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Humble Beginnings The Life and art of Jean-Michel Basquiat

Life was not going well for Jean-Michel Basquiat. At just 17 years old, his parents had gotten divorced, his mother was recently committed to a mental institution, and he was kicked out by his father for dropping out of high school. With nowhere else to go, Basquiat decided to stay at a close friend’s house and took up an art form that his parents certainly would’ve looked down upon. This mentioned art form was graffiti, and Basquiat loved every aspect of it. He loved the rush, the colors, and the haphazard style of it. In the late ’70s, nobody would’ve imagined that this couch-surfing vandal would ever do something with his life. And only a few years later, he proved them all wrong and sold paintings for $25,000 a pop.

“Even from a very young age, Basquiat showed a lot of promise artistically. Both of his parents recognized this and drove him to become the best artist possible. They all lived together in Brooklyn and placed him in a very exclusive, art-centered private school,” shared Art History aficionado, Leslie Clark. “His teen years were filled with a lot of hardship, which influenced his art style and ended up making him a legend in the eyes of thousands of street artists. After mastering his craft and finding his place in the art movement of neo-expressionism, Basquiat eventually sold one of his paintings for over 110 million dollars. This even broke Sotheby’s old record for the most expensive American painting. It was especially shocking because he was black and came from such humble roots,” Clark shared.

When she was shown a replica of Basquiat’s most famous piece, “Boxer,” freshman Riley Omara was at a loss for words. After a minute or two had passed, she said, “It’s definitely a little crazy and out of my comfort zone, but I still like it.” Like many others, she was both confused and enamored with his use of color and style. “This piece almost scared me in a way, but I felt drawn to it. The colors made it seem so serious, but the art style seemed almost like a cartoon. Honestly, I don’t really know how I feel about it. Compared to the art that I normally see, it was much more interesting, and I felt that it had some real meaning behind it.”

Top: Jean-Michel Basquiat, "Boxer", 1982

When it comes to the lives of famous people, there usually aren't many happy endings. Unfortunately, Basquiat was unable to escape this much too common circumstance. At only 27 years old, he died of a heroin overdose after battling with addiction for many years. Even though Basquiat’s life was short, it was also fruitful and provided the world with brilliant, thought-provoking artwork that will continue to amaze the world for generations. After peering one last time at her beloved Basquiat piece hanging in her living room, Clark mentioned, “I honestly think that everyone just has to see some of his work for themselves before they judge. In my opinion, I think that people are too quick to judge others based on their history. I swear, as soon as you look into a piece, something changes deep inside of you. I just can’t quite describe it.”