Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York. His mother, Matilde, was Puerto Rican and his father, Gerard Basquiat is of Haitian origin and a former Haitian Minister of the Interior.
Because of his parents' nationalities, Basquiat was fluent in French, Spanish, and English and often read Symbolist poetry, mythology, history and medical texts, particularly Gray's Anatomy in those languages. At an early age, Basquiat displayed an aptitude for art and was encouraged by his mother to draw, paint and to participate in other art-related activities. In 1977, when he was 17, Basquiat and his friend Al Diaz started spray-painting graffiti art on slum buildings in Lower Manhattan, adding the infamous signature of "SAMO" (i.e., "same old shit"). The graphics were pithy messages such as "Plush safe he think.. SAMO" and "SAMO as an escape clause". In December 1978, the Village Voice published an article about the writings. The SAMO project ended with the epitaph "SAMO IS DEAD" written on the walls of SoHo buildings.
Basquiat attended high school in New York at "City As School", the same place where he was friends with Al Diaz, and Shanon Dawson (of Konk). In 1978, Basquiat dropped out of high school and left home, a year before graduating. He moved into the city and lived with friends, surviving by selling T-shirts and postcards on the street, and working in the Unique Clothing Warehouse on Broadway. By 1979, however, Basquiat had gained a certain celebrity status amidst the thriving art scene of Manhattan's East Village through his regular appearances on Glenn O'Brien's live public-access cable show, TV Party. In the late 1970s, Basquiat formed a band called Gray, with Michael Holman, Nick Taylor, Wayne Clifford & Shannon Dawson. Gray played at clubs such as Max's Kansas City, CBGB, Hurrahs, and the Mudd Club. Basquiat worked in a film Downtown 81 (a.k.a New York Beat Movie) which featured some of Gray's rare recordings on its soundtrack. He also appeared in Blondie's video "Rapture."
Basquiat first started to gain recognition as an artist in June 1980, when he participated in The Times Square Show, a multi-artist exhibition, sponsored by Collaborative Projects Incorporated (Colab). In 1981, poet, art critic and cultural provocateur Rene Ricard published "The Radiant Child" in Artforum, helping to launch Basquiat's career to the international stage. During the next few years, he continued exhibiting his works around New York as well as internationally (alongside other street artists now in the galleries, such as Keith Haring), promoted by such gallery owners and dealers as Bruno Bischofberger and Annina Nosei. He later showed at the galleries of Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone and finally, Vrej Baghoomian.
By 1982, Basquiat was showing regularly, and alongside Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi, became part of what was called the Neo-expressionist movement. He started dating an aspiring and then-unknown performer named Madonna in the fall of 1982. That same year, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, with whom he collaborated extensively, eventually forging a close - if strained - friendship.
On February 10, 1985, Basquiat appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine in a feature entitled "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist". As Basquiat's international success heightened, his works were shown in solo exhibitions across Europe and the USA.
Basquiat died at his 57 Great Jones Street loft/studio in 1988 several days before what would have been Basquiat's second trip to Côte d'Ivoire and several months after Warhol’s death.
Although his art career was brief, he has been credited with bringing the African-American and Latino experience in the elite art world.