basquiat-largeBrooklyn Native, Jean-Michel Basquiat, son of immigrant Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother never anticipated that one day his work would be viewed internationally. At a young age Basquiat’s mother instilled the love of art in him by constantly taking him to museums and enrolling him in art programs. His talent for art was discovered at age 4 by his art teachers in the New York Museums Youth art program. In 10th grade Basquiat dropped out of high school to pursue his love. He began to graffiti buildings in lower Manhattan under the tag line “SAMO” (same old shit). His street art portrays dichotomies comparing social status such as wealth vs. poverty and were heavily influenced by the neo-expressionist and abstract movements. However, his canvas paintings feature more abstracted figures and are deeply autobiographical explorations into his personal life.

As a result of his shift in focus, his canvas artwork explores the themes of mortality, race, self-identity, and religion. A common theme in nearly all of Basquiat’s works are the ideas finding one’s self, and defining individual values while breaking social conventions. By the several different versions of self-portraits that Basquiat has of himself and the use of people of color in his artwork, it is clear to see that he was on a constant search of self-discovery and understanding his race. Through the use of skeletal figures and religious references in his many works of art, his infatuation with these concepts can be viewed. In the piece referred to as “devil,” he plays with the concepts of self-identity and religion simultaneously.

In his untitled painting referred to as “Devil” Basquiat refers to the “devil,” or evils within us all. In his acrylic piece of art, he has an image of a devil like figure hidden behind splatters and streaks of multicolored paint. The horned creature is being masked by the surrounding and overlapping hues of color. The sporadic brushwork draws the viewers’ eyes away from the wicked looking silhouette thus masking its presence.

Baquiat’s artistic choice to cover up the demonic figure is symbolic in a way. The random streaks of paint represent other characteristics that we possess. We choose to let these qualities and parts of our personality be viewed by the world, that’s why he chose for these colors to be prominent in the foreground and can be seen clearly. However, another part of the piece and the main focus of it is the evil looking creature in the background surrounded by color. It symbolizes all the wrong doing, sins, or undesirable things that are also apart of us that we want to conceal. Things such as narcissism, jealous, and insecurities are traits that people possess that they may want to cover up. In this painting Basquait is commenting on human nature and how we define ourselves. It is understood that we all have some faults within us all, but, the choice to let those negative qualities define us or if we strive to be decent people is our decision (Hoffman 74).  In other words, the painting is stating whether or not individuals choose to let their non-admirable traits be viewed by others or whether we choose to mask the parts of ourselves we know aren’t the best.

His work did not just depict his thoughts and views on mortality and self-identity but it also gave insight to his personal life. As a young black male who was used to the ghettos of New York, rarely had support in his passions from others, having no approval from his parents, and somehow rose to great success and fame by his self it is understandable to see why he always questioned who he was and what defined him. Was it his past that defined him, was it his skillfully unique artwork, or was it his success at such a young age that defined him? Being under tremendous personal stress, constantly being in the public eye, and having an international reputation for being a prominent artist led him to develop a heroin dependency. Looking at Basquiat’s artistic style and the characters he draws a viewer of his artwork can see the effects of his personal life shaped his art. On his canvas paintings he uses forceful brush strokes and all of his work is very abstract (Cantz 11). On all of his paintings he uses irregular patches of paint that creates a sense of distress. The erratic streaks of multicolored paint all over the canvas gives an impression that he is experiencing some type of personal issue and is expressing it through it his art. His artistic style of scribbling all over a canvas gives the sense that he may be on some type of hard drug (Cantz 13).

As aforementioned, Basquiat had a past using drugs. However, his drug use ceased when he became friends and co-workers with pop artist Andy Warhol. Together the two combined artistic styles and created paintings that had themes of pop art and abstract art styles. In their collaborative paintings each artists style can be seen. The use of African American characters commonly used by Basquiat is present in his collaboration artwork.

Basquiat’s “Devil” contextualizes his views on life, mortality, and identity. In the artwork Basquiat is commenting on human characteristics and decisions.  The work of art offers insight to the life of the famous artist. His work evolved as he evolved, from street art in lower New York as a teenager, to exhibiting the concepts of self-identity and discovery. As the world began to recognize the talent that he possessed the world also gained insight on his struggles and suffering. The same pain that Basquiat carried throughout his life brought him world fame, riches, and remembered as one of the most influential artist in history also led to his demise. Although he constantly questioned his identity and what defined him as a person in his work it also displayed his life story.


Hoffman, Fred, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jean-Michel Basquiat Drawing: Work from the Schorr Family Collection. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

“Jean-Michel Basquiat A Revolutionary Caught between Everyday Life, Knowledge, and Myth.” Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ostfildern: Hatje/Cantz, 2010. 10-13. Print.