Artist Attack! Boom For Real, Jean-Michel Basquiat Was Here

Art Attack Month:

0. 1/28/2012 – Art Attack Call for Submissions, by Riese
1. 2/1/2012 – Art Attack Gallery: 100 Queer Woman Artists In Your Face, by The Team
2. 2/3/2012 – Judy Chicago, by Lindsay
3. 2/7/2012 – Gran Fury, by Rachel
4. 2/7/2012 – Diane Arbus, by MJ
5. 2/8/2012 – Laurel Nakadate, by Lemon
6. 2/9/2012 – 10 Websites For Looking At Pictures All Day, by Riese
7. 2/10/2012 – LTTR, by Jessica G.
8. 2/13/2012 – Hide/Seek, by Danielle
9. 2/15/2012 – Spotlight: Simone Meltesen, by Laneia
10. 2/15/2012 – Ivana, by Crystal
11. 2/15/2012 – Gluck, by Jennifer Thompson
12. 2/16/2012 – Jean-Michel Basquiat, by Gabrielle


Puerto Rican. Haitian. Brooklyn. Graffiti tags on SOHO buildings turned high concept neo-expressionist art gathered for retrospectives in the Whitney Museum of American Art.

This is the legacy of Jean-Michel Basquiat. But I look at him like he could have been my grandfather, who was also a man of color imbued with multiple talents. My grandfather was a skilled carpenter, pastry chef, opera singer, Nintendo player and also a poet. He did all of the things you do when the you exist amidst the spirits of enslaved islanders crash landing into a culture that still wishes to devour every ounce of other left on your skin. Basquiat lived that existence in his own Brooklyn born, Renaissance man, tortured artist kind of way.

jean-michel basquiat

Starting with striking poetic one-liners bombed all over NYC under the tag SAMO — as in “same old shit” — Basquiat left an early mark on the bloated belly of 1980s New York. A runaway, Basquiat bummed around in epic fashion, living in boxes and on the dance floors of crowded clubs, before Giuliani sterilized New York City, when it was still just as raw and vibrant as the people in it.

Basquiat did not just bomb tags. He played cacophonous music in a band called Grey, named after the book Grey’s Anatomy. His mother had gifted him the famous book after he’d been hit by a car as a child. It’s like tragedy was written into his destiny. Shit, Lil Wayne got shot in the face as a kid and that’s why nothing gets Weezy down. As a prologue to that type of cliché rap bravado, Basquiat took his licks, his anatomy book and eschewed his “fuck you” art in every way possible. He technically couldn’t play any instruments, but his dedication to art and his vision got him onstage and made Grey a hot act in the city. He was a movement. Basquiat made friends with Fab 5 Freddy and Debbie Harry before he ever sold a painting, before I was born, and before the internet came and made everyone famous for nothing. He catapulted himself into megastardom with an insane work ethic, painting around the clock while still maintaining a presence in the party scene. A high profile friendship with Andy Warhol added to Basquiat’s mystique and propelled him into the upper echelons of the white elite art world. Not that they understood him anyway, not like that kept them from describing his work as “primitive” and him as a “child” and the Whitney wouldn’t even display his art until AFTER he died. Still Basquiat was a living art legend, a one-time boyfriend of Madonna and just a dude trying to find his place in the world.

Madonna and Basquiat

I won’t go into a complete retelling of his life — that’s what Wikipedia is for, right? No seriously, I won’t out of respect because others have done it better. Tamra Davis’ documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Genius Child and Basquiat, a film by fellow artist, Julian Scnabel, both do a breathtaking job of chronicling his meteoric but brief life.

It’s ART ATTACK so I have to discuss his art but I’m nervous. I’m just some chick from the Bronx writing poems on trains, biting my nails and trying to keep my deadline extension. I’m not an art major and don’t know the right words. I do know what moves me and Basquiat does.


Real talk: I don’t even know what “Ernock” is. I just know that it makes me feel uncertain, moved, frightened, and I kept it as my desktop background for almost a year. (The honor of modern day reverence…)

Basquiat pulled in references from every discipline, every remarkable moment/person in history (ranging from Charlie Parker to Batman and Robin) and his entire life as an artist and man of color. He dissected blackness, Afro-Latino heritage and racism by pulling them into the forefront of consciousness through graphic purposeful art. Basquiat refused to describe his pieces because it was like asking “Miles [Davis], how does your horn sound?” So I’m going to respect that and share with you my favorite pieces.

untitled (head of a madman), 1982 -- a nod to "self portrait" by van gogh

horn players, 1983

per capita, 1981

philistines, 1982

One last note on Basquiat — he died the way rock stars usually die: way too fucking famous and from a heroin overdose. August 12, 1988 was his last day on this earth. Basquiat left behind over 1,000 paintings and 1,000 drawings. He was the youngest artist ever to participate in Documenta VII (an exhibition for modern & contemporary art held every five years in Germany) and one of the highest grossing artists of his time. Here’s the thing though, I hate writing this because I feel like even though it’s the truth, it adds to this myth that living hard and dying young is cool. It also glamorizes and upholds this idea that in order to be remembered as a significant artist, heroin and death need to be involved. I’m over that, like so so over it. The worlds that foster our talents also tend to unabashedly consume us for our gifts, and then spit us out onto a bed of needles and empty baggies.

So out of care and randomness, I’d like to share this brilliant discussion on the trap of celebritizing, exalting and isolating artists and their work. It’s a TED talk from Elizabeth Gilbert and as corny as it sounds, it’s something Basquiat and others like him, like you, like me, need to hear. Our art is worth living for. And before you come running at me about how I’m ending this post on a brilliant man of color with some white lady talking about hippie fancy love stuff, just know that I get it, but it’s still an important talk. So dig it and know that I come from a place of love, always.

Nobody loves a Genius Child. Kill Him – Let his soul run wild.
-Langston Hughes

Tell me things I don’t know about Basquiat. I count on you, the awesome reader homos, to know all the other things like you always do. Share what moves you about his work or what doesn’t. Just be boom for real.

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Gabrielle Rivera is an awesomely queer Bronx bred, writer, spoken word artist and director. Her short stories and poems have been published in various anthologies such as the Lambda Award winning Portland Queer: Tales from the Rose City and The Best of Panic! En Vivo from the East Village. Her short film "Spanish Girls are Beautiful" follows a group of young Latina and Caucasian girls who like girls as they hook up, smoke up and try to figure sh*t out. She also freelances for while working in the film and television industry. Gabrielle is currently working on her first novel while bouncing around NYC performing spoken word and trying to stick it to the man.

gabby has written 102 articles for us.


  1. Great post. I went to see the Basquiat retrospective at the Modern Art Museum in Paris last year and to see so much of his work in one place blew me away. One thing that struck me was that his collaborations with Andy Warhol were far less interesting than his own work, which I guess shows up some of Warhol’s gimmickry and took away from Basquiat’s pure genius.

  2. There’s a tough balancing act when it comes to talking about artists of color–it’s like you have to acknowledge the broad history of black oppression, but also individual experience, but also that white ladies have important things to say too. So thanks for doing all three.

    • danielle,
      thanks for saying this. it’s totally true. and even in a safe space like AS, it’s hard to bridge the gap between those three worlds and can be a little disheartening when it doesn’t resonate as loudly as you’d want it to, you know?
      like part of me was like, “is anyone on here going to give a shit about some artsy black dude genius?”
      i know how serious we can all be about preserving our queer spaces for queers only…
      so it’s always a risk to jump outside that box.
      thankfully the AS loves/powers that be are always looking for challenging and exciting stuff. thankfully this space does exist.
      yo are u going to CAMP???

  3. this post is a good example of why you’re so badass. thank you for always being honest and brilliant. i was totally unfamiliar w/ basquiat before, as i’m totally unfamiliar w/ most artists, and i’m definitely going to check out the documentaries you suggested. thank you!

  4. Sometimes, the best discussions of an artist’s work typically occur when two people know nothing of the artist’s life. Art critics of today will drool and oooooh and aaaaah over Basquiat and if you asked most of them, to this day, “What do you like about Basquiat?” They will reply, “I like that his work is so primitive…so…so child-like.” Just like you said.

    With that said, I think that’s why I loved this article so much. You didn’t go overboard with stories about his life and his antics. My favorite part about Basquiat is the crown he would put in his paintings of his, “heroes.” I always thought that idea of marking his heroes as part of a royal family was just one of the most simple and interesting symbols of reverence for a person I had ever encountered in my many years of art history classes.

    • yesss the CROWN! i meant to add that somewheres because it’s my fave image too. it’s epic. one small golden crown amidst images of historic black men and other brilliant minds and it’s a reclamation of minoritized/ignored history.
      basquiat was soo with it. that’s why words like “primitive” just DON’T WORK.

  5. I love his work, so glad to see this featured. I see the work as primitive but only in terms of primative = authentic. And for such a young man, the social commentary in his paintings seems beyond his years. Also I also like his doodles and sense of humor, and his incorporating his old street art was like he was tagging and owning his work.

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