Artist vandalises Jean-Michel Basquiat’s studio… for art

In what has become a huge controversy in New York’s graffiti community scene, a street artist has been whitewashing the building where Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked until his death in 1988.

The building – located in downtown Manhattan – has been a site of pilgrimage for decades, where generations of street artists have come to pay tribute to a master of the form. These contributions have been whitewashed before: in 2022, it was carried out by workers who were thought to have been employed by the luxury restaurant which owned the building. The fact that this latest round of whitewashing is being carried out by someone who is a street artist themselves, however, has inspired particular outrage in the graffiti community.

Since July of this year, artist Robert Palacio has painted over the building on three separate occasions, while documenting this on his Instagram account. Captioning a photo of the studio slathered with pink, Palacio wrote “the PINK represents the WOMB femininity and a signal to rebirth”.  Many of the relevant posts on his Instagram are tagged with ‘the erasure of Jean’, ‘reverse vandalism’ or ‘silent protest’. He began targeting the studio after it was announced that Jolie had signed up to an eight-year lease for the building, to be used as the headquarters for her new tailoring company. 

After the first time he white-washed the building, Palacio posted an Instagram video explaining his intent. He claimed to be inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased de Kooning” (1953), a famous conceptual work in which the artist erased a drawing by William de Kooning and subsequently presented the blank canvas in a frame.

Palacio wrote, “It was poetic justice, a silent protest, it was an art explosion, in effort to Bring awareness to a sensitive concept imbued with Culture and spirituality the in-between being hospitality, education, vibes and art shows, by your very own ROBERTO PALACIO.” He added that he did this performance in character as ‘Jericho Drum’, a Marvel superhero who is also known as ‘Brother Voodoo’. Following on from this first stunt, he returned to the studio a further two times, even painting over the commemorative plaque which announced it as Basquiat’s home. 

Whatever the intent, the whitewashing has not been well received by the New York street art scene. Graffiti artist Sinclair the Vandal told ArtNet, the site is New York City street art history. New graffiti shows up on the building on a daily basis. I would never disrespect others to get some cheap attention like this guy is doing,” while adding that Palacio was “arrogant and inconsiderate.” Also speaking to ArtNet, Wayne Rada – of the Lisa Project – described the stunt as a ‘dick move[…] it’s just shallow and pathetic and useless.’

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