Jean-Michel Basquiat (b. 1960, New York, New York, U.S.; d. 1988, New York, New York, U.S.) was one of the first African-American artists to achieve international stardom and he remains both popular and critically respected more than 30 years after his death. As a high school student in 1977—long before he achieved commercial success—Basquiat teamed up with friends to paint graffiti on buildings and subways in Lower Manhattan. Their pseudonym was SAMO, which stood for “same ol’ shit,” and their tagged slogans were characterized by the same elliptical, personal-political wit that permeates Basquiat’s later work. According to the artist, SAMO represented “an end to mindwash religion, nowhere politics, and bogus philosophy.” After a while, the group split up, and Basquiat continued writing as SAMO on his own.
The first paintings Basquiat exhibited incorporated mottos and motifs from SAMO graffiti and represented the first steps toward a dazzling aesthetic that would combine Afrocentric themes with the artist’s hermetic symbology and echoes of the “primitive” figuration beloved by so many modern masters. In 1981 he joined Annina Nosei Gallery and by the following year, he was showing alongside leading artists of the Neo-Expressionist movement. He often painted on non-traditional supports and produced canvases with exposed stretchers and densely worked, partially collaged surfaces, later working with Andy Warhol on a series of collaborative panels. “SAMO saves idiots” was among his early slogans, but the Downtown figure ultimately couldn’t be rescued from the perils of early fame: Jean-Michel Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27.