I paint ghosts, Basquiat told at least one collector who remembered it after. The client thought he was smart, driven, creative, and so what if he was moody. To Repel Ghosts, the artist scribbled once in oil stick, and young Black poet Kevin Young wrote about it later, the title of his book of poems. Basquiat did paint ghosts, just the extraordinary, forgotten, everyday dead: Black men he couldn’t bury. Athletes, writers, jazz.
The 80s are being born, in boombox beats and billboards boasting spray paint tags. Hip hop and Happy Meals. Guyliner. Acid wash and tie dye and glam rock and safety pins. Jean-Michel and Diaz are twenty and angry at the world. Black boys falling like flies in the New York heat.
CARBON CARBON CARBON CARBON CARBON CARBON CARBON CARBON. TEETH. DIAGRAM OF A HEART PUMPING BLOOD. ORNITHOLOGY. KNEE/STOMACH/ LIVER. DEXTROSE. LARYNX. HOLLYWOOD AFRICANS – 1940. POPCORN SUGAR CANE TOBACCO. FIVE CENTS. DIZZY GIL. CROWN OF THORNS. ASBESTOS.
Paint it black. Everything he had given her and asked her to return. Madonna tells her story later, the one of her historic brief romance with the it artist of the third millennium. “When I broke up with him, he made me give the paintings he gave me back to him. And then he painted over them.” She knew he was an epic star, “an amazing man and deeply talented.” She didn’t want to leave him but she did. “He wouldn’t stop doing heroin.”
Suzanne Mallouk, the widow Basquiat: We went from stealing bread on our way home from the Mudd Club, to Cristal champagne and a fridge full of caviar. And the parties, oh the parties. Once upon a time, oh the parties, oh, you would not believe. Oh, you would not believe, the music. You could see in voodoo, you were still up to see the sunrise, flooding the world with light. And you were still up to see it go down. Basquiat, he bought armloads of Armani to paint in. His parties had hills of cocaine.
I DON’T WANT TO SIT AROUND HERE AND WATCH YOU DIE, Kevin Bray scrawled on a scrap of paper at his friend’s loft studio. Up and down, back and forth, to and fro. It was no way to live and no way to die. Up, up, up, Jean-Michel would fly, turning tight and clenched when the stimulants turned into panic. Down, down, down, the antidote could always bring you home.
By regularly using the crown motif, the artist recognizes the majesty of his influencers and heroes, someone wrote much later. A friend, artist Keith Haring, painted something like that, for him, A Pile of Crowns. For Basquiat. Whose first crown in ‘81 was his self-portrait. He must have known. His own ghost story.
Lorette C. Luzajic is the editor of The Ekphrastic Review. She writes small stories and prose poems, usually inspired by art. They have recently appeared in Trampset, Ghost Parachute, Axon, Unbroken Journal, and more.