Hailing from Brooklyn, Black 25-year old artist Michael Stewart joined the emerging East Village art scene in 1983 when he leased his first studio in the Anderson Theater for $25 a month. In the early morning hours of September 15 of that year, Stewart and his buddy George Condo tried to get into a party at Keith Haring's Broome Street loft before hitting up the Pyramid Club on Avenue A. Ready to head home, Stewart entered the L train station on First Avenue and 14th Street.
New York City Transit Police Officer John Kostick later testified under oath that he saw Stewart writing graffiti on the wall at 2:30 a.m. He claimed Stewart surrendered without resistance, but then attempted to run while handcuffed, tripped, and fell face first. Other witnesses testified to seeing Stewart brutally beaten, shouting “someone help me, someone help me!” before being hog-tied and thrown in a police van. Half an hour later, Stewart arrived at Bellevue Hospital comatose. He never regained consciousness and died on September 28. Two years later, an all-white jury acquitted the six NYPD officers charged in the killing of Michael Stewart.
Stewart's death did not go unrecognized—then or now. In Basquiat's “Defacement”: The Untold Story, guest curator Chaédria LaBouvier has organized a deeply moving exhibition that takes Jean-Michel Basquiat's deeply personal and rarely exhibited painting made the week of Stewart’s death as its starting point, opening a conversation about police brutality that transcends the time in which the work was made.
We brought together a group of legendary graffiti writers and contemporaries of Basquiat and Stewart to reflect on surviving New York in the 1980s.
Al Diaz is a first-generation New York City graffiti writer who went by BOMB 1 before teaming up with Jean-Michel Basquiat to create SAMO© from 1977 to 1979. He is also a musician who played percussion on Beat Bop, the seminal 1983 hip-hop record featuring Rammellzee and K-Rob.
I started writing in '71, and by '77 it was played out for me. When Jean and I developed the SAMO© concept, I made it into a graffiti campaign because Jean was not part of the culture; he didn’t come up through the ranks. SAMO© wasn't for other graffiti artists—it was for the public. It wasn't a tag or a person. It was based on a fake religion that didn't exist, but we tried to promote it as such.
I recall when Michael Stewart was killed. I thought it was horrific… You had to have 360 degrees of eyes around your head—especially back then, because the cops were hunting us down. In the 80s with [Mayor] Koch, there was a lot of hostility towards graffiti artists.
In my extensive journey through the correctional system, I personally have confronted police brutality. I was a junkie for 19 years, so I’ve been locked up many times. I was being processed at Rikers Island while going through heroin withdrawal, and the nurse told the cop who drove the bus, "This guy is being difficult." He took me into a back room, put on rubber gloves, and beat the shit out of me. I'm not a big fan of the NYPD. I'm 60 and I still feel that way. I've met some good cops but there are a lot of awful human beings that were given a badge and a gun and that's dangerous.
Lin Quik Felton
As a member of the ROLLING THINDER WRITERS, Lin Felton, also known as QUIK, first met Jean-Michel Basquiat at RTW founder BILROCK's Upper West Side home. A professional artist, Felton has lived and worked abroad for 27 years of his adult life. [Editor's Note: this interview was conducted over email, and we have preserved Felton's language as written.]
Jean had already denounced his "fame" as SAMO, and sought to re-invent himself as a more urban soothsayer than vandal. As we would go off to paint our beloved subway cars for the 100th or 1,000th time, Jean roamed the streets scribbling his dark cryptic poetry upon the inanimate brick facades, monuments to man's so-called progress.
As an afro-Amerikkkan born and raised in New York City since 1958, the threat of police brutality against our generation was real. Although I went to university and worked at IBM, I expected to be murdered by the police due to the color of my skin. Michael Stewart was another soul added to the ever-increasing body count of Amerikkka's genocidal practices. His murder was privy to a well-written expose in The Village Voice, presenting the plight of New York's urban youth to a different audience. The overall sentiment was that this too can happen to you regardless of race, creed, or misbehaving antics.
I was apprehended four times in my "career" as QUIK. My most un-fond memory was being singled out of a group of six nabbed outside a train storage lay-up. The police announced, "Put the paint on the n-----" (meaning charge me with the crime). Subsequently, the other five white men were given court appearance tickets and set free while I began my short yet harrowing experience through the judicial system. Later, in central booking, the prospect of being gang raped ended my career as a graffiti painter in New York City.
Chris Pape, also known as FREEDOM, is an American painter, author, and graffiti artist who started tagging trains in 1974 as GEN II. Pape is best known for his paintings in the Amtrak "Freedom" Tunnel on Manhattan's West Side, which went out of operation in 1980 and became a haven for graffiti writers and homeless people alike.
I knew Jean-Michel. We weren't close friends, but around 1980, he would come to the Soul Artists' meetings, and afterwards we would have dinner at [founder] ALI's place. Then they would go off to do drugs and I would step away. I wasn't into the downtown scene. For those of us who were graffiti writers, we ran certain risks. ALI was in a horrible explosion when he was painting trains; he had third-degree burns and almost died. You could run down the long list of people who got smacked around by cops and dragged by trains.
I didn't know Michael Stewart, but his story touched me, so I did a painting of him in the Freedom Tunnel and one on canvas that hung in my studio for years. It was a striking image; it came from the East Village Eye. Michael Stewart could have been any one of us standing in that train station writing our names. He died for something we did.
The Parks Department buffed the painting in the tunnel almost immediately. They were censoring paintings down there but I didn't know that until later, thinking about what paintings they knocked out and what paintings survived. The painting was in black and silver and it said "Rest in Peace Michael Stewart." It was opposite from the RIP painting I did for CAINE, but the Parks Department didn't paint over that—I guess because CAINE wasn't killed by a cop.
West Rubinstein, also known as WEST ONE, is an artist, VP of Supreme, and co-founder of PNB Nation, the streetwear brand that created the iconic HELLO MY NAME IS T-shirt, which remade the iconic graffiti sticker in homage to Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpurs, and Phillip Pannell, all of whom died at the hands of police between 1983 and 1990.
I started writing on the trains in the winter of '83—right after the great renaissance of graffiti documented in Style Wars, Wild Style, and Subway Art. The city went on a heavy buffing campaign right after that; between '83 and '84, the trains were a dead zone.
[…] PNB was created by a Puerto Rican, a Jew, a Chinese Jamaican, and an African American. Most of our parents were activists, or we had lots of literature in our homes from revolutionaries and radicals over various sorts, so we grew up with this seed in our heads. We used the language and aesthetic of graffiti to make the "HELLO MY NAME IS" shirt to make young people pay attention. For us, it was about awareness of the police state and powerlessness of predominantly Black and brown people, the working class, and the disenfranchised.
When you look at it from a social psychological point of view, the essence of graffiti is I exist and I was here. It's young people asserting themselves in situations where they don't have another way. The fundamental human imperative outside survival is to be known. We want to be seen, and we want to be heard.
Basquiat's "Defacement:" The Untold Story is on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York through November 6, 2019.
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