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Jean-Michel Basquiat was the product of immigrant parents—his father, Haitian, and his mother, Puerto Rican. His mother nurtured his interest in art by taking him to art museums throughout Manhattan, and enrolling him as a junior member of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. In 1976, at the age of 16, Basquiat began spray painting graffiti in Lower Manhattan. His style eventually evolved into what he’s now famous for: a sort of neo-expressionism and primitivism, generally developed through paintings and drawings.

Now on view at SAM, the artist’s “Untitled, 1982” is a groundbreaking, eye-popping piece that’s become an exhibition in itself. Here’s why this one painting is drawing art lovers to Seattle.

Basquiat’s Works Were Powerfully Political

Just as relevant as they were when he was producing in the 80s, Basquiat’s works often tackled challenging themes like power structures, class struggle, racism, and colonialism. He often depicted large skulls atop small bodies, in order to emphasize black intellect, rather than physicality.

His Art Grew out of Both Beauty and Tragedy

Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, just two years after producing this painting. In an interview in 1986, he was asked what he’d do if he knew he’d only have 24-hours left to live. “I don’t know. I’d go hang out with my mother and my girlfriend, I guess.” Basquiat died in his apartment in NoHo, New York, with his girlfriend a floor below him, writing in the journal he’d given her.

He Made History

In May of 2017, Basquiat made history when this work sold for $110.5 million at auction. That’s the highest sum ever paid for a work of art produced by an American. Japaneses billionaire Yusaku Maezawa took home the prize, but is generously sharing it with the world at various museums and exhibitions.

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