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Short-Lived, Everlasting Fame: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Updated: Jun 26, 2022

Hollywood Africans, 1983

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (b. 1960) was a pop artist, heavily influenced by early hip hop and punk culture in New York, who in six short years etched a permanent name for himself in art history and popular culture.

Basquiat found fame at the age of 21 and died at 27. During his lifetime, he was a prolific artist, with ambition and a rebellious spirit. Post-death, he has become an icon, a cultural symbol and favored artist of many entrepreneurs and entertainers. Basquiat’s work is among the most valuable and actively traded of any American artist. His work is currently on display in New York in an exhibition curated by his family estate called Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

"I don't think about art when I'm working. I try to think about life."

Photo credit: Christopher Makos

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, the first born of Gerard and Mathilde Basquiat. Gerard was an accountant who immigrated from Haiti. Mathilde was the Brooklyn-born daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. Jean-Michel grew up in a multi-cultural environment and a tri-lingual household, speaking French, Spanish and English.

Jean-Michel’s father, Gerard, was ambitious. His primary life goal was to be a successful accountant. This singular focus likely contributed to emotional deficiencies at home. Jean-Michel’s mother, Mathilde, was hospitalized for depression. His parents separated when he was 7. Gerard had custody of Jean-Michel and his two younger sisters, but father and son were in constant conflict. Gerard didn’t understand his son’s eccentric behavior and aspirations to be an artist. Jean-Michel eventually ran away from home at age 17.

(From King Pleasure Exhibition)

Excerpt from Gerard Basquiat's address book

Jean-Michel found himself in Lower Manhattan, homeless. But he had a unique artistic style, a sharp mind, charm, and an uncommon drive to succeed. In 1979, he moved in with a girlfriend, his “first stable home”. He painted the walls, the appliances, the floors. He collected wood and canvas scraps from the street since he didn’t have money. When he wasn’t painting, Jean-Michel was clubbing. Nearly every evening he, his girlfriend and group of friends would party, often until 4am, at one of a handful of artist-friendly hangouts.

In June 1980, Jean-Michel exhibited publicly for the first time. His work received warm reviews. The following year, he held another exhibition, this time with 20 works. All of the works sold, and consensus began to build that Jean-Michel was the real deal and the art world’s next big star. Following that show, Jean-Michel was picked up by his first gallerist. 1982 was a banner year for Jean-Michel’s career. He had six solo shows across the United States and Europe, including his first show in Los Angeles at the Gagosian gallery. For the next six years, Jean-Michel produced his unique style of art. He wrestled with making art that was both personal and appealing to the public. The pressure Jean-Michel felt to maintain a high level of meaningful, creative output took a toll on him. And unfortunately, Basquiat turned to hard drugs to cope.

Jean-Michel’s life was cut short in 1988 when he died of a heroine overdose. In his 27 years, Jean-Michel’s estate credits 171 paintings, 917 drawings, 85 prints and 25 sketchbooks to his body of work (though an estimated 500-600 canvases are attributed to him).

(From King Pleasure Exhibition)

Untitled, 1982

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Basquiat’s work features figures depicted in crude but expressive ways. His color choice is bright and bold, and the style combines elements expressionism and graffiti techniques. He makes repeated use of a two notable artistic trademarks: the three-pointed crown, and the copyright symbol. Basquiat often wrote words on his canvases, crossing them out to bring more attention to them. And each piece has a message. His references are sometimes clear but are often cryptic. Basquiat was never one to explain his work. As he said, “If you can’t figure it out, it’s your problem.”

(From King Pleasure Exhibition)

Untitled (Boxeo), n.d.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel worked quickly and intuitively, sometimes completing one or two paintings in a day. He was inspired by other art forms: film, books and music. One of Jean-Michel’s favorite musicians was Charlie Parker. He purchased a case of Charlie Parker’s biography “Bird” and gave the book to friends. He also responded to the current events and social issues of his day. Notably, Basquiat’s paintings were rarely erotic though he was sexually active with both women and men.

Photo credit: Lee Jaffe/Getty Images

Jean Michel Basquiat’s work has grown tremendously in value in recent years, due to a greater appreciation by museums of his life and legacy, and an increased appetite for his work by entrepreneurs, sportsmen, and musicians. Until this May, one of the pieces sold at the Gagosian Gallery premier in 1982 held an auction record for an American painter, selling for $110m to a Japanese collector in 2017. Basquiat’s work is currently on view in New York through July 2nd at an exhibition curated by his family called Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure.

Available feature artwork:

Hollywood Africans, 1983 / 2015

Jean-Michel Basquiat


38.6 x 83.9 in

Limited edition of 60

Contact for price

If you’d like to acquire this or other works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, email

Book recommendations:

Watch the trailer for "The Radiant Child", a 2010 documentary about Basquiat's life:


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