Both raw and supremely elegant, The Ruffians exemplifies Basquiat's brief but prolific oeuvre. Executed at the peak of his creative powers, when the artist was just twenty-two years old, this multi-media work attests to his precocious talent. Synthesizing a myriad of concerns and techniques, he creates a work that is at once beautiful and loaded with content. Physical in its occasional gestural passages and energetic scrawls, cerebral in its pronouncement against contemporary socio-economic injustices, and poignant in its autobiographical undertones, The Ruffians is rife with multiple interpretations. It reflects the characteristically complex milange of technical, conceptual, personal energies that embodied Basquiat's work.
The crowned figures in The Ruffians are near totemic, acting against social injustice and personal loss. Featuring skull-like visages that resemble "primitive" icons, Basquiat created an identity that conflated role model and father figure on which he could project of his hopes and fears. Of both personal and public significance, figures such as those featured in The Ruffians lent the artist his absent father, but also embodied black heroism on a more generic level.
The repertoire of drips, stick figures, symbols and letters that populate The Ruffians resemble the graffiti of the streets that were central to the Basquiat's artistic career as the graffiti artist SAMO from 1977 through 1980. In this guise, Basquiat acted somewhat like an oracle, distilling perceptions of the external world to their essence via spray painted pithy aphorisms on urban edifices. This method of working extended into his early work as an artist. Reducing external referents to their core forms and juxtaposing them like non-sequiturs, he created multiple points of focus that became a metaphor for the competing exigencies of the urban experience. The Ruffians heightens this effect through the use of various mediums. The layering produced by the collaged paper is particularly effective in suggesting the overlap of multiple stimuli of city life. Collaged surfaces always appealed to Basquiat, who incorporated drawings and photocopies of his own work with great abandon, achieving thick and tactile surfaces in that lent a textural counterpart to the visual overload. As a graffiti artist, he would have encountered various surfaces that were invaded by posters, bills and existing graffiti. His use of acrylic, oilstick and collaged paper in The Ruffians compounds the disparate imagery in the work, and successfully evokes the multiplicity of contemporary life.
Supremely gifted at painting, draftsmanship and composition, Basquiat's talents belied his years and lack of formal training. The Ruffians is a captivating balance between painting and drawing. Although chromatically restrained compared to some of his other work, it displays subtle shifts in close-toned white and beige passages with bright highlights. The work features areas of swiftly delineated figures, signs and doodles painted in acrylic and executed directly with oil stick. Evoking the famous art historical debate between the linear and the painterly, Basquiat generates a truce between the rival camps of Ingres (pro-drawing) and Delacroix (pro-painting). Additionally, Basquiat confuses mediums, producing a painting, drawing and collage at once.