Thirty-seven years ago, on September 15, 1983 at 2:50 a.m., a 25-year-old African American artist was arrested by transit cops in New York City for allegedly drawing on the walls of the subway at the First Avenue station. Dozens of witness accounts depict the cops throwing Michael Jerome Stewart to the ground after exiting the train station and beating him. Upon being taken to the hospital handcuffed and hogtied, a comatose Stewart was diagnosed with bruising and brain damage, suggesting he was choked or strangled. After two weeks in a coma, Stewart succumbed to his injuries. The cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrest.” All the police officers involved were later acquitted of any wrongdoing.
The tragedy would provoke a legendary response from a legendary artist. “It could have been me,” offered Jean-Michel Basquiat, when informed of the death of Stewart. Though the quip may have sounded self-centered at the time, it was far from false. Both men were artists known to employ their colorful craft on buildings, trains, and subway stations about the city. Both ran in similar circles and had even dated the same girl. Both were dreadlock-bearing African Americans in their twenties and, as such, prime targets for police brutality.
Basquiat recognized the killing with more than just words. Devastated, he visited close friend and fellow artist Keith Haring’s studio and began painting on the side of a wall. Haring subsequently had the image cut out of the wall and framed. Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), depicting the last moments of Stewart’s life, would later be characterized as Basquiat’s most personal piece.
Unfortunately, four decades later, it still speaks to our precarious American plight as the state-sponsored attack on young Black men and women continues. Despite such technological advancements in monitoring as police body cams, cell phones, and real-time social media, Basquiat’s piece is as tragic and timely as it was in 1983 as police continue to get away with murder. By recording this horrific event, Basquiat not only captured the moment, but also the ongoing history of state-sanctioned violence against America’s darker citizens.
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