basquiat and the canal zone party

After watching BBC’s wonderful and enlightening documentary ‘Basquiat: Rage to Riches’ I felt compelled to write about the genius of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the way in which he came to fame. The documentary grounds the mythical legend back to a personal level by including intimate interviews with his family, thus portraying the human behind the celebrity and clarifying the enigma. His sisters describe their loving family, Jean-Michel constantly roaming galleries and importantly his innate assertion that he would succeed in the art world.


Courtesy of Dazed.

Visual language was always a trademark feature in Basquiat’s paintings. This can be traced back to his involvement in the graffiti collective with Al Diaz: SAMO©. The tag pseudonym stood for “Same Old Shit”, a phrase often said around New York at the time as a reference to life or weed. The two teenagers tagged walls with their jokes, frustrations and political views. Soon the artists’ alter ego SAMO tag was ubiquitous over New York, creating hype similar to the mystery of Banksy. New Yorkers wanted to know who was this SAMO?


Basquiat’s identity came to light at the Canal Zone Party, hosted by artists including Fab 5 Freddy, in a warehouse in 1979. The event merged the downtown art world with uptown artists, inviting the participants to make art on the walls and providing street artists with a platform. This exciting, expressive party with live music encouraged immersive collaborations and I think it summarises the opportunity of the fashionable New York 70s/80s art scene. It was also a catalyst of Basquiat’s career. As he started spraying a wall live on camera…


☐ Lee Harvey Oswald

☐ Coca Cola Logo

☐ General Melonry


At the canal zone party. Courtesy of MinnieMuse

… a crowd formed, wildly acknowledging that this was the infamous SAMO. Another camera was thrust in his face and Michael Holman, an artist who would later collaborate with Basquiat, interviewed the half shaven Mohawk bearing, shy young man. This party was groundbreaking and saturated with artistic talent, prospect and importantly energy. Basquiat used the event to network and get himself on camera in order to promote his brand. He would later work with many people he met that night, even forming a band. The electric enthusiasm for the New York art scene was palpable. I find the idea of the culmination of so many avid artists quite romantic. They all had hope, dreams and dogged conviction in their own work. I also love the fact that the Canal Zone Party moved creativity out of the constraints of gallery walls and joined the other arts – music and dance. By incorporating authentic fun with serious art I believe the pretentiousness that can come across with art is stripped. The buzz of the scene and party is so striking I have massive FOMO.


I would love for there to be more events like this today I hear you say? Crop Up Gallery is hosting DANCE.DRINK.DRAW. at Bar 11 this Thursday where you will be encouraged to draw all over the walls. If you would like to draw us a masterpiece, tiny doodle, or vent about politics come along! Who knows, maybe we will find the next Basquiat…


Written by Amalie Dixey Watson

Featured Image – “Notary” by Jean Basquiat, 1983

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top