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Basquiat was an intellectual, and his work extends beyond graffiti. His art was a tool for personal development as well as a commemoration of African American history and a protest against the social and political situation of the United States. Numerous cultural references and symbols—painted, drawn, and written—cover the surfaces of his canvases.

Until his untimely death at age 27, Basquiat lived an intense life. He frequented the creative and social circles of New York City in the 1980s, and he personally and professionally interacted with artists such as Keith Haring (b. 1958, Reading, Pennsylvania; d. 1990, New York) and Andy Warhol (b. 1928, Pittsburgh; d. 1987, New York).

Sociopolitical context

The works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a New Yorker of Haitian and Puerto Rican descent, contain layers of information about social issues, such as racial discrimination and civil rights, which are still relevant today.

The artist was extremely interested in African American history, from the slave trade that was fully established by the seventeenth century to the great migration from the southern states to New York and Chicago that began in the first half of the twentieth century. Persistent racism gave rise to a peaceful battle, led by Martin Luther King Jr., to win civil rights for the black population. During The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, King gave his emblematic “I Have a Dream” speech. You may listen to an excerpt of the speech in Gallery 305.

During the 1960s and ’80s, the Black Power movement called for the black population to unite, not to integrate. Basquiat defended these ideas in his work and criticized the abuses of power committed by authorities, even depicting several scenes of police violence in his artwork, such as The Death of Michael Stewart (1983). He also glorified the role of prominent black people in culture and sports, portraying them as heroes.

The Rev. Martin Luther King
waves greeting to huge crowd at Washington D.C., August 28, 1963.
Getty Images. New York Daily News Archive.

The history of grafiti

Basquiat began his career as a young man in New York City, producing conceptual graffiti art with his friend Al Diaz under the pseudonym SAMO.

The word “graffiti” is used to describe a writing or drawing made in a public space. Even during the time of the Roman Empire, incisions and paintings with critical and satirical messages were drawn in highly visible places. Predominately anonymous writings, graffiti was used to transmit messages with diverse aims, and the practice is still used today.

Between 1971 and 1974 graffiti began to appear in New York as a branch of the hip-hop movement: at first, in the Washington Heights area (TAKI 183) and, later, in Brooklyn (Friendly Freddie) and the Bronx (Super-Kool 223 and Lee 163). Although the distances in New York are considerable, the city’s subway served as a perfect backdrop to draw graffiti and as a communication system between graffiti artists. The size and thickness of the letters, the typography, the style, a name, a concrete object, or a specific spray paint were all unmistakable trademarks. In the following years, the city’s ban on graffiti proved ineffective and coincided with intense artistic activity in the subways.

Artists like Futura 2000 (b. 1955, New York) sought new horizons, new channels to present their art. At the end of the 1970s, Lee Quiñones (b. 1960, Ponce, Puerto Rico) and Fab 5 Freddie (b. 1959, New York) began to exhibit their work in Roman galleries and, at the beginning of the 1980s, in New York spaces like Patti Astor’s Fun Gallery.

Along with graffiti, they performed other types of interventions in public spaces and in the subway, such as the drawings and posters created by Basquiat’s friend and artist Keith Haring. Both roamed the city’s streets, leaving their artistic mark with written messages and collecting objects they would then use in their respective works.

Via dell’Abbondanza, Ponpeia, Italia (I. mendea).
Getty Images. RM Editorial.

Subway riders head for work on dirty,
graffiti covered train in New York (80s).
Getty Images. New York Daily News Archive.

Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now´s the time.
Museo Guggenheim Bilbao 2015.

Discover the important influences, people, places and objects in the life and work of Basquiat.


Photographs and writing

In many of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s works we find references to music, words and collage. Images of people and objects combine with the actual names of people, places and other written words, often making up lists. Writing and images were hugely important for Basquiat.

That’s why an activity combining writing and photography can be found in gallery 301 of the exhibition. Every day, from 11 am to 2 pm, visitors explain their feelings on observing Basquiat’s work, putting it down in writing. The words they choose identify them, and they can be snapped, individually or in a group, using a Polaroid camera from the period (the 80s). Finally, they can either leave the words they write and their picture in the gallery, or they can take it all home with them as a souvenir of their visit to the Museum.


Jean-Michel Basquiat. Now´s the time.
Museo Guggenheim Bilbao 2015.

The relevance of music

Music was an important part of Basquiat’s life and work. Of African and Caribbean ancestry, he was passionate about experimenting with rhythms. Musical references occasionally appear in his works and titles with allusions to composers, such as Beethoven and his symphony Eroica. In 1979, Basquiat formed his own band, Gray—defined by a strong industrial sound—with the writer and multidisciplinary artist Michael Holman. The name Gray pays tribute to an anatomy book published by Henry Gray in 1950, which Basquiat frequently reread.

Basquiat had a predilection for improvised, high-speed bepop jazz, and pieces by Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were references for him. Charlie Parker’s 1945 number “Now’s the Time”, inspired Basquiat’s piece of the same name, Now’s the Time (1985), the title chosen for the Museum exhibition. He was also interested in the frenzied, eclectic rhythms of the seventies and eighties, such as the incipient rap of the hip-hop movement. In fact, in 1983 he produced and designed the cover of the Rammellzee vs K-Rob album entitled Beat Bop, and designed the cover of the first album by The Offs (1984).

You can listen to part of Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time here.

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