WACKO MARIA x Basquiat: Tokyo Meets Downtown Icon

This Summer, flamboyant Japanese cult label WACKO MARIA have payed homage to the late and great artist Jean-Michel Basquiat on a capsule collection of officially licensed Hawaiian Shirts in collaboration with the state of Basquiat. This follows a trail of recent cultural collaborations from WACKO MARIA which include L.A based artist Neckface, tattooist Tim Lehi and legendary rock band Rage Against The Machine. Iconic artworks featured in the 3 piece collection include imagery from Basquiat’s Italian “1983”, Untitled “1984” and Untitled “Three Kings” paintings. Each Hawaiian Shirt arrives in typical high end WACKO MARIA fashion – crafted from smooth lyocell rayon with a laid back boxy fit, notched lapels, camp collar and crisp white buttons.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, on December 22, 1960 to a Haitian-American father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat’s diverse cultural makeup immersed him into a unique open lifestyle and is one of his many sources of inspiration. Growing as a self-taught artist, Basquiat first began drawing at an young age on sheets of paper his father brought home from his job as an accountant. As he gradually immersed into his creative side, his mother positively encouraged him to pursue his creative talents.

As Basquiat’s interest in other subjects lessened and he became more focused on art, his father threw him out of the house when he dropped out of school at the age of 17 – living on the street meant his diet mainly consisted of cheap red wine and 15¢ bags of Cheetos. When Basquiat was only 19, he starred in Downtown 81. The movie is a view on NYC’s art scene where he plays a version of himself. He was homeless at the time of the movie and slept in the production office for most of the shooting process – the paintings in the movie were also done by him and are among his first canvases.⁣

In the late 70s, Jean-Michel gained initial attention for his graffiti work under the name “SAMO” (Same old shit) in New York City. He sold sweatshirts and postcards featuring his artwork on the streets before his painting career took off, this way of selling art was reminiscent of Keith Haring’s merch in his famous “Pop Shop” on Lafayette Street.

In his earlier works, Basquiat became known for using a specfic crown motif, which was his way of celebrating black people as majestic royalty and picturing them as saints. Artist Francesco Clemente once spoke upon the crown saying: “Jean-Michel’s crown has three peaks, for his three royal lineages: the poet, the musician, the great boxing champion. Jean measured his skill against all he deemed strong, without prejudice as to their taste or age.” Alongside the crown another consistent theme was painting the traumas black people in America faced at the time and his focus on black culture helped bring much needed attention to the lack of diversity in the art world. Basquiat once said “I realized that I didn’t see many paintings with black people in them, so the black person is the protagonist in most of my paintings.”⁣

Basquiat gained intense momentum with his first exhibition — the landmark DIY Times Square Show which opened in June of 1980 in an abandoned massage parlor off Seventh Avenue. This pioneering exhibition also included works from a star studded line up of Keith Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer and Kenny Scharf. In 1982, at the age of 21, he became the youngest artist to ever exhibit at Documenta in Kassel, Germany, when nearly 60 of his paintings were featured at the renowned exhibition which placed him on a global platform.

Basquiat first met legendary artist Andy Warhol whilst dining at a New York restaurant with curator Henry Geldzahler and ending up selling Warhol a couple of his postcards he kept with him. As the two became friends, many speculated the reasons for their unlikely friendship which represented the current state of the art world at that time – Jean-Michel thought he needed Andy’s fame to grow into a respected artist, and Andy believed he required Jean-Michel’s new blood to stay relevant and cool. Basquiat was initially never embraced fondly by the high-art circuit; with his work being rejected by both the Whitney and MoMA. Finding himself separate from the art-world prestige he seemingly also wanted to be a part of – his artistic collaboration with Warhol was seen as way to elevate himself in that same space.

Following surgery complications, Andy Warhol died on 22 February, 1987 – the event struck Basquiat’s health and state of mind, consequently exposing the apparent extent to which Warhol had been his working partner. As Basquiat rose to the peak of his fame, even more opportunities arose for him outside the art world such as being chosen to walk in the iconic Comme des Garçons Homme Plus Spring/Summer 1987 runway show. Over the years, lead designer of CDG Rei Kawakubo had become known for overthrowing trends of the day with wild casting practices and forward thinking designs which helped pushed the label to cult status.

Basquiat’s heroin use would famously be his downfall, despite attempting to get clean on an escape trip to Hawaii, he died from an overdose when he was only 27 years old, joining the elusive 27 club. Subsequently this further catapulted his art and elusive legacy, creating one of the most sought out collections of art in the world. In 2017 his Untitled 1982 piece sold for $110.5 million, placing it as the sixth most expensive piece of artwork in history. “I’m not a real person. I’m a legend,” Basquiat once claimed. His name and unique personal style have become immortalized in culture and have become frequent reference points globally.

The WACKO MARIA x Jean-Michel Basquiat capsule collection for SS20 is online now.