The Playbook

B1: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Street Prodigy, Art Outsider, and One of the Greats

"I think the art world is the biggest insider hustle ever invented - galleries fixing prices by controlling the supply, then hyping the shit out of paint on a piece of wood only affordable to billionaire. There, I said it!


That said, Basquiat happens to be one of my favorite artists. I liked Basquiat well before he was mentioned in rap lyrics, or used on a Supreme T-shirt (FYI, I've worn that tee mostly to work out in), or became one of the most collectible artists ever. To me, he was just a street kid making street shit that turned into collectible, priceless art. I mean, Basquiat is a guy that was famous for painting in Armani suits and not giving a shit how expensive the suit was and 'ruining' it. I would imagine that ruined suit would be priceless if someone had it in their collection today.


That's the irony of art: what he threw away would have become a museum piece today, and in some ways, I like that. But I digress.


Basquiat is a Brooklyn guy born and bred: a borough boy trying to break into the Manhattan art scene in the 80's, which he ultimately did. But it was his Brooklyn hustle, not just his artistic talent, that I think helped him succeed. Brooklyn is just as important to Greats as the sneakers we make so I think there are some similarities between us and Jean Michel in that way. Basquiat: thanks for being one of the greats."


- Ryan Babenzien



Jean-Michel Basquiat was born December 22, 1960, in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the second of four children. Basquiat’s mother stoked his early talent for visuals by enrolling him in St. Ann’s School, a prestigious Brooklyn Heights private school famous for its devotion to the arts.


His childhood, however, was far from rosy. In 1968, Basquiat was hit by a car, and subsequently given a copy of Gray’s Anatomy (the medical text, not McDreamy) to read during recovery. His head full of macabre images, Basquiat would soon develop his iconic skulls-and-grit aesthetic. Other impacts would soon compound his grief: that same year, his parents divorced, splitting Basquiat’s very foundation.


Pulled by his inspirations and pushed by his broken family situation, Basquiat ran away from home to spend a week homeless, sleeping on benches and making street art. Arrested and returned to his father’s custody, Jean-Michel was promptly kicked out of his home. The street-saavy Basquiat moved in with friends around Brooklyn, selling t-shirts and postcards to support himself.


He was just 16 years old.


Free to roam the streets, the unencumbered young Basquiat and a friend begin painting cryptic graffiti around New York under the tag “SAMO©” (pronounced “same-oh”, short for “same-old shit”).  His scrawled, countercultural tags (“SAMO AS AN END TO THE 9-TO-5”) lit up the graffiti scene in a whole new way. Before long, Basquiat was being introduced as “the man behind SAMO” on barometers of downtown cool like Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party.



By all accounts, “SAMO©” had made Basquiat graffiti artist royalty. Little surprise, then, that he killed it.


In 1979, the message “SAMO© IS DEAD” appeared all over New York. Immediately thereafter, Basquiat reintroduced himself on TV Party as a fine artist, albeit one with street origins. His style hadn’t changed – he was still a street kid making street shit because he thought it was cool – but suddenly, the perception of him began to shift. Decades before bootstrapped streetwear labels made a run at Fashion Week, the art world had its own surging outsider.


Basquiat’s first show billed under his own name happened in 1980, where he took part in the iconic Times Square Show alongside names like Keith Haring and Jenny Holzer. Later that year, Basquiat approached Andy Warhol when he spotted him in a restaurant, pitching him portfolio using the street postcards he once sold to stay alive. Warhol was impressed, and the two become fast friends.



 With Warhol’s co-sign, notoriety comes quickly: Basquiat stars in Glenn O’Brien’s indie film “Downtown 81”, appears in a music video for the Blondie song “Rapture” (the first rap video to ever air on MTV), and most significantly, is the subject of a 1981 feature piece in Artforum magazine.





The piece, titled “The Radient Child,” reads like a euphoric daydream – SAMO© may be dead, but Jean-Michel Basquiat was on the verge of immortality. His first solo exhibition, held March 1982 at the gallery of Annina Noisel (the basement of which Basquiat used as a studio), sold out completely. Among the patrons: Herbert and Lenore Schorr, who would go on to become ardent supporters and surrogate parents.


He was just 21 years old, and an instant celebrity.


In no time at all, Basquiat went from relative unknown to one of the few black artists operating in the contemporary art scene. Raw, provocative, seemingly ripped straight from the streets, his work during the period 1981-83 is considered by many to be Basquiat at his best. His trademark politically-charged scrawlings and macabre imagery of skulls and violence are everywhere in his paintings of this time: “Scull (1981), “"Native Carrying Some Guns, Bibles, Amorites on Safari," (1982), and “Untitled” (1981), a self-portrait of Basquiat as a sun king.



Even more incredibly: his paintings of the time are everywhere. According to his biographer, from 1981-83, Basquiat would complete up to eight paintings a week, yet would fly into rages about being pressured to paint. Sometimes he slashed his canvases to bits immediately after painting them. Manic? Certainly. But most great creatives ride short waves of mania to produce their best.


Sadly, this was no wave: the mania would follow him throughout his life. Basquiat was notoriously haunted by drug habits. Even old friends are forced away by his destructive behavior: after Basquiat attends rehab yet relapses, Andy Warhol – friend, collaborator, father figure - distances himself before dying in 1987.


Despite his international celebrity during this time (shows in Tokyo; a brief relationship with Madonna), prolonged drug use and increasing isolation cause his paintings to turn for the hollow. The fever point: when Basquiat completes Erotica and Erotica II (1988), he writes “man dies” over each finished canvas. Less than a decade after the world learns his name, Jean-Michel Basquiat dies from a drug overdose in his New York loft on Fri, Aug 12 1988.


He was just 27 years old.  


Basquiat is often called “the Van Gogh of our generation” in reference to both his skill and untimely death. Like Van Gogh, however, his pure aesthetic ability is ultimately what preserves his legend. His lasting legacy and cultural impact – from his aesthetic influence on fashion (Supreme, Raf Simons) to his pop culture collectible status (JAY-Z and David Bowie were famous collectors), from his constant name-checking within rap to his immortalization in Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic “Basquiat” – speak volumes past any pre-packaged “tragedy” narrative.


The icing on the cake? Last year, a Basquiat ("Untitled," 1982) became the most expensive painting by an American artist ever sold at auction, selling for $110.5m. A street kid making street shit because he thought it was cool is now the country’s premier artistic embassador. Not bad for a dropout from Fort Greene.   



A borough boy trying to break into the Manhattan art scene, Basquiat was a Brooklyn guy, born and bred. While he is now worshipped and collected as the artist’s artist, his hustle – that across-the-river ambition and drive - ultimately led to his big break. How else could a homeless boy go from tagging buildings to selling out galleries?


Decades after his death, his art, his legacy, and his deep connections to both New York City and his home of Brooklyn casts him as one of the most iconic artists of all time. There’ll only ever B1 like him, but his shoes can be filled by us all.