How Basquiat and Road Artists Left Their Mark on Hip-Hop Tradition
BOSTON – In 1984, 24-year-old Jean-Michel Basquiat had already broken into the mainstream art world. But the former street artist still couldn’t get rid of the legacy of his teenage years of writing graffiti on the streets of New York City – mostly under the nickname “SAMO”, which he often used to criticize the commodification of art.
“There was really no ambition,” Basquiat told interviewer Marc Miller this year in an episode of “ART / new york”, a video series about contemporary art. “That was stuff from a boy’s head, you know what I mean?”
But the artist was not alone in his youthful activities: he was part of a constellation of young graffiti artists who used the streets and subways of New York as canvases before they took both the art world and hip-hop culture by storm . Her work is the subject of “Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation,” an exhibition that runs through July 25 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and shows, like Basquiat and 11 other street artists, most of them of them Black or Latino – Fab 5 Freddy, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Keith Haring, Rammellzee, Toxic, A-One, Kool Koor, ERO, Futura and LA2 – formed the post-graffiti movement in New York in the 1980s.
Working across media, they created paintings, sculptures, films and music – 120 works are on display in the exhibition – that were inspired by the subversive language of hip-hop and mixed elements of expressionism, pop art and their own heritage. By taking their anti-establishment work from the subways and streets to the canvases of the predominantly white art world, they also shaped hip-hop culture and worked with musicians and filmmakers to bring their visions to the international stage .
The post-graffiti movement was “one of the most overlooked but important movements of the second half of the 20th century,” said Liz Munsell, the museum’s contemporary art curator who co-curated the exhibition with writer and musician Greg Tate .
“There was this distinction between street art and fine art,” Munsell added, claiming that graffiti influenced figurative and expressionist painting by artists like Frank Stella and Jenny Holzer in the 1970s and 80s. “We are trying to overcome this limit.”
Given the art world’s attention to how certain white artists influenced Basquiat while he nearly ignored his black contemporaries, his relationships with the other featured artists on the show are also less well known in mainstream art history – a marginalization that Tate attributes to racism.
“The art world is not interested in gathering around the work of these artists, which is so important to the conversation about Jean-Michel,” like his collaboration with Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente, he said. “That emphasis on having a black community, a colored community, was never really emphasized.”
In response to this oversight, Basquiat’s works are only 25 of the 120 works shown in “Writing the Future”, most of which come from private collections, some of them on loan from museums. Eight of these works show Basquiat’s portraits of his colleagues for the first time.
In his 1983 work “Hollywood Africans” Basquiat shows himself, Rammellzee and Toxic, their heads hovering between the words “gangsterism” and “hero.ism”, and represents the way in which black artists and celebrities have been classified in pop culture . But in his standalone 1985 portrait of A-One and another of Fab 5 Freddy from 1983-84, the image of which he drew with a marker on a ceramic plate, he paints the black creators whom he called individuals and talented artists.
“He put her in this long line of black cultural producers and people to be remembered,” Munsell said of the portraits.
Munsell and Tate’s opposition to traditional art historical narratives through the construction of the exhibition is appropriate given how these artists defied the norms of what constituted art and who an artist might be.
Their movement began in train stations and tunnels, where hundreds of teenagers from all over the city – known as “writers” – carried spray cans on walls and subway cars.
Lady Pink painted in block and bubble letters, a sample of which can be seen in her sketchbook shown in the exhibition. In the notebook, she and Quiñones drew the tags of “Rose” and “Zoro”, their respective fictional counterparts, which they portrayed in “Wild Style,” a 1983 film that was hailed as the first hip-hop film and the real one Life featured graffiti writers, rappers and break dancers in and around the Bronx. (A 12-minute excerpt from the film can also be seen in the exhibition.)
But Lady Pink was not only distinguished by her signature tags and large-format subway paintings: She also became the most famous graffiti artist of her generation, an accomplishment that she attributes in part to the risks associated with sneaking into train stations and the evasion is accompanied by the notoriously aggressive Vandal Squad of the transit police.
“That was brutally hard manual labor,” she said. “You had to be very strong and you had to be very brave too.”
The risks became even more acute when Michael Stewart died in 1983, a 25-year-old black man who fell into a coma and later died after traffic officials arrested and brutally beat him for writing graffiti on a subway wall. Stewart’s death inspired Basquiat to write “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart)”, which is not on view in the Boston exhibition but was the centerpiece of an exhibition curated at the Guggenheim in 2019 and curated by Chaédria LaBouvier.
By the time Stewart died, Basquiat and many of the greatest graffiti and street artists had already made their way onto the gallery scene. This move was largely thanks to Fab 5 Freddy – née Fred Brathwaite – who spent his teenage years wandering museums with Basquiat.
“I developed this relationship with the idea of art in the museum context,” said Brathwaite. “There was a whole underground world,” he added, that the art community “didn’t know about. I had the feeling that we could take strategic steps. “
The first was an exhibition in a gallery in Rome in 1979 that showed Brathwaite and Quiñone’s graffiti work on canvases. The interest of the American art business followed, beginning with a groundbreaking exhibition in Times Square in 1980. It was kept in an abandoned bus depot and massage parlor and featured the works of more than 100 other street artists, including Basquiat, Brathwaite, Quiñones, Haring, and Holzer.
Dozens of other national and international shows took place by the mid-1980s. And as the artists rose to prominence in the downtown New York art and club scene, their fame overcame the gallery walls and infiltrated the music and films that documented hip-hop culture.
Basquiat, Brathwaite and Quiñones appeared in the 1981 music video for Blondie’s “Rapture,” which can be seen at the Boston exhibition. And two years later, Style Wars was released, a documentary about the role of graffiti and breakdancing in shaping the city’s burgeoning hip-hop culture. (Excerpts from the film greet visitors to “Writing the Future”.)
For many young post-graffiti artists, the attention – and the money it brought in – came as a surprise.
“We just had fun as kids and then it went down to earth and people started giving us a lot of money to do the same thing we did underground,” said Lady Pink.
But the legacy of their work lives on: Lady Pink and Brathwaite both attribute their generation’s influence to the popularity of contemporary street performers like Banksy.
“They recognized themselves as a powerful force in a movement, but they also recognized that they had a powerful form of mastery,” Tate said. “It stands on its own terms – the galleries never really needed it for that.”