Basquiat: Guide to Symbols in Paintings

Basquiat: Guia para os Símbolos nas Pinturas | P55 Magazine | p55-art-auctions

From his days working on the streets of Manhattan creating graffiti in the late 1970s to his rise as a contemporary artist and tragic early death in 1988, Jean-Michel Basquiat offers a multitude of symbols and interpretations.Here we will take you through twelve of the most important symbols and their meanings.

SAMO started out as a private joke ofBasquiat and his collaborator Al Diazand graffiti, however it became an important symbol in the later work of Basquiat. It means 'Same Old Shit'. In May 1978, Basquiat and Diaz began tagging Manhattan buildings with the SAMO tag, adding an ironic copyright sign to the motif. Later that year, the duo began using spray paint, attracting attention from the media and even fellow pop artist, Keith Haring. In 1980, having given up on graffiti, Basquiat incorporated this symbol in his works.

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Synonym of the work of Basquiat, the crown has appeared in numerous examples of the artist's paintings, such as "Red Kings" (1981), "Tuxedo" (1983), "King Alphonso" (1982-3) and "Back Of The Neck" (1983).
Generally a central feature of any painting it appears in, there are many different theories about the symbol's meaning. This suggests that Basquiat called himself a 'king' of art? Is it an icon of your ambition to become world famous? Or is it a 'crown of thorns' referencing personal struggle? Nobody knows for sure.
Some think that the three dots on the crown - which form a 'W' - are a reference to Andy Warhol , who was the de facto patron of Basquiat between 1983 and the artist's death in 1988.

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Portrayed in works such as "Grillo" (1984), "Flexible" (1984) and "Gold Griot" (1984), the griot is a West African traditional musician, historian, musician and/or poet.An important part of tradition in this area of the world, the griot as a symbol makes reference to the great interest of Basquiat by black history and culture, as well as their own heritage. Placing African cultural heritage at the center of their distinctively modern practice, references to Basquiat to griots can also be explained as a reflection on his own ability as a dynamic storyteller, using painting as a means of reaching his audience.

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The serpent - a cultural and religious icon found throughout the world - is a recurring feature of the effervescent paintings of Basquiat. Appears in St. Joe Louis Surrounded By Snakes (1982) and the 1983 work Onion Gum. In the last painting, a figure stands on top of an angry-looking human head, holding two snakes in its hands. But what does it mean? Well, it is possible that snakes are a reference to Japanese art, in which they often appear. In the upper right corner of the image, the phrase 'MADE IN JAPAN' is scrawled in capital letters.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

Created in 1983, Ishtar is a large-scale triptych rich with the kind of hieroglyphic symbolism by which Basquiat was well known. In addition to being one of the most renowned works of Basquiat, the piece references Ishtar – the Egyptian goddess of war and mythology – whose name is repeatedly written on the center and right panels of the work. about the interest of Basquiat In Egyptian mythology, Ishtar also appears in the "Untitled (History of the Black People)" triptych, also known as "The Nile" (1983) – a work that explicitly deals with slavery in colonial, American, and Egyptian contexts.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

The 'Warrior' is another key symbol in Jean-Michel's work Basquiat. It appears most clearly in the self-portrait "Warrior" (1982) - a work that the artist described as one of his 'best paintings of all time' - indicates the self-styled emergence of Basquiat as a messianic artist able to combine African, European and American art histories. In the warrior motif, many read references to Benin bronzes, Congolese statues, voodoo dolls, as well as Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART
In what has been interpreted as a reference to his father's Haitian origins, masks and skulls are prominent in the work of Basquiat, appearing in early works such as "Untitled" (1981) — painted when the artist was only 20 years old. They signal voodoo rituals and memento mori – two prominent features of Caribbean-African and European culture and art history. In 2020, one of the head paintings of Basquiat – also titled "Untitled" (1982) – broke an auction record when it went up for auction at Sotheby's, becoming the work of Basquiat more expensive on paper.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

An icon first adopted during the Russian Revolution as a symbol of worker and peasant solidarity, the hammer and sickle has become synonymous with communist movements across the world. appears in the work of Basquiat during 1982, with the diptych Hammer and Sickle (1982), and sketches Untitled (Sword And Sickle) (1982) and Untitled (Hammer And Sickle) (1982). Central to the graphic iconography of the Cold War, the use of this political symbol by Basquiat references geopolitical events and the work of Andy Warhol, who in 1977 created his Hammer And Sickle series.

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A motif reminiscent of childhood toys, the dinosaur appeared in "Snakeman" (1983), by Basquiat, as well as the world famous Pez Dispenser - a simple graphic work produced in 1984. Depicting a dinosaur crowned by the three-pronged crown of Basquiat, the meaning of Pez Dispenser is unclear. With the title of the work referring to a collectible object from American consumer culture – the candy dispenser Pez – some theorize that the dinosaur is part of the desire to Basquiat to produce “suggestive dichotomies”. In this case, it could be argued that it serves to alert viewers to the fatal nature of capitalism.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

In "Flesh And Spirit" (1982-3) - a monumental, altarpiece-like work that takes its name from Robert Farris Thompson's groundbreaking study of African religious tradition, "Flash of the Spirit" (1983) - Basquiat refers to the cosmogram. What is the cosmogram? An important religious symbol for the Kongo people of the Atlantic coast of Africa, it represents many different things, including the cycle of life and one's position within the cosmos, as well as the origin, destiny and projected future of humanity as a whole.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

This oblique symbol appears in the letters of Basquiat, over the 'E' characters with just three horizontal lines. A symbol used by 'Hobos' - itinerant Americans who, by the millions, left their places of origin in search of food and lodging during the Depression era - speaks of a love of coded communication. According to Henry Dreyfuss' Symbol Sourcebook: An Authoritative Guide to International Graphic Symbols (1984), three vertical lines mean: 'this is not a safe place'.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

Last but not least, text is a central feature of the works of Basquiat. He appears in many works, from his series "Anatomy Studies to his well-known play Hollywood Africans In Front Of The Chinese Theater With Footprints Of Movie Stars" (1983). Avoiding its typically descriptive function, in the artistic text of Basquiat assumes poetic, symbolic and indexical qualities. Enigmatic to say the least, the text is often employed as a quasi-baroque device designed to give artworks greater detail and decoration, and to “play” with meaning.

Basquiat | Magazine | P55.ART

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