He would have been 50 years old today.

Though he died entirely too early in 1988 at age 27—heroin is a serious drug—Jean-Michel Basquiat‘s impact endures. Whether its due to his graffiti-writing roots (SAMO!), his rebel ethos or just his ability to be immensely prolific in the scant few years he was painting, Basquiat has been embraced by the hip-hop generation like few other fine artists. According to art collector/producer Swizz Beatz, he and Reebok are planning a huge “I Am Basquiat” campaign. Jay-Z and others have dropped Basquiat’s name in rhymes. Two decades after his death, he’s still revered and admired.

His popularity is not hard to understand actually. Charisma and pure talent always get recognized at some point. Films such as Downtown 81, Basquiat (starring Jeffrey Wright), and  Tamra Davis‘s documentary Jean-Michel Basquiat: Radiant Child have all helped us to understand his work and creative process as well as the pressures he faced as an emerging flyboy in the buttermilk of NYC’s ’80s art scene.

In fact, Basquiat friend and contemporary Fab 5 Freddy opens and closes the Davis documentary with beautiful readings of this Langston Hughes poem:

This is a song for the genius child.
Sing it softly, for the song is wild.
Sing it softly as ever you can—
Lest the song get out of hand.

Nobody loves a genius child.

Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?

Nobody loves a genius child.

Kill him—and let his soul run wild.”

The words, haunting yet tragic, speaks to how Basquiat’s spirit perhaps found ultimate freedom in death. Thankfully, we still have his many paintings to enjoy. In 2005, the Brooklyn Museum hosted a major exhibition of his work. A great resource of information, images of his work are still available online, including the interactive feature “Street to Studio”. Some of the exhibit’s featured pieces are in the slideshow below.

Happy Birthday, Jean-Michel.

Basquiat

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Jean-Michel Basquiat in his studio, 1985. Photograph © Lizzie Himmel

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