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Life and Artistic Work of Jean Michel Basquiat


Art is constantly changing together with the world leaving an imprint in people’s perception. Likewise, Jean Michael Basquiat left a significant imprint in the modern world inspiring many artists, songwriters, and poets as well as ordinary people. Given the intricacy and often mysteriousness of his work, there is a need to return to his life and paintings to grasp the source of his inspiration and try to assess the meaning he imbued in his art and how he contributed to the modern world’s culture.

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Life and Career of Jean Michel Basquiat

Jean Michael Basquiat was born in December 1960 into a family of two children shortly after his elder brother deceased. He lived with his parents in Brooklyn, New York. His father was an accountant. His mother was a Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican. She was a creative woman herself and passed that gift to her son. Seeing the son’s talent in art, she put a lot of effort into supporting it taking him to the art galleries and museums. Young Basquiat attended Saint Ann’s school with an artistic orientation where he created an illustrated book for children with his friend Marc Prezzo. At the age of eight, he was hit by a car, which resulted in several traumas and injuries. During his recovery period, his mother brought him Henry Gray’s Anatomy book that greatly influenced the artist’s further works (Fretz, 2010).

In the following years, Basquiat’s family encountered a tragedy. In 1963, the artist’s mother was confined to a mental hospital. The psychological traumas induced by his mother’s condition and deteriorating relationship with his father may have provoked the boy to run away from home two years after. He was later arrested and returned to his father’s care. Basquiat stayed with his father and sisters in New York for five years. The family moved to Puerto Rico for two years then returned to New York. There he abandoned his education in high school and later continued it in City-as-School working further on his artistic talent. The father was greatly dissatisfied with such a choice and turned him from his house. Basquiat stayed at his friend’s house making a living by selling T-shirts and postcards of his own device (Fretz, 2010).

His artistic career has begun with graffiti paintings on the walls featuring SAMO abbreviation. It stands for ‘same old shit,’ which they used to call marijuana they smoked with his school friend, Al Diaz (Guerrero, Rundquist, Taylor, & Peterson, 2017). The concept was later turned into his pseudonym and a character that he used to address political and social issues of racialization. A few years later, he got acquainted with TV show host, Glenn O’Brien, who invited him to play in his film Downtown 81. In 1980, He met Andy Warhol at a restaurant and showed him his paintings, which Warhol very much liked and offered him to collaborate. All changed for Basquiat that year. He successfully exhibited his works at The Times Square Show and, in a year, in Annina Nosei gallery. His artistic career boomed after the article “The Radiant Child” in Artforum Magazine, which brought him the attention of serious art dealers, galleries, and collectors from around the world. Since that time, Basquiat worked in several art studios and exhibited his works around the world. His paintings had enormous financial success. However, his addiction to heroin wore him down pretty quickly despite his attempts to withdraw, and in 1988 the artist died from drug intoxication in his art studio (Fretz, 2010).

Artistic works of Jean Michael Basquiat


Most of the artist’s works reflect his early graffiti-like paintings. He often painted figures of people, which indicates his interest in human nature. The narrative is often abstract, however, contains an idea or a set of ideas visualized by figures, color, shapes, icons, and words. His typical painting tools were acrylic paint, spray paint, crayon, canvas, and walls. His works describe him as a neo-expressionist and primitivist painter.

One of the most famous works of the artist is Skull. Its later untitled version was sold at an auction for 110 million dollars in 2017 (Pogrebin, & Reyburn, 2017). It depicts a human head consisting of various shapes and lines. The head often holds the central place both in this painting and in others. The artist seemed to believe that the human mind is the most intricate world’s creation and, therefore, it was necessary to delve into its structure.

The insides of the skull are divided with lines that probably try to mimic the different regions of the human brain as the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and other parts. Despite the clear depiction of structure, other lines and shapes pierce the division. Some lines even resemble ladders that connect the regions. One white line seems to lead from the outside of the skull to one of the brain regions that is linked with others indicating that all that is perceived by people in the real world comes into connection with all the contents of their minds. The eyes and the shape of the mouth with clamped exposed teeth make the face, or its portion, sad or thoughtful.

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There are two major colors, blue and orange, that fill most part of the background dividing it into two parts. Cheekbones, cheeks, part of the nose, and chin are painted with a mixture of bright yellow and red. Despite the vibrancy that sets the tone for the painting, the actual mood is grim. The interior of the skull is filled with black, brown, and dark red. Together with a downcast look, corners of the mouth turned down, and the clenched teeth reflect the inner distress and dismay that probably dominated the artist’s mind. The demons that possessed Basquiat, according to Pinn (2013), may have influenced him to express his inner senses in this painting creating a quasi-self portrait.

Artistic works of Jean Michael Basquiat

Irony of the Negro Policeman

Another Basquiat’s work that came to be quite influential is Irony of the Negro Policeman. This painting is a form of political criticism of the black people that join the police forces to uphold the white regime inflicting various adversities on their fellow-race comrades (Guerrero et al., 2017). Compared to the Skull this work clearly states the artist’s position that is explicitly manifested through shapes, color, and inscriptions.

The painting depicts a black man in a dark blue suit with white and red lines that draw the police uniform. Again, the head holds the central place in the painting indicating that the problem lies within the human mind. The eye-sockets are encircled with red paint and teeth are marked with a red zigzag line forming a rage-distorted face. That may indicate the mental instability of the black people that join the police. The head with a blue police cap on it is encased by a red hat-like figure with white lines forming a bar-resembling structure. This seems to represent a lack of self-made decisions and freedom of choice among black police officers. Even the background painted in white tries to push the person back as it partly covers his figure. The message is made even clearer with the word ‘pawn’ at the bottom.

The Artist’s Message

Basquiat’s works were highly topical and mostly inspired by the time he lived in. The oppressed state in which the black population still lived made the African-American artist speak in the way he could best. The Irony of the Negro Policeman painting and many like it sent clear and simple messages and brought to attention a range of problems. The said work, for example, told that the white majority would still dominate and higher command consisting primarily of white people would not let black people in the police force be mindful of rights of their race. He popularized the daily struggle of African-Americans emphasizing that black lives matter (Guerrero et al., 2017). In his non-politicized works, he ushered the people to dive into their mind palaces implying they may be the sources of all good and evil.


Basquiat’s impact on art and society is immeasurable. Inspired by great icons of music like Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix he became the voice of society. The oppressed black community received another herald that conveyed their needs and ideas to the white world. Additionally, he brought black African simplicity to modern art introducing the aesthetics of a black body to western culture (Pinn, 2013; Powell, 2012). The artist absorbed the world around him and expressed its problems, forms, shapes, and signs in his own abstract and figurative way. His deconstructive approach to form and shape experimented on modern art and modern world perception (Saggese, 2011). All that is said above leads to a conclusion that Jean Michel Basquiat has made a considerable contribution to modern art and society in general. That is further confirmed by the fact that his works are presented in the top galleries around the world including Broad, The Daros Collection, MACBA, and other places.


Fretz, E. (2010) Jean-Michel Basquiat: A biography. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

Guerrero, M. A., Rundquist, L., Taylor, M., & Peterson, K. (2017). The racial disparities and influences on art and social culture through the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Metamorphosis. Web.

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Pinn, A. B. (2013). “Why can’t I be both?” Jean-Michel Basquiat and aesthetics of black bodies reconstituted. Journal of Africana Religions, 1(1), 109-132.

Pogrebin, R., & Reyburn, S. (2017). A Basuqiat sells for ‘mind-blowing’ $110.5 million at auction. The New York Times. Web.

Powell, L. S. (2012). 30 Americans: An inspiration for culturally responsive teaching. Art Education, 65(5), 33-40.

Saggese, J. M. (2011). “Cut and mix” Jean-Michel Basquiat in retrospect. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art, 2011(28), 88-95.

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