Last week we took our kids to see the intensely rich and cogent Jean-Michel Basquiat retrospective Boom for Real at The Barbican Art Gallery.
Once inside the darkened, hushed upstairs spaces, I embarked on a whispered, abridged explanation in room 1 that “J-MB was an NY boy with a love of street art and jazz, who created a graffiti tag for himself; SAMO©. He went on to become an incredibly famous, and wealth artist in his short life.
Darcy (4), enthralled already by the children’s gallery quiz sat down on the floor to fill in the boxes. Will (17), media studies student, nonchalant, but clearly thinking it’s all pretty cool wanders off by himslef. George (9), soccer and sport-mad-in-general, sticks close, but turns his attention to the shot of the artist on the exhibition’s programme cover – Edo Bertoglio’s photograph of ‘Jean Michel Basquiat wearing American Football helmet’.
Basquiat clearly had a thing for football helmets; possibly utilising their skull-like quality as a thematic, perhaps an extension of his obsession for Gray’s Anatomy (book not TV series) and death symbols in general. The one featured in the shot has a significance we are led to understand.
The name, ‘AARON, painted on the front below his (clever) signature crown device, refers to Hank Aaron (although actually a Baseball player), and is undoubtedly a commentary on the contribution African Americans have made to US popular culture. The roughly daubed ‘livery’ on the shell is that of the Oakland Raiders, traditionally deemed as ‘outlaws’, or working-class underdogs in the sport. Rich, complex metaphors and meaning indeed.
So sporty son asks;
“Was he sponsored by Adidas Dad?”
Media Son and I laughed out loud, triggering numerous turned heads and some considerable sniggering. Sporty Son had, in fact, noticed as a first impact, the retro Adidas Trefoil emblazoned across J-MB’s orange T. (I remembered those tops well – I proudly had several myself, and the nasty vinyl kit bag to match).
“No” I said too quickly, “It’s probably just a T-shirt he’s put on, probably to look cool with a suit – he loved expensive suits and getting them covered in paint”. That went down well enough, but then for the entire exhibition journey, I was less convinced of myslef, and more intrigued by the events of room 1 – Basquiat had, after all, walked for Comme des Garçons, loved Armani and flaunted Everlast.
ipad native, X factor loving, Gen Z’ders like Sporty Son are naturally assuming that in 2017, if you are a celebrity and you’re wearing a logo, somebody else has paid for the threads.
He’s a kid who can identify a Premier League club more readily by their sponsor’s logo than the colour of their strip. Who, by contrast watches endless Dude Perfect clips with adverts pinging up second-by-second, not noticing the persistent advertisers.
He’s hard wired to be brand aware – both to their strengths and weaknesses.
From what I can glean sat here now, it’s probably the case that Basquiat was not sponsored by this particular sports brand, although whether the T was actually thrift shop, or a more calculated statement is not clear. Truthfully back in the 80’s, none of us were so brand savvy or indeed interested in such banalities as ‘the right brand’. A time caught between Punk and Grunge was not as susceptible, or open to advertisers. But maybe this artist was.
As a musician and artist, Basquiat was a huge supporter of the rising Be-Bop scene (see and hear Beat Bop, 1983 – by American rappers Rammellzee and K-Rob which he produced, directed and also created the sleeve for), as well the latter child, Hip-Hop. And with that came the rise of today’s dauntless sneaker culture.
It’s 1985, and Gerald Deas, (aka) “Dr. Deas,” a physician, poet, playwright, musician and Korea veteran (who also led a successful campaign against sulfites in sugary drinks that were sold only in minority communities) wrote a piece entitled “Felon Sneakers” warning against the perilous dangers of young men getting too enamoured with sneaker culture. “If an unlucky brother winds up in jail,” warned Deas, “his felon sneakers can’t get him bail.” Even with the price tags.
But rather than serving as a cautionary poem that reasoned young men across America into more sensible shoes, the poem sparked a passionate response from radical rap group Run-D.M.C with the now classic, “My Adidas” which would go on to turn the German sportswear brand into an intrinsic part of hip-hop culture. The Adidas flag was from then planted in the rap world.
A connection maybe? Our picture was taken back in ’81. And a long line of posthumous ‘collaborations’ between Reebok, other sneaker brands and the Basquiat property have taken place since.
None of this adds up to a linear truth – nothing J-MB was connected to ever seems to be, but as a post-pop, neo-experimentalist artist, everything was intertwined; a play on words, images and ideas, mashing up culture, politics, art and commerce.
What he seemed to have sparked, or at least tapped into was the now commonplace fusion of street culture, high culture, brands and personality. A true marketing mix, a true ‘modern’ and commercial artist. Defiantly not SAMO.