A self-taught artist, he sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets before his paintings first attracted attention under the name "SAMO". Working with a close friend Basquiat tagged subway trains ad Manhattan buildings with cryptic aphorisms.
With no formal training, Basquiat appropriated signs and symbols from a wide variety of cultural sources, from the art of African Bushmen to quotations from Leonardo da Vinci or Gray's Anatomy. He then positioned these in an urban context by using the bright colours and scribbling generally associated with the spray can vandalism commonplace in New York City at the time, particularly on the subway system. In the mid 1980s, Basquiat collaborated with famed Pop artist Andy Warhol.
Basquiat wanted to be both inside and outside of the art world at the same time. By the mid-1980s, friends became increasingly concerned by his excessive drug use. Sadly, he died of a drug overdose on August 12 1988, in New York City. He was 27 years old. "The only thing the [Eighties'] market liked better than a hot young artist was a dead hot young artist, and it got one in Jean-Michel Basquiat." (Robert Hughes)