Born in New Jersey in 1954, Wojnarowicz faced an abusive family life, which led him to drop out of high school at 16 and live on the streets. He turned to hustling in Times Square, which he later reflected on as a nightmarish experience. After years spent hitchhiking across the US and living for several months in San Francisco and Paris, he settled in New York's East Village in 1978.
Many of Wojnarowicz' works incorporate outsider experiences drawn from his personal history and from the stories of the people he met along his travels. In such diverse works as Sounds in the Distance (1982), a collection of monologues from "people who lived and worked in the streets" and The Weight of the Earth, Part I & II (1988), an arrangement of black-and-white photographs taken during his travels and life in New York, Wojnarowicz continually returned to the personal voices of individuals stigmatized by society.
A member of the first wave of East Village artists, Wojnarowicz began showing his work during the early 1980s in a variety of now-prominent gallery spaces. He was included in the 1985 Whitney Biennial, and was soon showing in numerous museum and gallery exhibitions throughout the United States, Europe and Latin America.
In the late 1980s, Wojnarowicz was diagnosed with AIDS, and his art took on a sharply political edge. He spent the rest of his life entangled in highly public debates about medical research and funding, morality and censorship in the arts, and the legal rights of artists.