Born and raised in Brooklyn, an anchor of contemporary art, Jean Michel-Basquiat used to sign his pieces SAMO©. The alias originally stood for “same old shit.” SAMO© was Basquiat’s first art project. He started it with artist Al Diaz, whom he met in high school, and artist Shannon Dawson. The group dominated the New York City graffiti movement in the ’70s and ’80s. They mainly painted SoHo and the Lower East Side with maxims about “THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE,” “MASS MEDIA MINDWASH” and the drudgery of “9-5, WENT 2 COLLEGE, NOT 2NITE HONEY BLUES.” They told jokes and issued their frustrations with contemporary society. Short and biting, maybe childish, their graffiti covered politics, religion and pop culture, even the surge of artists into SoHo, in the vein of the angsty teen. Basquiat and Diaz inspired copycat artists and pervaded the culture of their canvas, which was starting to retire punk by the end of the ’70s. Self-described concept artist Henry Flynt, who photographed several of the group’s messages, wrote an essay describing the cultural milieu of New York at the time: “The so-called avant-garde had become a formidable, lucrative, orthodox institution—in which supercilious barrenness was the reigning fashion. By the end of the Seventies, Punk broadened into a crossover culture called New Wave. The Seventies narcissists began to metamorphose into Yuppies.” (Slideshare, “Viewing SAMO©,” 1993/1997.)
Wall Street’s bull market started pouring money into New York art in the early 1980s. Art dealers rose in power, and auction houses inflated prices; young Basquiat used SAMO© to address these changes. Later on in his career, Basquiat would become the star of this newly commercialized art world. (In keeping with Andy Warhol’s philosophy, some careerism was necessary to be a successful artist at the time.) SAMO© ended after Basquiat and Diaz had a falling-out in early 1980, a finale as famous as the project itself. The former started painting “SAMO© IS DEAD” on buildings in downtown Manhattan and SoHo art galleries. Meanwhile, he was energetically making connections with Warhol and prolific pop and graffiti artist Keith Haring. The MoMA P.S.1 Gallery in Queens featured his work. He frequented the now-famous Mudd Club, which also functioned as a gallery. He continued using the pen name until his solo career took off in the mid-80s. He went clubbing frequently, but painted incessantly, and got rich in about a year.
Award-winning producers Barbara and Alan D. Marks (of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Encounter”) will present an artistic near-antipode to Basquiat’s debut: an original Broadway musical. Having received an okay from the late artist’s estate, the project is set to feature music and lyrics from Jon Batiste of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Tony Award-winning director John Doyle, famous for his productions of “Sweeney Todd” and “The Color Purple,” will direct the show. The production crew will have ready access to Basquiat’s art and personal archives. The show is in capable hands, and popularizing the subject’s story is valuable: Viewers are in for a tale about the creative process, Blackness in America, addiction and the toxicity of the commercial art world. Basquiat’s sisters Lisane and Jeanine have also expressed excitement for the project, stating, “[O]ur interest was piqued once we understood that [the Marks’] approach to telling our brother’s story treats his life, his art, and his legacy with respect and passion.” (Artnet News, “The Tragic Life Story of Jean-Michel Basquiat Is Going to Become a Major Broadway Musical,” 09.26.2018)
Basquiat had a tumultuous life, to say the least. He died of a heroin overdose at 27 years old; after working for only about a decade, he reached unprecedented levels of fame as a painter but sagged completely into addiction. The art industry predated on like creators. However, Basquiat had known displacement since childhood. He had problems. A flock of art dealers attended his funeral. The week following his death, appraisers taking inventory in his loft found over 1,000 works he had hidden from such dealers (Warhol had advised him to do so).
It takes a kind of bravery to tackle Basquiat-era New York through a musical; at the same time, it is easy to mythicize something as crazy as his life, as beautiful, horrific and intense as his experiences and art. Al Diaz told Dazed Magazine of the SAMO© graffiti, “What we were doing was more like Greco-Roman graffiti, making commentaries on the world around us and that set us aside.” Upon first thought, a Broadway show seems contrary to the anti-establishment angst that characterized the graffiti and resounded in much of Basquiat’s professional work. Hopefully, Basquiat on Broadway will approach his story with attitudes similar to those of the SAMO© group—not solely as entertainment, but as something about tragedy and creative excellence.