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American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in New York City in 1960 to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. At age 15, he decided to leave his family’s house in Brooklyn to explore the world for himself. Basquiat was an autodidact—he wanted to learn about and understand the world by himself. As he became more and more familiar with the New York underground community, he started using magic marker and spray paint to put his own poems and messages on the walls using the alias SAMO. Basquiat’s unique form of self-expression at an early age eventually helped elevate street graffiti into the modern art world, putting it on the same level as New York’s gallery artists.


Basquiat abandoned his alter ego of SAMO in 1981 and began painting and drawing on canvas. He sold his first painting that same year, and by 1982, his work was very popular. The New York Times Magazine put Basquiat on their cover in 1985, and his unique style was in high demand. Basquiat often combined drawing, painting, history, and poetry, weaving together an artistic language that had never before been seen. Sometimes, Basquiat even pulled on the art style of bricolage by creating art from whatever spare materials he had available: creating something beautiful from objects most people might consider mundane. Often inspired by his own urban origins and African-Caribbean culture, Basquiat produced visual collages like no other. He used his art to communicate social messages relating to race, culture, and society. One symbol he used very frequently was that of the crown, representing royalty. Basquiat frequently adorned images of Black athletes, musicians, and writers with the crown, symbolizing their importance and elevating them to a royal status that boldly contradicted the racial tensions of the time period. The Neo-Expressionism movement—one that was centered on the human figure and its role in contemporary art—took Basquiat as one of its leaders.


Basquiat’s illustrious and daring art career unfortunately was short-lived, as he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at age 27. At that time, he had done collaborative projects with many artists, including Andy Warhol, whose Campbell Soup paintings are very popular today. Basquiat also became the youngest ever artist to exhibit his work at the Documenta in Kassel, Germany, in 1982, indicating his international notoriety. After his death, many of his paintings were auctioned off; one sold for 110.5 million dollars, a record for the highest ever price paid at an auction for an American artist’s work. From the streets of Brooklyn to art galleries across the globe, Basquiat challenged artistic norms with his vision.