Defacement Reflecting on Police Brutality: a Jean Michel-Basquiat Story

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Thesis statement: Art tends be a reflection of how an artist is feeling in a certain moment or time and at times it dives into the mind of the artist during the darkest periods of their lives.

Artists tend to find inspiration in circumstances or instances that directly affect them on an emotional level. May that be as a result of a death or even a life altering incident that maybe they didn’t experience in person but it still hit home pretty hard. This description could be applied to any artist from a painter, musician, or even a personality such as Kim Kardashian who experienced something similar just a year ago in Paris after she was robbed and held captive in her own hotel room. While the story i’m about to describe focuses more on a certain political topic that I have covered before, this is probably the first instance where I will detail someone else’s experience with this topic. With all of that being said, this of course is A Jean Michel-Basquiat Story on how he challenged police brutality through his artwork.

Before I get into detail on the instance that changed Jean Michel-Basquiat’s life, I would first like to take some time to detail his life before and after he rose to stardom as an upcoming artist in the New York scene during the neo-expressionism era. Jean-Michel Basquiat was born on December 22, 1960 in Brooklyn, New York to Matilda Andrades and Gerald Basquiat. At a young age, Basquiat was already regarded as a gifted young man after he learned how to read and write at the age of four years old. His then art teacher, Jose Machado, took notice of how gifted Basquiat was and along with his mother, they both pushed Basquiat’s artistic talent eventually leading his to create a mini children’s book at the age of eleven years old. Backtracking a little, there was also another instance that inspired Basquiat and his art career which was more on the traumatizing side. At the age of seven years old, Jean-Michel Basquiat was struck by a car while playing on the street. Although he suffered many injuries, what really changed his life was when his mother brought him a copy of a Gray’s Anatomy book which inspired his now famous art style that plays with the perception of the human body. Fast forwarding to the late 1970s to early 1980s, Basquiat was living as the often stereotyped typed image that was the starving artist. He would move from house to house bunking with some friends while making custom made postcards in order to make ends meet and get his artwork out there for the world to take notice. Jean-Michel Basquiat also participated in Graffiti art where he went under the moniker SAMO which will be a key detail to keep in mind when reading on further. He would eventually make his break through in the art scene after he was invited on to the Times Square Show where he would be sponsored by various art companies and from there the rest was history. He would go on to rub shoulders with Andy Warhol, date Madonna, and become a major selling artist but of course stories never truly end and we’re just scratching the surface.

This part of the story takes place back in September 1983 in New York City where 25 year old Michael Stewart, a fellow graffiti artist like Basquiat, was beaten to death by New York City police officers. This being one of the many instances of police brutality right next to the 1991 Rodney King beating by LAPD officers and would later die from his injuries. Out of the eleven officers that were involved in the death of Michael Stewart, all were acquitted by an all white jury. This particular instance hit home for Basquiat because him being both black and a graffiti artist, he realized that in another life, that could have easily been him at the heels of those police officers at an inch of his life. The thought of this horrific act made him feel distraught and he saw this as an opportunity to speak out against this injustice that has been afflicted upon many black and brown men across the country. Without hesitation, Basquiat would head over to Keith Haring’s studio where he would paint a piece that reflected what the events that unfolded during the beating of Michael Stewart and so Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) was born.

Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart) reflected a common theme in america when it comes to the conversation of police brutality and how some officers were able to get away with taking the lives of many these unarmed young men who were only guilty of being associated with some officer’s prejudices against certain people. This painting would be a topic of debate amongst art majors and the Black Lives Matter group due to its strong relevance today on how people are being more vocal when it comes to speaking out on the topic of police brutality. Many can look at this painting and see what we see on a consistent basis on the news about another young black man losing his life at the hands of a system that would acquit his murderers even with the damning evidence provided. That’s what I take away from this painting and it’s just interesting to look back at it and realize that nothing’s really changed when it comes to this topic. Hopefully one day we’ll all get out bearings in order and stop repeating history to the point where it stops becoming just history but a consistent reality.

As I come to a conclusion, I would like to leave you, the reader, with some key takeaways from this story that may change the way you view this topic and how it hits certain people when faced with this conversation but of course we can’t stray away from the real topic of this essay on how art can reflect an artist’s experiences. Jean-Michel Basquiat lived a short but prosperous life that lives on in america’s culture from his pieces to his conversation starters. Although we’re not all famous artists that have the opportunity to express ourselves so openly like Basquiat did, we can still reflect that in our writing and how we tell stories. There’s no limit to what your imagination can produce when you receive that extra push to explore what you have to offer. So in conclusion, this is how art reflects the artist and his or her experiences.

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Defacement Reflecting on Police Brutality: A Jean Michel-Basquiat Story. (2019, Nov 16). Retrieved from

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