LGBT+ History Month: Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)

Published: 9th February 2022


This February, we are proud to honour LGBT+ History Month, a month-long annual celebration and remembrance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. It looks back at the history of gay rights and celebrates how far we have come in the fight for equality.

Over this month we will look at the lives of people who made an impact in the fields of arts, culture and science, as well as being prominent figures in the LGBT+ community.

Today we celebrate Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)

Jean-Michel Basquiat was born in Park Slope Brooklyn to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. His cultural heritage provided inspiration and he would often incorporate Spanish words into his artworks.

After being hit by a car when he was eight years old, his mother bought a copy of Gray’s Anatomy to read whilst he was recovering and this provided inspiration for art later in life. He also named his band Gray which referenced the book.

Basquiat did not have a formal art education, neither did he go to art school. He learnt his art skills from visiting art galleries and was inspired by music his father played.

He started as a graffiti artist using the tag “SAMO” (shorthand for “same old s*** ”) in 1978. He created this with high school friend Al Diaz. They started spray painting graffiti on buildings in Lower Manhattan. Basquiat sold his first painting, Cadillac Moon (1981), to Debbie Harry, lead singer of punk band Blondie, for $200.

Basquiat was bisexual and his girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, who financially supported him as a waitress during this period later described his sexuality as: " ... not monochromatic. It did not rely on visual stimulation, such as a pretty girl. It was a very rich multichromatic sexuality. He was attracted to people for all different reasons. They could be boys, girls, thin, fat, pretty, ugly. It was, I think, driven by intelligence. He was attracted to intelligence more than anything and to pain." In 1982 he also dated then-unknown singer Madonna.

His signature artistic motif, the crown, had three peaks symbolising his three royal lineages which were the poet, the musician and the great boxing champion. Aged 22 he was the youngest to exhibit at the Whitney Biennial.

He was deeply affected by the death of Michael Stewart, an aspiring black artist in the downtown club scene, killed by police in September 1983. He painted Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) (1983) in response to the incident.

He died on 12th August 1988 at age 27 years old, of a heroin overdose at his home.

Basquiat leaves a legacy as one of the most acclaimed contemporary artists of his generation. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for self-examination and for identifying with his experiences in the Black community of his time, as well as attacking power structures and systems of racism. His visual style was acutely political and direct in his criticism of colonialism and his support for class struggle.

At CLCH, we want everyone to feel safe, part of our community and proud to be who they are – no matter whether they are staff, patients or public. 

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