Jean-Michel as told
by Fred Braithwaite
a.k.a. Fab 5 Freddy
Interview by Ingrid Sischy
INGRID SISCHY: What made Jean-Michel
Basquiat so great an artist?
FAB 5 FREDDY: The way he demonstrated
who he was to the world. He took a very
courageous, gallant, and elegant stance.
Jean Michel was a painter. At the time I
met him, it was what we all wanted to be.
This was a time in New York when you
could wake up on one morning and say,
Well, this is what I want to do, and by mid-
day you could just decide that you were
going to do it.
IS: When and where did you meet him?
F5F:At a party in 1978. The guy throwing
the party was trying to start his own planta
tion of downtown creative culture - put us
all together and fill our heads with
grandiose ideas, with things on the other
side of the rainbow. All that shit never really
happened, but what did happen was, he
gave this happening, this party. People
from the Tubes were there, and all these
posers and people who were trying to be
down. There had just been a little item in
The Village Voice about me and Lee
Quinones, and the guy throwing the party
was like, "Yeah, man, you guys want to be
artists? You like pop art? Well, yo, I used to
be down with the scene in England and I'm
hooked up with Fiorucci, and this person,
and that person, and you guys are gonna
be rich." But all we wanted to do was paint.
And we knew that in order for our type of
art to work its way into people's cultural
appetite we had to take it off the trains,
while maintaining its integrity and develop-
ing it as a technique of painting.
So, what happened was, Lee and I were
standing in this huge loft with the hot lights
and this video camera blaring down on us.
And this guy comes popping into the room
- Jean Michel Basquiat, aka SAMO. There
had been a lot of talk that the graffiti writer
named SAMO was a white conceptual artist
- everybody was up on conceptual stuff in
the '70s. And then this black guy comes in
and everybody's like, "Yo, Fred, SAMO's
here." And the guy who was organising this
whole scam, which he was calling Canal
Zone, tried to pit us against each other. I
remember Jean had this big smile on his
face. He had a blond mohawk (REALLY? - ed.)
that came toa point at the tip of his forehead, and
the rest of his head was shaved in the front,
and the back portion was still intact. It was
very bizarre. He had on a white smock,
which was dingy and paint-splattered, and
raggedy shoes, and he came in smiling.
Lee and I looked at him and smiled, and it
was like... there's a thing in the graffiti
world, which is that people know who you
are before they meet you. The writers are
always happy to meet other writers. Jean
Michel was a writer, and he was a fan of
ours, and we were fans of his.
At the time we met, Jean was going to
this color Xerox shop on Prince Street and
gluing stuff together, creating postcards
and baseball cards. Then he would walk
around the Village trying to sell them. Me
and Lee were painting at the studio of this
guy who gave the big party, who had taken
a lot of our work to Italy to try to sell it to
the Italians - so that he would get the
money to franchise our stuff and rip us off.
He was gone for about two weeks and in
that two weeks we asked Jean to move in
with us. We were like real SoHo artists -
me, Lee and Jean Michel. Jean-Michel
would be in the back making baseball
cards, and me and Lee would be hanging
up these fifteen-foot-high, thirty-to-forty-foot-
long pieces of plastic, just spray-painting
them as gigantic murals.
We were always playing music really
loud. I was playing hip-hop tapes from par-
ties in the Bronx that nobody had heard
about yet. I mean, it was so early that
unless you know Sugarhill Gang's
"Rapper's Delight" you really didn't have
any clue about what was going on. And
there was a record called "Super Sperm"
that we would play. It had this incredible
drum break and I remember every time I
played that record Jean-Michel would run
out and we would all stop and start dancing.
The energy level was high.
We also talked about painting a lot. And
that was when Jean Michel and I realized
that we had something in common. There
were no other people from the graffiti world
who knew anything about the painters that
interested us. Everybody was influenced by
comic book art - stuff sold in the super
markets with bright colors and bold letters.
Jean Michel discovered that my favorite
artists were Warhol and Rauschenberg,
and I found out that Jean's favorite artists
were Warhol and Jasper Johns. Which was
great because we could both talk about
other painters as well as about the guys
painting on the trains. Jean and I learnt
that we looked at art in a similar way, too. I
told him an idea that Lee and I had had to
walk into Leo Castelli's gallery at 420 West
Broadway and commence to make a paint
ing on the wall. We wanted to do it on a
Saturday when tons of people were down
there; we were gonna have it photographed
and just launch an assault. It was a kind of
military manoeuvre which was the way I
thought about a lot of stuff then. And Jean
Michel was like, "Yo, that's cool, because I
had a similar idea. What I wanted to do
was fill up balloons with paint and throw
them on the walls outside of the 420 build
ing and let the paint drip down." He just
wanted to attack the gallery with paint! It
was like, Bang! Paint! Let it drip down! We
bonded at that time.
IS: What made you choose painting?
F5F: It just seemed like the coolest fucking
thing that you could do.
IS: Music didn't seem that?
F5F: When the ideas began to gel, the
musical aspects were part of it. Particularly
when me and Keith Haring became good
friends, because Keith and 1, and a lot of
people that we hung around with, like Jean
Michel, knew what the latest records were,
knew what the latest dances were, and we
went out at night and listened to music and
danced a lot. We painted in the daytime,
that was the whole idea - and it was all
seen as one.
We used to talk about how the gallery
scene was very staid, very quiet, pristine,
white walls, hush-hush. We thought that
was all bullshit. Why not have an opening
be fun? Like, Keith curated an invitational
drawing show at the upstairs gallery of the
Mudd Club, and he invited Jean Michel,
and Futura 2000, and Lee and myself to
be in it. That was a very successful show.
IS: That was still when the downtown
musicians were leading the neighborhood.
F5F: Well, in the mid-'70s the coolest peo
ple on the scene were either people in
bands or film makers - Eric Mitchell, James
Nares, Scott and Beth B, Jim Jarmusch,
Becky Johnston, Charlie Ahearn. The "NY
underground cinema," they called it. And
mixing with them were people from punk
and new wave - the Contortions, 8 Eyed
Spy, Lydia Lunch, James White and the
Blacks. I used to be able to get into the
Mudd Club, but Keith in particular used to
get turned away sometimes because they
didn't deem him cool enough, which
inspired him to create his own little scene
at Club 57. And then, all of a sudden, as
we began to focus and our ideas began to
go into practice, people responded and we
became the focus.
IS: At that point, was Jean still doing his
F5F: He used to do occasional SAMO's, but -
IS: And SAMO stood for?
F5F: Same old same old, or like the same
old shit. Remember, he always would put
the copyright sign after he wrote it, with a
c in a circle - SAMOŠ Originally it came
from Jean-Michel, Al Diaz, and Shannon
from Konk, a really hot, funky downtown
band - they were all doing SAMO and
SAMO slogans. I remember Jean did one
like: "Which of the following are
omnipresent: McDonald's, AT&T..." I can't
remember it quite. (DOES HE NOT? we do,
click samo for 750k of quick time proof - ed.)
Or "SAMO as an alter
native to the radically
chic set trying to play
hip with Daddy's money."
Jean would write this shit on key walls
in the SoHo area. That was the audience
he was targeting. He put the whole downtown
scene under his attack, learning from the
broader attack which was being waged citywide
on the subway system.
Last Updated: Wed, Aug 8, 1995
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