At 2:50 AM on a September night in 1983 a 25-year-old artist is arrested by the NYPD Transit Police for writing graffiti in the First Avenue station of the L Train. When police officers bring him, bound at the ankles and with an elastic strap running hog-tie-style from his hands to his feet, into the Union Square Police Station they decide that he is mentally disturbed and must be transferred to Bellevue Hospital. By the time he arrives at Bellevue, handcuffed and bound, only 32 minutes after his arrest, he is comatose. Thirteen days later, without ever regaining consciousness, he dies.
The city’s medical examiner makes three separate findings regarding the cause of death. In the first he attributes death to alcohol poisoning that, he asserts, led to coma and a fatal heart attack. A second autopsy performed a month later finds that the artist died from a spinal injury to his upper neck. A third examination concludes that the cause of death was blunt-force injury. Subsequently, doctors hired by the artist’s family perform a fourth autopsy, which determines that the artist died from strangulation. This family-funded autopsy is hampered by the fact that both eyes have been removed from the artist’s body during one of the official autopsies, organs that the city’s medical examiner refuses to make available. Eyes are important because signs of hemorrhaging in them could indicate strangulation. Eventually, six police officers are put on trail for the young man’s death. An all-white jury acquits them of any criminal conduct. In response to a $40-million civil lawsuit brought by the artist’s family, the city ultimately awards his parents $1.7 million.
A few months after the artist’s death another young artist who was his friend and is haunted by his fate creates a painting in his memory. “It could have been me,” he repeatedly says, knowing how vulnerable young Black men like both of them are to police violence. The memorial is painted not on a canvas but onto a wall in the studio of a third artist, who first gained fame himself by making drawings in NYC subway stations. The composition, executed with markers and acrylic paint, depicts two cops beating a legless, armless black figure. When, two years later, artist #3 changes studios he cuts the painting out of the plasterboard wall where it was made and takes it with him. Four years later he has it placed in an ornate gilt frame and hangs it above his bed. Sadly, he has little time left to enjoy the painting; next year he is dead at 31 from AIDS. By that time the artist who painted the tribute is himself two years in the grave, dead at 27 from a drug overdose.
Written above the truncheon-wielding officers and their victim is the Spanish word “¿defacimento?” (defacement). By bracketing a word so often used to condemn graffiti with question marks, the painter challenges the entire legal and social system that led to his friend’s death. According to Merriam-Webster, synonyms for defacement include defacing, trashing, vandalism, and vandalization. Words related to defacement include demolishing, demolishment, desecrating, destruction, ravage, ravaging, ruin, ruination, wrecking, sabotage, depredation, despoiling, despoilment, looting, marauding, pillage, pillaging, plunder, plundering, predation, ransacking, sacking, and spoliation. Near antonyms for defacement include conservation, preservation, protection, salvage, saving.
(Michael Stewart, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring)