In his short life, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a graffiti poet, political painter, and pop icon whose cult status and cultural influence made him one of the most mythologised artists of the 20th century.

Celebrated for the emotional intensity, originality, and complex fields of reference in his work, his trademark fascination with the human form began after being struck by a car as a child. While recovering in the hospital his mother gave him a copy of Gray’s Anatomy, and the young artist devoured its diagrams, keeping the so-called ‘surgeon’s bible’ at hand throughout his career.

Basquiat liked to have open books lying around when he painted, and developed his striking skull imagery by bringing additional source material – including Da Vinci’s Notebooks and Burchard Brentjes’ African Rock Art – into play.

Taking further inspiration from favorite writers like Herman Melville and Mark Twain – as well as Beat poetry and William S. Burrough’s cut-up technique – he’d play with words on canvas, using inverted spellings and crossing out and repeating certain phrases.

As a student of art history, world culture, and literary tradition, Basquiat’s extensive reference book collection informed his work’s heady blend of high- and low-brow influences. Collaging an extraordinary array of subjects together into a single composition, his beloved books give us a glimpse into his enigmatic influences.

From blues biographies to the history of African art, find a selection of Basquiat’s vast library below. Then dive into the reading lists of other iconic artists right here.


Gray’s Anatomy by Susan Standring

Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson

“Probably the best book I ever read on African art.” –JMB

History of Art by H. W. Janson

African Rock Art by Burchard Brentjes

The Complete Notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci 

Symbol Sourcebook by Henry Dreyfuss

Artistic Anatomy by Paul Richer

Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker by Ross Russell

Black Beauty, White Heat: A Pictorial History of Classic Jazz by Frank Driggs & Harris Lewine

Junky by William S. Burroughs (also rec’d by Kurt Cobain & Richey Edwards)

“He’s my favourite living author. Definitely. I think it’s really close to what Mark Twain writes, as far as the point of view. It’s pretty similar, I think.” –JMB

The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac (also rec’d by Jim Morrison)

Work by Mark Twain

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (also rec’d by Bob DylanBruce SpringsteenJohn IrvingNorman MailerPatti Smith, Penn Jillette, Ray BradburySteve Jobs & Tilda Swinton)

(via Barbican, The Brooklyn MuseumChristies & Radiant Child)

Categories: Artists