The surreal graffiti-poetry of Jean-Michel Basquiat

SAMO, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s early alter ego, once wrote ‘graffiti is a poem the city writes to itself’. Though he’s best known for his iconic grafitti art – which sort of blends 80 neon, cave/wall art and tiki masks – his origin you might say was words. SAMOs words plastered and invigorated the New York city streets of the late 70s. Dwindling democracy, rife racial discrimination, violent capitalism and rampant poverty.. these topics were the rocket fuel to his booming creative engine. His words, like his art, were simple and yet pierced to the bone, they grappled with the deeper, underlying truths which were not to be found anywhere else. They made the unspoken not only visible, but beautiful. though already well on his way to the history books and stardom, in 1980 he was befriended by Andy Warhol who immediately saw his artistic genius and even bought some of his work.. Basquiat was made. Later he would collaborate with Warhol, though Warhol himself, one of the most iconic artists who ever lived, was disconcerted by just how easily his own work became lost, drowned out and utterly overshadowed when put anywhere near the sheer aesthetic immensity, originality and gravitational pull of Basquiat’s art. Jean-Michel died tragically of a drug overdose at just 27, but he was prolific, and created thousands of sketches, and hundreds of larger paintings which continue to hold great power and significance.

Below is a series of fragments taken from Basquiat’s early notebooks (ed. Larry Warsh), which I’ve rearranged to make a series of poems. Many of the words and phrases appear again and again in his grafitti/art/poetry – a hoard of words and images that he cut and pasted here and there, not unlike that method used by William Burroughs, an author who he greatly admired. Many of the phrases in the books are crossed out, and it is not known for certain why.. It could have been that he did not like these fragments, or maybe because he had already used them out on the streets. If the latter is true he’d have been something like an 80s NY version of Wordsworth: wandering about with his notepad and spraycans, jotting down ideas and poetic fancies as he went about on his odyssey, through streets thrumming and overflowing with energy and vibrancy. A sense-blitz, in which his creative mind was set alight by the scenes all around him. Many of these fragments, as you’ll see, are so vivid and poetic they could easily have come straight out of the pages of the Beat poets. They’re simple, raw and cut to the core. Here is

 

((___POEMZ“__by____Basquiat©____))

***

THE DREAM WILL NEVER DIE

ACCEPT THE REALITY OF LIVING

RUSHED INTO A LIMO BY SECRET SERVICE

IN A FRONTAL ATTACK

***

MILLING IN THE CROWD

TODAY HE ADMITTED TO BEING FOOLISH

RAN INTO THE TRAIN TO BEAT OUT THE FLAMES

THEY HAD TO

THEY FALLEN ASLEEP AND WERE INHALING THE SMOKE

SLIGHT CRACK IN THE GAS LINE

***

EMPTY AND MISRABLE

THIS LIFE IS AN OPEN SORE FESTERING

BRICK RUINS

TOMB HOLLOW MORTURARIES

VOICES OF AUTHORITY MAKE MAJOR CLAIMS

OTHERS   FROM THE EAST

GATHER AROUND THEM

SHO…

***

THE BAR WAS REALLY RED WITH CHINESE PAPER CUTOUTS

AND WOOD PANELING

THERE WAS A GLASS ARGUMENT AT THE POOL TABLE

IN THE BACK

“THAT’LL BE EIGHTY CENTS POP”

6 OR 7 OLD PUGS IN FELT

SHE LOOKED LIKE A VILLAN FROM TERRY AND THE PIRATES

***

I FEEL LIKE A CITIZEN

IT’S TIME TO GO AND

 

COME BACK A DRIFTER

***

LEAPSICKNESS

THE LAW OF LIQUIDS

THAT THORN IN MY HEAD NAGGING

MY FISTS CLOSED

VICTIMS OF EMBELLISHED HISTORY

THE SPORES FLOATED ON EVERTHIN

***

COLONIES OF BLACK RODENTS

FAKE SANDPAPER

SLEDGEHAMMER EYES

ROAD DINER

PLAY THE PART FOR HIS OWN REASONS

***

A MARBLE IN A SHOTGLASS

AFTER BREAKFAST HE STEALS A WALLET

FROM DAY OLD DRUNK ON SATURDAY MORNING—–

KERNELS OF CORN AS A FINAL OFFER FOR DEFECTIVE RIFLES

***

A YOUTH WITH “CROW” SYNDROME:

(AN ATRACTION TO SHINY OBJECTS)

SEES THE STONE AROUND HER NECK

FAT MONKEY

***

THE JIG IS UP

SO SAY GOODBYE TO THE NIGHTMARE

ON AUTOMATIC PILOT

***

FLICK OF THE WRISK

JAPANESE ARCHITECTS

AREA CODE OF ST. LOUIS

***

HE WAS PASTY WHITE

NO HE WAS SWARTHY, DARK AND SEXY—

NO HE WAS PASTY WHITE X—

***

A PRAYER

NICOTINE WALKS ON EGGSHELLS

MEDICATED

THE EARTH WAS FORMLESS VOID

DARKNESS

FACE OF THE DEEP

SPIRIT MOVED ACCROSS THE

WATER AND THERE WAS LIGHT

“IT WAS GOOD”©

BREATHING INTO HIS LUNGS

2000 YEARS OF ASBESTOS.

***

 

 

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