80’s Kings: Basquiat, Haring & Futura

February 13, 2014

Tapping into the history of the graffiti movement, we find that some figures among artists stand out with the impact they had on later writers and art world alike. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Futura 2000 have distinctively different expressions, but all three emerged from the same environment, as they still influence creatives across the globe. To paint the picture of the situation, out of which 80’s street art was born, we’ll take you back about 30+ years ago to where it all began - the city of New York.

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New York Street Art
SAMO's first tags in New York

Before the 80's

Graffiti movement was jump-started by mostly poor kids from the Bronx, Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn, who were growing up in working class immigrant or ethnic families. Looking for a way out of the decayed hood, they attempted grabbing a bit of street fame for themselves in making their name known. First tags were made in the late 60s, a name or alias scribbled on a surface with a black permanent marker, but in the early 70s tagging expanded, and soon, it went viral. One of the first tag writers was TAKI 183, a Greek teen who was bored while working as a delivery boy and wanted to make his mark around the city. More and more tags followed as the city was getting entangled in a quickly spreading bug of vandalism.

The recognizable characters by Keith Haring

The (R)Evolution

Rapid expansion and thirst for street glory moved the writers into the subway, where train cars became the most coveted canvas for early writers. The turning point in the graffiti movement was the start of aerosol use. Spray paint allowed for more artistic freedom, and it came in an abundance of color, an unexpected medium that would grow to become the signature technique of street art. The 70s were the booming period of New York train graffiti, crossing all social boundaries and class distinctions, but still being very much frowned upon by the officials.

New York Street Art
Keith Haring writing in the subway

The Three Kings

Late 70s were marked by the appearance of several names that made a giant impact on the world of art in the upcoming decade. Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and FUTURA 2000 helped define the graffiti movement and gained respect and recognition for street art from the traditionally pretentious art scene.

It is important to note that during the 80’s New York underwent a huge clean-up from graffiti, and it was declared graffiti-free in 1989. A lot of street artists moved on to the outskirts, or into the galleries.

New York Street Art
Basquiat leaned on abstraction and graffiti to create the uniqueness in art we still appreciate today

SAMO Basquiat

The SAMO tag was popping around New York in the late 70s. Pronounced Same-Oh, it was a derivative of same-old-shit, and behind it was a young writer, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat first wrote together with Al Diaz, but soon he appropriated the tag himself. He wrote it with a copyright sign, while his messages were constantly undermining the generally accepted positive values and thinking in a spirited manner. He stopped tagging in 1980, producing a graffiti SAMO© IS DEAD.

The 80’s launched Basquiat to fame, and the inaugural year of the decade already brought him recognition. He later met numerous art world legends and dignitaries, and collaborated with some of them, like Andy Warhol or David Bowie. Not only a stunningly talented artist, Basquiat was interested in music as well, and he appeared in the Blondie video Rapture as a DJ, and later worked on a hip-hop project with Rammellzee. Basquiat's style was one of the protruding features of the contemporary art of the 80’s, uncompromising in stripping subjects to their essence, influenced by graffiti, expressionistic in execution. There is something raw and disturbing in his infantile drawings aligned with text that radiate brutal honesty. Emphasizing the duality of social and psychological currents, Basquiat emerged as one of the most innovative art figures of the 80s New York.

New York Street Art
Basquiat and Haring

Keith Haring

Friend of Basquiat, and just as prominent graffiti figure from the 80s, is definitely Keith Haring. Inspired to do cartoons by his father, Haring delved into street art inspired by dark spaces and subways, and conjured one of the most recognizable personal iconographies in the history of art. His little men (and women) carry an activist message originating in gay activism, they are always socially and globally conscious, dealing with some of the issues still on the table today. Keith Haring was one of the best and the brightest among the 80s graffiti scene in Gotham.

New York Street Art
Futura2000's trademark tag


One of the walking graffiti legends of the 80’s is absolutely Futura2000. Starting out as a writer on subway cars in the early 70s, Futura made a break and a comeback later in the decade, allowing his art to flourish in the coming years.

Early in the 80s, he exhibited at the Fun Gallery, as did Basquiat and Keith Haring, while developing his angular, generally abstract style. Deconstructing the letters while painting on trains, Futura initiated a separate, non-lettered style of graffiti. Leaning on abstract forms, he managed to detain principal traits of street expression in color and form, transmitting the energy and power of the street onto the viewer without using the semantics. Futura 2000 had numerous design, illustration and collaborative projects in the late 80’s and on, and still is active today.

New York Street Art
SAMO's writings on the wall

New York Street Art

New York Street Art

All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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