Basquiat on the Beach

Recently, I found myself sitting at a small, child-size table at a hotel in Istanbul with a short but well-built 44-year-old American wearing pookah shells. He was a native New Yorker—grew up in Rockland County, spent weekends at his grandparents in Brooklyn—but had lived for many years in Hawaii, on the island of Maui. He told my traveling companion and me that his name was Mike Cappadona, that he’d been traveling for eight months—he was headed next to Cairo—and that he was a basket weaver who lived in a small shack in the rain forest of Hana. We asked how it was that a basket weaver could afford to travel around the world for 12 months. His answer: Jean-Michel Basquiat.

It turns out that Basquiat had spent quite a bit of time in Hana between his first trip in 1984 and his last in the summer of 1988, just a couple of months before he died on Great Jones Street in Manhattan at 27. Mr. Cappadona said he didn’t know Basquiat was a famous painter until three years ago.

Eventually, I visited Mr. Cappadona at his "jungle shack" in Hana, where he tends 11 acres of land in exchange for being able to live amidst the exotic rain forest with its coconut, avocado and passion-fruit trees. His wooden shack, which he built himself, is the size of a small room and has a tin roof and open-air screens. Mr. Cappadona lives without a phone, car or electricity; a single solar panel and a small propane fridge are his only sources of energy.

Mr. Cappadona explained how it was that he first came to realize that his friend Jean-Michel was the famous "Basquiat." He showed me an issue of Art in America that he found lying around his friend Bob’s up the road. Thumbing through the periodical three years ago, he saw a picture of Basquiat standing with Andy Warhol in a full-page ad for a Warhol/Basquiat show at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. They were standing in front of a 116-by-160-inch canvas of Felix the Cat—a Warhol/Basquiat collaboration. I know that guy, he said to himself. That’s Jean-Michel! But what’s he doing standing next to Andy Warhol? Mr. Cappadona was confused: "When I asked Jean-Michel what he did in New York once, he told me he was a painter. I said, ‘I paint houses for money, too,’ and Jean-Michel smiled and said nothing, so I assumed that’s what he meant."

Mr. Cappadona had also assumed, because of Basquiat’s appearance—he wandered the streets of the island barefoot and slept in one of the local’s fruit stands (not unlike his infamous cardboard digs in New York)—that he was a kind of street person, despite the fact that he must have been at the height of his wealth at the time.

After seeing Basquiat’s picture in Art in America, Mr. Cappadona spoke with his neighbor, Carter Tutwiler, who happened to be a contemporary art dealer who deals in Warhols. He showed him the magazine and said, "I know this guy, this ‘Basqueee.’ He used to come here from New York, and we would hang out. And I have drawings."

"Carter thought I was crazy," Mr. Cappadona explained.

Mr. Tutwiler did think he was crazy—until Mr. Cappadona retrieved a picture of himself and Basquiat taken by Basquiat’s then girlfriend, Kelle Inman, along with 14 drawings. He later found three painted cabinet pieces. (He had left Basquiat in his shack one day with a few panels used for cabinets, he said, and when he came back, he found that Basquiat had painted on them. "I was annoyed," Mr. Cappadona said, "but kept them anyway.")

Basquiat had been dead for over 10 years when Mr. Cappadona stumbled across the issue of Art in America. Back in 1988, Mr. Cappadona had heard through the "coconut wireless" that "that black dude who used to visit from New York" had died. While he had yet to learn of Basquiat’s fame, he held on to the photo and the various drawings over the years, because "you keep things from dead people." Indeed, prior to hearing of Basquiat’s death, he had thrown a number of the drawings out.

In the past three years, Mr. Cappadona has sold seven of his 14 drawings and two of the three cabinet pieces—for debts and travel expenses—mainly on eBay, for prices far below what he may have been able to get for them. (He’s in the process of trying to sell the third cabinet piece, with the hopes of investing in some property with his more on-the-grid girlfriend.) Mr. Cappadona has already heard that one of the pieces sold for twice what he initially asked for it.

Why doesn’t he sell the work through an established gallery? First, because $900 is a lot of money for a drawing on a scrap of paper to a guy who lives on $200 a month. Second, there’s the question of authentication. Mr. Cappadona initially did submit a piece for authentication and spoke with Gerard Basquiat, Jean-Michel’s father and the estate’s administrator, but was told that his piece had been denied. Mr. Cappadona thought this was ridiculous: He didn’t understand how a piece given to him personally by Jean-Michel couldn’t be recognized as a work by "Basquiat." This may be because the Basquiat family and estate are reluctant to authenticate any work not in their possession, which may bring down the value of their holdings. And serious collectors generally don’t buy pieces that can’t be authenticated. As proof of the provenance of his pieces, Mr. Cappadona sends a letter explaining his relationship with Basquiat, a description of the piece, the picture of the two of them, and then offers to speak by phone. This seems sufficient for his buyers.

Mr. Cappadona is currently working on a written account of his time with Basquiat in Hana, as he says his memories of Basquiat do not square with the childlike, suicidal junkie described in interviews with Basquiat’s friends in Phoebe Hoban’s biography, Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art. According to Ms. Hoban’s book, much of the impetus for Basquiat’s trips to Maui was to kick heroin. Mr. Cappadona said he knew nothing of Basquiat’s drug habit and that the artist never mentioned it. He thinks an incident during Basquiat’s last trip to Hana could have contributed to a bout of depression that may have triggered his overdose in New York a couple months later. He said that while watching Julian Schnabel’s film Basquiat, he noted, toward the end of the movie, that a friend of Basquiat’s suggests they escape New York for Hawaii. Basquiat responds, "Fuck Hawaii."