How long does it take before the past becomes present again? Before we reach back into history for inspiration? For the culture of Hip Hop, most would agree that the foundation was born in New York streets during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was just another kid from Brooklyn as the post-graffiti movement burst onto the scene, first on public transportation, then on canvas, and eventually, into the art world. At the same time, there was a fusion of cool jazz and bebop, piano and trumpet solos, and wild yet distinct sounds coming from boomboxes on brownstone stoops; longstanding racial divisions were pushed aside for a new unprecedented wave of art and culture; burners and bombers were making a name for themselves “all-city” with vibrant and bold expression tags across the width of entire public train cars; and New York City Transit restrictions on vandalizing public property played out in commercials with local celebrities sporting the phrase, “Make your mark in society, not on society.” The opposite proved to be true, as 40 years later, Basquiat and some of his contemporaries have an exhibit together at the MFA, chronicling the impact Hip Hop had on contemporary art.
“Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation” has many layers. It features works in painting, sculpture, drawing, video, music, and fashion. A Spotify playlist showcasing legendary acts like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Big Daddy Kane, Michael Jackson, and Grace Jones illuminates the variety of sounds and forms of art that inspired New York’s post-graffiti era. In addition to some Basquiat classics, the exhibition also hosts works from other influential artists of the ‘80s (including Fab 5 Freddy, Futura, Keith Haring, Kool Koor, LA2, Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones, Rammellzee, and Toxic), shedding light on the insurgent visual and verbal language established by that period’s Black and Latinx youth. For example, A-One and Jenny Holzer’s “Flashlight Text Survival” communicates perseverance and strength in the midst of police brutality.
For further visual context, the exhibit draws reference to Style Wars (1983), which embodies the energies circling the early graffiti movement. First aired in 1984, this Grand Jury Prize award-winning documentary captures the journey of several young artists struggling to express themselves through this new art form. Consuming the documentary, you pick up terminology like “bomber” which are artists that specialize in the risk of spray painting in dangerous or difficult to access places; many times, these were teenagers or younger, showing their youthful exuberance and adoration for graffiti. The doc paints a picture of kids breaking into city subways at 2 AM to be creative, draping the white cars in a rainbow of colors, and illuminates the pride associated with being recognized in different boroughs as trains rode through the neighborhood. Of course, the transportation system wasn’t happy with this, though, later issuing a three-strike policy regarding graffiti, which ended in a five-day sentence in jail.
The many layers of Basquiat and his friends include a hardcover book with more pictures and a story that colors this revolutionary movement. For anyone looking to watch from him, co-curators, Liz Munsell and Greg Tate, walk us through the exhibit virtually as well. If you want to check it out, Writing the Future: Basquiat and the Hip-Hop Generation will be at the MFA until May 16, 2021. Find out more information here.