“…[T]his requires a hip-hop sensibility to the extent that codes artistically arranged are the hallmark of ‘tagging’ – graffiti. [Basquiat’s] identity, his presence in the world of visual language, is first tied to graffiti” – Anthony B. Pinn
In the 1970s and 80s, while kids in middle America were trading baseball cards, New York City youth were spotting graffiti burners like shooting stars. Coming of Age in the era between the Black Power Movement and the War on Drugs, young graffiti writers sought alternative paths to success that were not being offered to them as young, poor, black and brown city residents. Trespassing on government property to make themselves infamous in the eyes of the kids on the block, they aerosol spray painted their names on the sides of trains so big that those below the elevated trains could see pseudonyms of the heroes from their hoods. They took their identities into their own hands. They would literally make names for themselves. Jean-Michel Basquiat was one such kid.
In an interview with Henry Geldzahler for Interview Magazine, Basquiat confesses that lack of materials wasn’t why he decided to work on the streets and in the subways. Instead, he wanted to make a name for himself.[i]
Basquiat created the pseudonym SAMO (Same Old Shit) with friend Al Diaz and tagged inscrutable messages on walls in Lower Manhattan where the artsy set resided. Unlike traditional graffiti writers, Basquiat’s lettering was not undecipherable. But his poetry begs interpretation. In the October 1997 edition of Art Monthly, Andrew Wilson once wrote that “[Basquiat] wasn’t a graffiti artist in the New York Hip Hop sense of the word – someone who does giant burners, cartoon lettering and all that — he was a graffiti writer in the classic Greek sense and wrote strange enigmatic messages like ‘A pin drops like a pungent odour’ or ‘Plush safe he think’, beautiful stuff, ‘copyright Samo’.” Although Basquiat’s art was welcomed into the upper echelons of New York City’s cultural set at a time when the industry was booming, success did not keep him from laboring over his graffiti writing. It is obvious from the traveling exhibit, Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks, that for the artist, his writing might have been something more than a tool to attain fame.
Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks currently on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia gives credence to the textual element so prevalent in many of his paintings ( full disclosure:the author is a former High Museum docent). The exhibit is located in half of the second floor gallery of the museum. It is comprised of carefully extracted pages from dime store composition notebooks, which are protected behind glass. The space is open and many of the pages are placed on the circumference of the gallery. The majority of the pages are one-sided and designed with his signature lettering as if he wanted them to one day be on display all along.
Created during the period of 1980 to 1987, the writing is exhibited alongside some of Basquiat’s artworks. The first visible artwork as one enters the gallery is a double sided painting of a white canvas with a lot of text, a black face at the center, and the word “Famous” scrawled underneath it. This piece welcomes patrons who might not know the depth of Basquiat’s reach and informs them immediately of his tenure. Fame is not an uncommon theme for Basquiat as he is known to depict celebrities in his work. And though the amount of works on display at the High is few, two of the paintings in the exhibit feature the word “famous.”
His writing is so prominent in his art that it would have been a disadvantage to his legacy to keep the notebooks away from the public. The insertion and retraction of words in the space on canvases is signature Basquiat. He physically crossed out words in his paintings in order to draw attention to said word. This action allows him to emphasize latent themes in his paintings. By understanding the importance of his text, we realize the writing is just as eminent as the color of the canvas if not more valuable. Basquiat’s writing in his paintings is particularly influential to so many black male artists, including Atlanta artists Fahamu Pecou and Sean Fahie, who use text in the same fashion.
Basquiat’s rise to fame is as significant as the work itself. He went from living on the streets of NYC to being one of the most famous artists in the world by the age of 25. Michael Rooks Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the High Museum of Art expressed the artist’s trajectory to me as such:
Basquiat is influential because he’s the first black man to dominate the art world with no pedigree in the art world or social circles, and that’s amazing. Basquiat, like the hip hop artists in the early 80s, created his own milieu.
From graffiti writer to international art star, Basquiat’s light shone so brightly that he attained the fame he sought in a short but influential lifetime. After his death, The New York Times ran an extensive article in which journalist, Michael Wines wrote, “Mr. Basquiat’s struggle hints at the hazards posed by quick fame and wealth in the 1980’s artistic world. But it is not unlike the struggle of many gifted young people in sports, business and other fields where unusual talent breeds not only rewards but unbearable demands for even greater success.”
Fame for Basquiat has resulted in a presence in the annals of art history, high prices for his artwork, and the proliferation of his image and art in among the masses. He has become a patron saint for contemporary artists. Whereas other artists have been forgotten after their most successful show, Basquiat’s star is shining brighter almost thirty years after his untimely death by having the notebooks on display.
Shantay Robinson earned an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design. At SCAD, she studied art history and art criticism. She also presented a paper at SCAD’s Symposium on Art and Fashion: From Peplos to Petticoat to Punk. She served as a docent at the High Museum of Art where she learned about the museum’s exhibitions, looking techniques and how to speak publicly about art. Hosting her blog, The Third Eye Site, allowed her to look closely at and write about the arts in Atlanta. As a freelance writer, she wrote artist profiles for AFROPUNK, Burnaway, and Urban Lux Magazine. Shantay is currently an adjunct professor of rhetoric and composition.