For Decades, Graffiti Writers Paid Tribute to Basquiat by Tagging the Artist’s Former Home. Now, It Has Been Mysteriously Whitewashed

The downtown New York City site is currently occupied by an exclusive, referral-only restaurant called Bohemian. 

57 Great Jones St., before and after the whitewashing. Left photo: Adrian Wilson. Right photo: Lisa Scott.

The facade of a New York City building where Jean-Michel Basquiat lived and worked at the time of his death has been unceremoniously whitewashed, erasing scores of tributes left by fellow artists.  

Basquiat occupied the downtown loft, owned at the time by Andy Warhol, for five years, during which time he created some of his best-known works. It was there, too, in 1988, that the 27-year-old artist fatally overdosed on heroin. He was proclaimed dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.

Since then, the building, located at 57 Great Jones Street, has become a kind of ad-hoc memorial to the late artist as graffitists pilgrimage to the site to inscribe eulogies in his name. One example featured the dates of Basquiat’s birth and death, headstone-style, accompanied by his signature crown graphic. Another recreated the artist’s silhouette in the likeness of the statue of liberty. In 2016, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation installed a permanent plaque on the structure, commemorating its significance.

Today, the location is occupied by a referral-only restaurant called—somewhat ironically—Bohemian. The business even boasts about the building’s history on its webpage.

However, earlier this month, workers were seen painting over the graffiti-filled facade, obscuring every embellishment except the plaque. It’s unclear if Bohemian or its parent company, Play Earth Inc., were responsible for the paint job. Representatives of the restaurant did not respond to requests for more information.   

Adrian Wilson at 57 Great Jones St. Courtesy of the artist.

Adrian Wilson at 57 Great Jones St. Courtesy of the artist.

In 2018, graffiti artist Adrian Wilson—who until recently went by the pseudonym Plannedalism—approached Bohemian’s owners about opening up a pop-up exhibition in the building’s store-front space. He convinced them, and for six weeks he maintained “Same Old Gallery,” inviting 1970s graffiti writers to tag both the interior and exterior of the space. Among them was Al Diaz, a cultish downtown artist who co-created the SAMO tag with Basquiat.

Two years later, Wilson contributed his own Basquiat homage to 57 Great Jones Street using paint to stylize the building’s arched windows as spray cans and adding the phrase “LET US SPRAY” in large letters on the second floor. It’s the only piece of graffiti the prominent tagger has ever signed.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” Wilson said of the whitewashing, “especially because there was irreplaceable work on there by so many special early graffiti writers, such as one of the earliest female writers, Rocky184, and a lovely writer who sadly passed from COVID-19, Nic707.”

A new tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat, added after the building was whitewashed. Photo: Annie Armstrong.

A new tribute to Jean-Michel Basquiat, added after the building was whitewashed. Photo: Annie Armstrong.

But, he went on, “graffiti and street art is always ephemeral, so there can be no complaints. It is a matter of taste if people prefer it as it is now or how it was before.”

Wilson described the current state of the building with two words: “Blank canvas. It is now up to others to continue to commemorate and decorate the building in whatever way gives them and others pleasure.”

Someone has already started. Below the plaque on 57 Great Jones St. is a new piece of graffiti, added since the paint job: “We ♥ JMB,” it reads. “LONG LIVE ?.”

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