Downtown NYC in the late 70's and early 80's was a cultural hotbed of intersecting new genres of music, art and life. It was a time when epochal shifts that now frame contemporary popular culture were taking place.
Punk, metal and rock were breaking creative and aesthetic barriers downtown and showing people that anyone could be in a band. At the same time, a cultural aesthetic is flowering uptown in the streets of Harlem and the basements of the South Bronx: rap, graffiti, and breakin’ - the roots of hip-hop culture.
These new ideas and territories of self-expression created a new modern platform for fashion and cultural expression. One that Jean-Michel (and separately Shawn Stüssy) thrived on and drove their inspiration to create.
Looking into the life of JMB - it's evident that he was a gifted from an early age. His father Gerard recalls 'He was always so bright, absolutely an unbelievable mind …. He drew and painted all of his life from the time he was three or four years old”.
In May 1969, at the age of 7, while playing ball in the street, Basquiat was hit by an automobile. He breaks an arm, suffers various internal injuries, and has to have his spleen removed. He is hospitalized at King’s County Hospital for one month.
While recovering, he receives a copy of Gray’s Anatomy from his mother. The book makes a lasting impression; its influence is found in Basquiat’s later work with anatomical drawings and prints and in the name of the band he co-founded in 1979, Gray.
One can only imagine a scared little boy, sitting in a hospital bed for one month with no tv and just some books - having to fill his time with reading and doodling. Was this the point in which Basquiat may have first drawn the S thing in his notebooks? I'd like to think so but we will never know.
What we do know for certain is that JMB knew the cultural significance of the 'S' symbol. Basquiat's art focused on dichotomies such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience. He appropriated poetry, drawing, and painting, and married text and image, abstraction, figuration, and historical information mixed with contemporary critique. He used social commentary in his paintings as a tool for introspection and for identifying with his experiences in the Black community, as well as attacks on power structures and systems of racism. His visual poetics were acutely political and direct in their criticism of colonialism and support for class struggle.
After some extensive research we have uncovered at least 16 works of Basquiat that contain the 'S' thing. In his work 'Untitled (olive oil) 1982' - JMB has included a very clear and distinct S thing and possibly given us a clue as to his interpretation of it by labelling it 'S = Classic S Of Graff'.
Untitled 'Olive Oil' 1982
'The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Derelict' Triptych
Charles the First, 1982
Untitled - All Colored Cast
Unitited - All Colored Cast I
'Kings of Egypt III'
'6 Months' 1987
The Ankle 1982
Limited Edition 'Drawings' Book
In 1982, given graffiti was being born and the S relatively new on any scene - did Basquiat understand something we didn't; did he have some innate understanding of how this simple symbol was about to become a catalyst for creation and expressionism for a youthful generation? Was he simply replicating what he saw on the streets or was he perhaps instigating it's popularity?
Al Diaz - Beyond the Streets Brooklyn 2019 - Photo by Martha Cooper.
In order to find some clarity to this we turned to one of Jean-Michael's closer friends - Al Diaz. Basquiat first achieved fame as part of the graffiti duo SAMO, alongside Al Diaz, writing enigmatic epigrams in the cultural hotbed of Manhattan's Lower East Side during the late 1970s. After being blown away by the Beyond the Streets 2019 NYC Graffiti and Street Art Exhibition - which featured Al Diaz / SAMO - I took the opportunity to reach out to Al to get some insight into his views of the S:
''It’s an iconic street-ism. Kids found it challenging to imitate. JMB used all sorts of ubiquitous symbols found in the street and street culture. (Crown) SAMO was always as it appears now. Block print. Never any variation.
The majority of the as you put it PEOPLE who used that S were kids drawing it on sidewalks using chalk''
So whilst we see many of his works that include the S, it is evident that Basquiat did not invent the S, he was instead giving his interpretation and commentary on what he already saw in the streets. Why this is important is because to this day, this is a first public use of the symbol from an artist and in-theory it was being represented for what it still is today - an important symbol of self expression, intertwining itself amongst brand new cultures of graffiti, street art, music and life; a symbol with huge or little meaning, depending on who you ask - The CLASSIC S OF GRAFF.