In our new African American History curriculum for middle school students, we explore how Jean-Michel Basquiat’s art also served as a platform for advocacy, addressing some of the most pressing issues of race and discrimination of his (and our) day. Basquiat was already a successful studio artist when, on September 15th, 1983, events transpired in the East Village that inspired him to create one of his most debated, dissected, and discussed works, Defacement. This piece has inspired generations of activists, including the current Black Lives Matter movement.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn to a Black Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother. As a child he was a gifted artist. As a teenager, through his work with a theater group called Family Life Theatre, Basquiat created a character he called SAMO (Same Old Shit). He and fellow City-as-School classmate and graffiti artist Al Diaz collaborated on the SAMO project. They spray painted aphorisms and graffiti with the SAMO tag on the D train line and all around lower Manhattan.
In the fall of 1978, Basquiat met fellow downtown artists and scene-makers Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf, both major players in the emerging East Village art scene. They were to remain an integral part of Basquiat’s life and work which are synonymous with the East Village/NoHo art scene of the 1980’s. Basquiat became a world famous star of the art world by the time he was 21. In August of 1983, Basquiat leased a space at 57 Great Jones Street from his friend and mentor, Andy Warhol.
Not long after, at around 2 am on September 15, 1983, Michael Stewart, a 25-year-old artist, was allegedly drawing on the walls of the Brooklyn-bound L train platform at the 14th Street and 1st Avenue subway station in the East Village, when he was approached by transit cops who placed him under arrest. Witnesses reported the officers threw him to the ground after exiting the train station and beat him, while the police reported that he fell after attempting to escape police custody. He was brought to Bellevue Hospital hogtied and in critical condition.
After thirteen days in a coma, Stewart died from his injuries on September 28, 1983. Bruising and brain damage indicated he was strangled. A grand jury indicted Officers Kostick, Anthony Piscola and Henry Boerner for criminally negligent homicide, assault, and perjury. Three other police officers, Sgts. Henry Hassler and James Barry and Officer Susan Techky, were charged with perjury. All were subsequently acquitted of any wrongdoing, and three years later the MTA paid Stewart’s family $1.7 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit.
Richard Emery, a civil rights attorney who observed the case for the New York Civil Liberties Union, called it “one of the most egregious tragedies of police abuse in the city,” and stated that “the prevailing belief was that the cops got away with murder.”
Stewart’s death struck a deep chord with Basquiat. Both were thin black male artists, who wore their hair in dreadlocks, were around the same age, and spent a lot of time in the East Village. At the time Basquiat was dating Stewart’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, who was white. Stewart had allegedly been seen by the cops kissing a white woman on the cheek prior to his fatal encounter, which reportedly served as a factor that enraged the cops who would later arrest him.
Defacement depicts a scene of police brutality, a power imbalance felt by many black men and women in this country in relation to the police. The painting was likely inspired by a protest poster created by David Wojnarowicz that was posted throughout the East Village.
Basquiat was distraught after Stewart’s death, repeating to friends “it could have been me.” Stewart’s death shook the East Village art scene. In addition to Basquiat, a number of other influential East Village artists produced artworks addressing what happened to Stewart. This includes Andy Warhol’s screen-printed painting from 1983 incorporating a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death, Keith Haring’s painting Michael Stewart—U.S.A. for Africa (1985); David Hammons’s stenciled print titled The Man Nobody Killed (1986), George Condo’s painting Portrait of Michael Stewart (1983) and Lyle Ashton Harris’s photographic portrait Saint Michael Stewart (1994). All speak to the reverberations among local artists after Stewart’s death.
Defacement was originally painted by Basquiat in the days after Stewart’s death, on an already-painted and tagged plasterboard on the wall of Keith Haring’s NoHo studio, almost as an afterthought. Before moving out of his studio in 1985, Haring cut the image out from the wall. The artwork was likely not ever meant to be public, has never been sold, is rarely displayed in public, and remains in the private collection of Nina Clemente, Keith Haring’s goddaughter. Defacement was hanging above Haring’s bed at the time of his death in 1990.