CI: Crimes of Style ~ Jean-Michel Basquiat

February 13, 2013 at 6:59 pm by: nancy a heitzeg Category: Anti-Racism, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, Criminal Injustice Series, Intersectionality, Prison Industrial Complex

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Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.

                  Crimes of Style ~ Jean-Michel Basquiat
by nancy a heitzeg


“Most Young Kings Get Their Heads Cut Off…”
Jean-Michel Basquiat, (December 22, 1960 – August 12, 1988)

crown 4

There are 20 trillion pieces of text, 30 trillion more numbers to be deployed in the illumination of criminal injustice. And so, every week we do.

Sometimes, however, it is simply best to let the artists have their say- with brushes, with paint, with exploding imagery. To let them distill that universe of trouble onto the canvass.

Just bring it, as Basquiat himself would say,

Boom! For real.”


Defacement (the Death of Michael Stewart), 1983

There is much to be said about Jean-Michel Basquiat, but all is found in One Word: Juxtaposition.

Black /White.

Street SAMO© /Elite Galleries.

Justice/then, Not.

His work emerged from the margins where “crime meets style” , from the era when those who wrote on the walls could be called artists too, not just “vandals” or “gangsters”.  Even as he rose to Icarus-like super-stardom, Basquiat never lost sight of the price paid by others just like him. Or of the fine and shrinking line between expression and criminalization.

Defacement, depicted above, denotes the death of fellow graffitist Michael Stewart who was beaten to death by New York City Transit Police, after his arrest for wall writing in the subway. Part of a larger effort at the criminalization of burgeoning hip-hop subculture and all of the threat of unfettered young blackness. Certainly expanding “crimes of style” has only escalated, as often brutal “broken windows” policing has extended far past graffiti to the realms of  “sagging pants.”

Race/racism, blackness/whiteness was always central. Basquiat continually explored the power and peril of “Blackness” through of  images of Pride, Persecution and Perseverance – from slavery to the New World griots to the forgotten Delta blues, to Jim Crow, to the hazardous of negotiating persistent white power structures in  art and life, sports and law .

The Irony of Negro Policeman – who wears for a hat, the Cage – exemplifies it. Even now.


See Christopher Dorner.

That is All.

ironyIrony of Negro Policeman, 1981

The aesthetic son of Andy Warhol and the graffiti style sibling of Keith Haring, Basquiat is literally/figuratively buried between them, undone, too soon, by despair, drugs and yes, racism. In a final irony, the work that he once feared dis-counted now continues to be exhibited at over-flow shows and sold for more than $16 million per painting at elite art house auctions.

More important, for our purposes at least, is the continued relevance of the social commentary found in his work. It is both tragedy and testament to his vision that the themes of justice/injustice remain. Barely changed. And yes, the work still calls us to remedy the same.

Another Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, then.

Boom! For real.”

crown 4


I really don't like that this man was killed by the Transit Police, because it gives them a bad name all over the country. I also think that, even though this was a Subway, in New York, why weren't the actual police called to bring him in for an arrest. Another thing that I don't like about this case is that this young man will never have a true trial, and justice will never truly be served because, first of all he is dead, and second, he was black. I really don't like the double standards that people have against those that have been violently killed, or those that are a different color. Another thing that I don't like, is that this happened just because he was creating art, granted it wasn't in a studio, but who actually has the money for a studio, or supplies to be able to work in a studio these days? But my point, is, is that this was a young artist, who was just trying to create a name for himself. And now his art is worth tons of money, is a little ironic. It's as if, people have to die in order to be understood, or respected for what they brought to this world. It's not when these people were living that they were able to create a name for themselves, but it's after they are gone, and others look back at what they have done for the world.


It seems that street artisits are often on the edge of social justice, makes me consider who the message is for and who actually hears it.  The irony is wondering how many of the wealthy patrons now buying up this body of work actually hear the message.


That said I'v always loved street art

Bob Phillips
Bob Phillips

Thanks for this, Nancy. The art is magnificent. Provocative. Yet it brings me face to face with very mixed emotions about the medium. There is much beautiful wall art in my neighborhood, and too many gang signs and the like as well. Very mixed emotions.


@naheitzeg Read it. Loved it. Tweeted it out. Thank you for writing it.


Thankyou Nancy..  always learning here..


Lovely, thanks, Nancy. There is something appropriate about soothsayer asking us to look at Basquiat's art.  My daughters and I stopped in one day at the museum and it was the last day of a Basquiat exhibit.  It was very emotional.  The work is so three-dimensional, photos cannot do it justice.    


This:  "the fine and shrinking line between expression and criminalization."


Thanks for this, Nancy.  Cultural forms of expression are critical to the struggle.



nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

Genius Child

 ~ Langston Hughes


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 a monster Of frightening name?


Nobody loves a genius child.


Kill him - and let his soul run wild.


@prisonculture Thank you. Please me know what CI can do - if anything -- to try to shake people form this damn deja vu

nancy a heitzeg
nancy a heitzeg

 @Sberel thank you :) yes it is so emotional -- glad you got to see in person

thanks for stopping sberel


I also meant to say that cultural expression brings us face to face with humanity and inhumanity.  It erases distance. 


 @nancy a heitzeg Hey Nancy! Yet another fine piece. One of my favorite musicians, Michelle Shocked, wrote a powerful song about Michael Stewart 25 years ago called "Graffiti Limbo". She maintains that Michael Stewart was strangled to death, and the coroner lost the evidence (his eyes), so the cops were found not guilty. Unfortunately, she pulled most of her stuff off youtube recently, but here is part of the song she reworked last year:


 @nancy a heitzeg I haven't believed them for most of my life. The new CoP, Charlie Beck, is the first top LAPD cop that I actually respect and like, though. The racist LAPD culture goes bone deep, though, and isn't going to go away anytime soon, imo.



 @nancy a heitzeg 


Wow, she added a couple of verses that aren't on the album::


Lay down your burdens Lay down your cares

The Holy Virgin, She's gonna greet you up there

With a big can of spray paintWith a big blank wall

And I can guaran-damn tee ya

There ain't no cops around at all

Graffiti Limbo Where do you go?

Graffiti Limbo When there ain't no justice


I only speak for myself

But the word around town

Is that something's shakingIn the underground

I only speak for myself But the word on the street

Is that the writing's on the wall

And the cop's on the beat

I wrote this song for a man named Michael Stewart

A young black man arrested while writing graffiti

On a subway wall in New York City

And while under arrest,

surrounded by eleven white transit cops

Michael Stewart was strangled to death


And when his case went to court

Not one cop was found guilty

Because the coroner lost the evidence


You see, in order to determine

That Michael Stewart was strangled to death

The coroner had to use Michael Stewart's eyeballs

His eyes, as evidence So now when I tell you

That it was Michael Stewart's eyes

That the coroner lost, do you know what I mean

When I tell you that justice is blind?


You can have your little Style Wars

You can keep your little dance

But those crazy writers

Don't stand a ghost of a chance

It's, "Color them Cons", Mayor Koch said

Call it a crime It's steer clear of the engineer

Of the midnight special line



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