basquiat was hit by a car while he played in the street, requiring him to spend a month in the hospital. During this time his mother gave him a copy of the book, Gray’s Anatomy, the influence of which was to later show up in his artwork as well as the name of a band he co-founded in 1979, called Gray.
When his parents separated, Jean-Michel Basquiat lived with his father and sisters first in Brooklyn until his father moved, with his three children, to Mira Mar, Puerto Rico. There Jean-Michel Basquiat attended an Episcopalian school. He later moved back to New York, where he attended City as School, a progressive school in Manhattan. There he met Al Diaz, a graffitist who lived in the lower east side projects. They become friends and artistic collaborators. The two were among the most popular students at their school, both creative and also with an affinity for getting into trouble. Jean-Michel Basquiat invented a fictional character named SAMO (for same old shit), and he and Diaz began spray-painting witticisms ‘by SAMO’ around lower Manhattan.
At fifteen, he ran away (for the second time), and lived for a period of weeks in Washington Square Park, until his father found him and brought him home. Through City as School, Jean-Michel Basquiat became involved with a drama group. He also has admiration for famous people such as Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Some of these were later to appear in his paintings. Leaving home for good around 1978, Jean-Michel Basquiat stayed at homes of friends, including the loft of British artist Stan Peskett. He tried to support himself by selling postcards and t-shirts that he painted. In an attempt to make a sale, he approached Andy Warhol in a restaurant, and did make the sale, but it was not until some years later that the two became friends.
Jean-Michel Basquiat began dating Alexis Adler in the late 1970′s, and the two moved into an apartment, his first address of his own. Their crowd included filmmakers, musicians, and artists. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Diaz had a falling out about that time, which ended their SAMO collaboration, and Jean-Michel Basquiat turned his focus to his own art and music. Part of his scene were Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Haring begin an on-and-off relationship that lasted until Jean-Michel Basquiat’s death.
In 1980, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art was exhibited for the first time, and encouraged by the reception of his art, he quit his band, Gray. With a new girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, a singer and artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat moved into an apartment. In 1981 he traveled to Europe for the first time, for a one-man show in Italy, where the work was shown under the name SAMO. Back in Soho, Jean-Michel Basquiat became friends with Shenge Kapharoah, an artist from Barbados, with whom he shared many African ideologies. Traveling to Los Angeles for an exhibition in 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat ended up staying for about six months, enjoying the climate and club scene there. From then on he returned to LA several times a year.
In 1983, Jean-Michel Basquiat moved into a space in a building he leased from Andy Warhol, and from that time on their relationship grew. They worked together, painted each other’s portraits, attended art events together in New York and abroad, and discussed their philosophies. Racial issues and identities were often a concern of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s.
In 1984, Jean-Michel Basquiat traveled to Maui, Hawaii, a place he visited regularly from that time on. He rented a ranch in Hana, a remote part of the island, where he set up a studio to make drawings and painting with materials he had sent over from Los Angeles. Returning to New York, collaborative paintings he created with Warhol and Clemente were exhibited internationally, and Jean-Michel Basquiat became a celebrity in his own right. Also in 1984 he met Jennifer Goode, who was to be one of his most serious romantic affairs. Drug use, which had been part of his life since his teens, became more and more of a problem however. At only twenty-four, his deteriorating health had become noticeable.
In 1986, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jennifer Goode, and her brother traveled to Africa for his first time, but by late that year the two had broken up, with her complaining of his abuse of heroin. Jean-Michel Basquiat continued to travel both domestically and internationally for his exhibits. After Warhol’s death in 1987, he became withdrawn and less productive. He had always been resistant to the idea of drug abuse programs, but in an apparent attempt to kick drugs on his own he left New York in April, 1988 for his ranch in Hawaii. There he stayed until June, when he left to return to New York. As he passed through Los Angeles, friends there found him happy and proclaiming he was free from drugs. However, on August 12, 1988, he was found in his New York loft, dead at twenty-seven from an overdose of heroin.
Phoebe Hoban, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, Penquin Books, 1999
Biography from the Archives of AskART.