Basquiat: Social Justice Warrior before it was Cool

The first time I heard about Basquiat was in my neighbourhood bar in the old district of Skopje. Ironically, it couldn’t be a more convenient setting. The old district is the place where alternative culture was born. We were socialites, free from social media.  The bar was a melting pot for alternative youngsters, all good friends. Music defined our differences. There were ska punks, indie rock aficionados, hip hop artists, hippies and trip hoppers.

One day of the week we all stood united. Every Monday we would project a movie usually of our own choosing. However, this time the movie about Basquiat was suggested by my university art history teacher, who himself was sometimes a patron of the bar.  

Just like every Monday the crowd blended to invisibility, quiet in the dark, with only the noise of the projector humming in the background.

When the movie opened with a monologue about Van Gogh, the ultimate tormented artist, I got the point. Basquiat is the Van Gogh of his generation, race, or country. He strived for greatness and there is no easy way to do that.

One of my thoughts during the movie was that Basquiat knew where to position himself at a very young age. He was at the epicenter of the world’s culture capital. I couldn’t help but compare myself with him, at least for a moment, I was 21, in a bar in the Old town, where art and culture had flourished for centuries. At that time, in that place, watching that movie, I was nearest to Basqiat. I was doing something I liked, leaving a trace in the urban culture.     

Basquiat started as a graffiti artist in 1976 with a group called SAMO, an abbreviation of Same ol’. I understand the rush of vandalism, even artistic vandalism.  I did it myself in my younger days. It’s a common way to become a voice in the cacophony of the urban jungle. Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz created graffiti for the next two years. He did get what he wanted- fame--when The Village Voice published an article about SAMO. I couldn’t help but remember that a couple of years earlier one of our pieces of graffiti was published in a local newspaper. However, the (imagined) resemblance stops at that. I watched the rest of the movie with undivided attention.

I watched his story breathless, like you would see shooting star on a night sky.

In 1979 Basquiat appeared on a public TV show called TV party, hosted by Glenn O’Brien, with whom he became good friends. TV stardom led him to join a noise band called Gray, along with Vincent Gallo, amongst others. Basquiat got accustomed to public appearances, which landed him a role in his friend O’Brien’s independent movie Downtown 81 in 1980. He plays an aspiring painter finding his place under the sky. He would continue with that role in real life. The turning point for him was an accidental meeting with Warhol in a restaurant where he sold some of his small format work to the famous pop artist, with whom he later collaborated. Warhol was struck by his work and the rest is, well, history. The meeting gave him an ego boost, something that every aspiring artist feeds on and also, got him the approval he was looking for, ingredients very much needed for an exhibition. Basquiat presented his work to the public for the first time as a solo artist in The Times Square show, a multi artist exhibition in New York in 1980, a year that marked his emergence on the art stage. From there onwards the sky was the limit, and he started showing in international exhibitions. 

Basquiat's major influence was the book Grey’s Anatomy, a childhood gift from his mother while in hospital. Other major influences were the Da Vinci notebooks, Henry Dreyfuss’s Symbol Sourcebook and Brentje’s African Rock Art. His work was often untitled, giving little meaning to the naming, thus emphasizing the content of art work, something that would be left to the audience to process.

His friendships with famous people of the time were numerous and made amplified his own fame. He befriended Madonna, and David Bowie and Fab 5 Freddy, in huge part because of his appreciation of music. He had a role in Blondie’s Rupture video, the first ever MTV video to air that had rap. Basquiat can be seen as the DJ in the background. He also debuted as a producer of a rap single with two hip hop artists, where he also made the cover art, making the single a rare possession amongst passionate collectors. Even some of his painting, to a certain extent, resembles a DJ’s mix of street culture, vibe and poetics.

His painting style is one of cartoonish neo expressionist depictions of the outside world stripped to its essence. His paintings often have words in them, emphasizing his favourite theme, social justice. His paintings consist of symbols, pictograms, diagrams, athletes, warriors or famous people. The human head is central motive of his painting, symbolizing mental processes and intellect, elevated over the body. This is very important as it is the artist's major legacy.  Artist’s gift to the public transcends, age, race and nationality, an appropriate inheritance for the present fast-paced culture, where little or no space is left for contemplation, let alone grasp of ideas and concepts.

 Basquiat reached greatness, but at a cost.  He became sort of a Van Gogh of his generation, a voice and image heard and seen by millions.  He presented black history and culture with all its contradictions. But he shouldn’t be limited only to that. Basquiat is a name that symbolizes one man’s journey and growth. He accomplished that not by becoming famous but by metamorphosing into an extraordinary human being. His life, with all its challenges and blessing was greater than the sum of its parts. At least that’s the way I see it now, 20 years further down the road from the bar in Skopje where I heard about Basquiat for the first time.  


Kristofer Jovkovski is a writer based in Skopje, Macedonia