Before he was Jean-Michel Basquiat, the wild child prince of the 1980s art world, Basquiat was working with fellow street artist Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO, short for “Same Old Shit,” up until 1979. The duo spray painted barbed, deeply meaningful aphorisms across Lower Manhattan (the entirety of which have been photographed by Henry Flynt), such as “SAMO as an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics and bogus philosophy,” “SAMO as an escape clause” and countless others. Basquiat himself was practicing both symbolic and literal escapism, he himself left home before graduating high school.
Like many artists, stringing a few chosen letters together in order to craft an anonymous persona is akin to cracking the skull of previous expectations and personhood, or scribbling over an Andy Warhol painting – a radical act of liberation.
After shedding his SAMO street art persona and developing as none other than Andy Warhol’s protégé, Basquiat continued to draw upon the power of the written word throughout his paintings. He proved that words are as malleable and symbolic as paint or pencil, as in his painting In Italian, he stacks the word “teeth” one on top of the other. “Teeth” is saw-like, dominated by straight, sharp lines, a visual pattern that coincides with the pointed subject matter (the only Italian in the entire painting is sangue meaning “blood”).
In his painting Rinso, Basquiat’s black canvas bears words such as “whitewashing,” “fool,” and “no suh no suh,” expressive references to black history and race-driven power dynamics. “Kingfish” suggests intimidation, referring to the popular Jamaican term for a ruthless police officer or perhaps, the species of intimidating white fish in the ocean that prohibit swimming. Those elect individuals who understand the more obscure of Basquiat’s cultural references form a new kind of street-savvy elite.
One can only imagine what Rembrandt or Fragonard would have had to say about Basquiat’s frenetic scrawl, but his humble street art beginnings led to something much greater: the re-appropriation of the term “defacement” into a youthful and modern form of expression not for the shy of heart. Irreverent and at times undecipherable, the contagiously manic energy of Basquiat’s script liberated the written word into the realm of the visual and symbolic.
To learn more about the street art Pressionism movement in which Basquiat played a pivotal role, look out for Parkstone’s upcoming publication Pressionism. Basquiat is also being featured in two exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, until November 2015 and in the “Pressionnisme” exhibition at the Pinacothèque in Paris until mid-October.