POC Power crop

I batted around many ideas for my submission to Art Bash 2014, the annual charity auction held by the American Advertising Federation in Seattle. The theme this year was “Throwback Thursday.” The Mona Lisa taking a selfie? Too glib. A stark horse skull remembering itself as a handsome stallion? A little macabre. Plus I’d have to incorporate a cartoony thought bubble, which seemed wrong. (But at the same time kind of awesome.) It all seemed like too much work. “Why don’t you just paint a nice picture of an apple or an orange?” my mom rather unhelpfully suggested.

I had just gotten a piece of my art into the Korean-American show at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience. Ferguson was in the news, this time because of the unwelcome involvement of the KKK, which added its own vitriolic brand of fuel to the fire.

The goal of Art Bash 2014 itself was to level the racial playing field by raising money for the AAF’s Western Washington University minority students scholarship fund.

For these reasons, I felt like I needed to produce a piece defending and promoting minorities. And what better artist to exemplify the power of POC (people of color) but Jean-Michel Basquiat?

Though a controversial figure riddled with his own problems, Basquiat embraced a range of media to explore racial politics, class struggle, and street culture. His paintings emanate heat; his writings as a member of graffiti crew SAMO are epigrammatic and thought provoking. His photogenic presence graced indie film Downtown 81, cult TV program TV Party, and the New York City nightclubs as a member of art-rock band Gray. He was the real meal deal, and he didn’t last long. Whether by heroin OD or speedball, Basquiat died at 27, following a dizzying, meteoric rise to the top of the art charts.


Basquiat: Polar opposite of Warhol, but a de facto heir (with the hair)

I found an image of Basquiat looking inscrutable and undeniably cool in his shades, and reproduced it within a couple of hours. Rather than try to imitate Basquiat’s graffiti-inflected style, I chose to create a portrait of him in the style of a street memorial mural. Those murals, found in any poverty-ridden neighborhood, may not be the most technically accurate depictions of the deceased, but they project heroism and an indelible soulfulness. I was also inspired by Sophia Dawson’s most recent mural, Every Mother’s Son–a tribute to minority mothers who’d lost their sons to police violence–on the Lower East Side.

To prevent my painting from being sold to some douchey, clueless art director who only knows Basquiat as some “badass black dude,” I added a few hashtags at the bottom (alluding to #TBT, the show’s theme): #radical and #pocpower. Obviously, the painting is welcome to anyone of any race, as long as they are familiar with the minority struggle. And yes, “POC” may be an in-group term used in racial discourse, but it precludes Basquiat from being hung like some mounted deer head in some dude-bro’s rec room.

Most important, the painting attests to the power of both sociopolitical firebrand Basquiat and people of color, especially the radicals. The still life with apples will have to wait until next time.


Basquiat’s Exu (1988) may as well be a portrait of present-day Ferguson

basq whitebrd

My earlier tribute to Basquiat, done in marker on a whiteboard at work