Underground Stories: “The Radiant Child”

4 Feb

You and Your…History

This February the Roaring 20’s blog is honoring the unsung heroes of the black community. Check back throughout the month for different features on little known pioneers of the African Diaspora.

I accidentally came across Basquiat’s work over the spring of last year while walking in The Lower East Side with Elyse. An avid lover and photographer of the ever changing street art scene, Elyse excitedly gave me a brief bio of the Haitian born artist. Jean Michel Basquiat was born in 1960 in Brooklyn, NY to a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother. As a child Basquiat’s mother frequently took him to art museums and his exposure to the fine arts greatly influenced his love of painting. At age 15 Basquiat ran away from home only to return home a week later at the hands of the police. In the 10th grade he dropped out of school and his father put him out of the house for good.

SAMO making his mark

As a homeless teenager in the 80’s during the Regan regime times were hard for Basquiat but there was a burgeoning underground art scene in lower Manhattan. Every art student from the major schools like FIT, Parsons and Cooper Union ran wild at night turning the Lower East Side and the Bowery into their own personal canvas. Basquiat first made his name on the street as Samo; a tongue-in-cheek graffiti artist who’s thought provoking installations was part conspiracy theory, part social commentary.

“Which of the following institutions has the most political influence? Television, The Church, SAMO, McDonalds”

His teenage old mind did not embrace the idea of conforming to societies standards and his work told the oft ignored story of a young black man in America. Basquiat used his art as a vehicle to get his downtown bohemian perspective into upscale SoHo galleries that had never seen art in this raw capacity. By age 25 Basquiat was at the top of his game and had already been linked with influential artists of the time such as Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Madonna. He understood that the system in place did not acknowledge him but he didn’t allow himself to be silenced. His work often spoke about delicate and touchy subjects like racism and classism. On September 15th 1983 a young black street artist by the name of Michael Stewart was brutally attacked by six New York City police officers after being spotted tagging a wall in the subway. Shortly after being arrested Stewart fell into a coma and never woke. Upon hearing the news Basquiat was stricken with grief as the two artists favored one another in appearance. Basquiat felt that it very easily could have been him. In response to Stewarts death Basquiat created Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart).

Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)

The tragic end to the misunderstood visionary came on August 12th 1988 when Basquiat, aged 27, died of a heroin overdose. The documentary “The Radiant Child” highlights the highs and lows of his life as well as his descend into darkness and depression following the death of close friend Andy Warhol. At the time of his death Basquiat had left over 1000 paintings and just as many sketches. Like many artists, he was truly ahead of his time and we can only imagine what he might’ve accomplished had he lived.


Rammelzee Vs K Rob -

-Nikki B. Decadent

Learn more about Jean Michel Basquiat:

“The Radiant Child” available on Amazon.com and Netflix




4 Responses to “Underground Stories: “The Radiant Child””

  1. Angela February 4, 2011 at 11:33 AM #

    Another great talent gone at such a young age.

    I’m still trying to understand why people with so much promise poison their bodies with substances instead of just hooking up with an excellent therapist who would/could point you in the right direction for life’s choices. Operative descriptor -“excellent therapist”. This would be so much healthier than losing dignity,self-respect, family and meaningful friends.

    • Roaring 20s February 4, 2011 at 11:43 AM #

      Basquiat definitely left before his time.

      Re: therapy. Seeking professional help for mental health is not something that has always been seen as favorable in the black community. Also take into account that back in the 80’s there werent nearly as many resources for mental health as there are today. There is a serious stigma and I understand how people can suffer in silence and/or resort to substance abuse. It’s a shame that such a gifted artist lost his life to drugs. Hopefully, other people, artists and everyday folks alike, look at his life and dont make the same tragic mistake.

      -Nikki B. Decadent

  2. ki February 4, 2011 at 6:29 PM #

    Wow! He was a talented young man. Such an interesting article. Thanks for letting his story be known..learn something new everyday

  3. nik February 7, 2011 at 4:12 PM #

    Love Basquiat. A tragic loss but he left behind many gems. Swizz Beatz is one of his biggest fans and remixes his pieces often. You should check it out.

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