From baseball to football, from boxing to Jesse Owens. In Basquiat’s socio-artistic reflections, sport has always been a protagonist.

A curious stroll in the streets of New York. Some appreciation to the girls you meet, a handshake with a friend, a nod to the neighborhood drug dealer. A fit of creative hysteria branded SAMO© in one of the endless empty spaces of the Big Apple. An apparently ordinary, common existence. In that SAMO©, however, there is something special: it is not only “SAMe Old shit”, it is not the trivial tag of some writer. It is an artistic fury at the limits of obsessiveness, the pictorial scream of someone who gives voice to his inner demons. It’s the essence of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the trait d’union between artistic dynamism dominated by his own instincts and the static nature of daily routine.

Basquiat’s childhood was turbulent: his parents divorced when he was only a teenager, his mother was often a hostage in psychiatric institutions and his father was violent. Jean-Michel, endowed with an extremely sensitive personality, runs away from home and begins to wander the streets of New York. Basquiat has the great capacity to absorb everything that surrounds him, storing concepts and ideas that he later transfers in his works. One of the greatest sources of inspiration for the New York artist is sport, an element strongly rooted in contemporary American culture.

For the African American community, of which Basquiat himself is a part, sport is something that goes beyond entertainment or being a pro. It has been one of the first vehicles able to give global visibility to a community as numerous as it is oppressed and rarely heard. “Famous Negro Athletes” is one of the first works where Basquiat’s artistic genius merges with the sporting universe. The series of artwork, which initially began as graffiti, is subject to a dual interpretation.

The works are characterized by essential and decisive traits, a frenetic succession of lines that build easily recognizable elements such as a baseball, the famous three-pointed crown, human faces white, black or both colors. The colours have a very precise meaning: in the half-white and half-black face there is social denunciation, the will to highlight how Afro people are considered equal to white people only after sporting success. The baseball symbol could be interpreted as a criticism of sport as the only means of emancipation: art and managerial or political careers are still a mirage in the eighties.

“I do not care if you like me. I just want you to respect me like you do with other people.”

Jackie Robinson found in baseball the stage to express his ideas and demonstrate the strength of the black community, becoming the second baseman of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s. Basquiat dedicates “Untitled” to Jackie, one of his most famous sports-themed works. Robinson is a true icon for the young artist of Haitian and Puerto Rican origins, and in “Untitled” his figure is sanctified by the presence of the audience formed by angels in adoration of the Dodger and the iconic crown. Basquiat is fascinated by baseball, a team sport in which the individual has enormous possibilities to decide the fate of the match. Robinson here is not only the first African-American player to play in the MLB means to represent change, but is a sort of Christ for the African-American sporting universe. Justice, equality, fraternity. Catholic values are interesting keys to understand the choice of Jackie Robinson as the main subject of Basquiat’s work.

Jean-Michel is a true experimenter: works of art and everyday objects find new life after being filtered by the creative genius of Basquiat. “Anti-product Baseball Cards” is a project realized in collaboration with Jennifer Stein aimed at revolutionizing and reinventing a mass product such as baseball cards. The faces and biographies of the players are completely erased, giving a curious anonymous charm to every single card. A barely recognizable Steve Henderson thus becomes “Joe”, while “Jerk” is probably Bob Randall. The athletes’ loss of identity is the key step in transforming a simple card into a non-product, a unique work of art derived from commercial seriality.

Fight to defend your honor. Step into the ring to demonstrate your strength and earn the respect of society. Boxing was one of the first sports where athletes were able to use their triumphs in order to raise awareness and alert public opinion. Basquiat is fascinated by the great boxers able to defeat two opponents such as racism and social injustice. In 1981 he created “The Ring”, a work in which Basquiat himself is represented inside the triumphant ring. The arms to the sky in victory seem to exalt the artistic and social success of the artist.

Basquiat’s heroes coincide with the idols of African-American culture. Heroes who have defeated racism with their gloves like Cassius Clay, Jack Johnson, Sugar Ray Robinson or Jersey Joe Walcott. They are the inspiring muses and protagonists in Basquiat’s works. Contrary to most of his paintings characterized by a sort of orderly hysteria, the works dedicated to the great boxers of the past are surprisingly essential: only a few decisive strokes that make up a close-up of the athlete, suggestive visual hagiographies that make immortal their sporting and human feats.

Basquiat’s art has an obvious and deep connection to boxing itself. Brushstrokes as decisive as a jab, social messages that hit as hard as a powerful right hand to the hip. Jean-Michel is the promise of artistic boxing worldwide and who but the great artist and friend Andy Warhol could represent the perfect challenger for the rising star of world art? During the preparation for an important exhibition in which their works were exhibited, the two artists organized a fake boxing show in which Warhol seemed ready to test all the artistic strength of the young Basquiat. This fantasy match has given rise to a series of incredible shots, images that are able to capture the essence of boxing, art and friendship between Andy and Jean-Michel.

Jesse Ownes is one of the first athletes able to accelerate the process of social equality. In 1936, the “ebony bolt” born in Oakville participated in the Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens, an African-American athlete, ruined Hitler’s plans by climbing the top step of the podium in four different specialties, shattering every record. The physical power demonstrated during the Olympics, in a historical period when the concept of race was still well rooted worldwide, could only inspire Jean-Michel Basquiat for the creation of “Dark Race Horse”. The work, created on a black background, represents an anatomical detail of Jesse Owens: the foot capable of defeating Nazi propaganda.

Sports and pop culture are known to be two of the biggest influences in Basquiat’s work. In the American sports universe, the most followed league is the NFL: the National Football League. The New York-based artist is attracted to a specific element of this sport, the helmet: the helmet that every player carries in their sporting battle. “Untitled (Football Helmet)” plays on two opposite concepts: on the one hand, the athletic power of African Americans expressed in every match, on the other hand we find the vulnerability and the need to be protected from racist ideas still present in society.

The artistic, cultural and social heritage that Jean-Michel Basquiat left behind is boundless and priceless. During the 2020-2021 season, the NBA franchise Brooklyn Nets have decided to unite the two most important and influential hemispheres of the famous Long Island neighborhood: art and basketball. Basquiat’s style is strongly recognizable both on the floor of the Barclays Center, the Nets’ home arena, and in their “city edition” uniforms. NBA star and Nets leader Kevin Durant recently said he sees Basquiat as a great source of inspiration: “I want to see how he got to that point mastering his craft”. There is an indissoluble bond between Basquiat and sport. The athletes represented in his works are more than just athletes, they are often considered real gods. An artistic and sporting polytheism that Jean-Michel has tried to recreate in his works both to glorify their successes and to continue the battle of the African-American community against racism and social inequality. His art, like the medals achieved by the athletes he portrays, is simply immortal.

Text by: Filippo Vianello