Jean-Michel Basquiat Understood “Words Are All We Have”

Artwork: Jean-Michel Basquiat Eroica I, 1988.

Brooklyn’s finest Jean-Michel Basquiat first came to fame writing SAMO© on the streets of New York between 1977 and 1980. He came up with the name one day while he and high school friend Al Diaz (BOMB 1) were smoking weed they called “the same old shit.” They shortened to “Same Old,” which easily became “SAMO” and a character was born.

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SAMO© found his way on to the streets, a provocateur with a pithy yet poetic sense of humor. The name would appear alongside aphorisms, multiple-choice questions, or other turns of phrase that mocked the world at large. Anthony Haden-Guest reports in his book True Colors (1998) that Basquiat had told him, “Samo was sophomoric. Same old shit. It was supposed to be a logo like Pepsi.”

Jaean-Michel Basquiat, Jack Johnson, 1982

Perhaps this is why it caught on and stood out from the flourishing graff scene that dominated to New York. Basquiat did not participate in the glorious “Wild Style” of the day; no masterpieces of color and line that made heads turn and tongues wag. Instead, he kept to simple, clean block letters and went about his day, dropping bon mots that captured the attention of the Downtown art scene as it was taking shape.

In 1982, he exhibited at Fun Gallery in the East Village, bringing his works to canvas, integrating image and text in a wholly new way. Words became an integral part of the work, evocative as the images themselves. Basquiat’s ability to bring the streets indoors, to elevate the raw, unvarnished style of New York life while creating a larger context for the African-American experience was immediately embraced by the predominantly white art world.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Thesis, 1983

His works captured the spirit of the times, invoking the Do-It-Yourself ethos of Hip Hop, punk, and graffiti while going beyond their pop culture appeal, calling out classic American tropes revolving around materialism, wealth, and race with strategic insouciance. His genius could not be denied, though it could be exploited in many ways; Basquiat quickly catapulted to fame, creating a vast body of work before dying of a heroin overdose at the age of 27 in 1988.

Three decades later, his work takes on greater depth and significance, which speaks to the enduring legacy of the depth and profundity of his vision and the greater purpose of art. A new book, Words Are All We Have: Paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat (Hatje Cantz), hones in on the linguistic elements of the artist’s work, focusing on the literary and musical elements that bridge his paintings to the great African-American arts of jazz and Hip Hop. The book provides a sumptuous selection of classic works along with texts by Dieter Buchhart, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Jordana Moore Saggese, Greg Tate, Christian Campbell, and Carlo McCormick.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, CPRKR, 1982

Words Are All We Have is the ultimate study of Basquiat, a portrait of the artist as a poet, a philosopher, and a painter in equal part. The joy of a Basquiat painting is that you not only behold but actively engage. Words mean things—but here their meaning is layered, nuanced, and complex.

Like the best books and paintings, it becomes deeper the more you live. Perhaps one aspect of Basquiat’s genius was his ability to distill the sheer essence of life that the word aims to invoke, yet does not seek to embody its definition so much as its spirit and ghost. Basquiat’s paintings bring to mind the words of Socrates, “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.”

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Now’s the Time, 1985

All artwork: © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / ADAGP, Paris / ARS, New York 2016.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.