The brutal death that politicized New York’s art world

In the early 1980s, the death of a young graffiti artist in police custody shocked and enraged the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring – and changed the city’s creative community for ever, writes Matt Barker.

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It was just before three in the morning on 15 September 1983, and Michael Stewart was on his way back home to Brooklyn after a night out at the Pyramid Club in the East Village. Waiting for a train at the First Avenue station at 14th Street, the 25-year-old whipped out a pen and tagged one of the station’s tiled walls. He was spotted by a New York Transit Police patrol and after a brief chase, caught. Witnesses then reported seeing him beaten while cuffed, though the cops who detained him later claimed he simply fell while attempting to evade them. Heavily bruised and suffering from a cardiac arrest, he was taken to the nearby Bellevue Hospital, where he fell into a coma and died 13 days later.

The arresting officers, all of whom were white, were charged with criminally negligent homicide, assault and perjury, but those same witnesses who claimed to have seen the incident first-hand were unable to identify any particular officers as the perpetrators. Charges were downscaled and the policemen were put on trial solely for allowing Stewart to be beaten while in their custody. An initial seven-month grand jury investigation then had to be dropped after one of the jurors decided to do their own investigating, jeopardising the whole case. A retrial was held in November 1985, and the officers acquitted.

Even more so after this outcome, Stewart’s death reverberated as a symbol – and none more so than among New York’s art scene.  As soon as news of Stewart’s vicious arrest began to filter through, and to a backdrop of growing racial tensions in the city, the once determinedly apolitical downtown arts community was possessed by a new-found spirit of solidarity and rage, galvanised into action by the brutality of the police and the fear of further clampdowns.

Basquiat’s Defacement: The Untold Story, a new exhibition that has just opened at the city’s Guggenheim Museum, relays how artists in the city reacted to Stewart’s death. Centring around Jean-Michel Basquiat’s searing painting The Death of Michael Stewart (widely known as Defacement), alongside other works of the artist related to police brutality, it also includes responses to the incident by Keith Haring, Andy Warhol (one of his screen-printed Headline series paintings from 1983 featuring a New York Daily News article on Stewart’s death) and the social realist David Hammons (his 1986 stencilled print The Man Nobody Killed).

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