Pencil Icon



I touched down in Bedstuy, in early 2005. Still Crooklyn then and very much “Do or Die.”

Stuyvesant Heights was on the horizon, the gentrifiers were here and there, but they hadn’t quite taken over. The Black community wasn’t thriving, but still alive. Murals spoke on Black pride and power. It felt good to be there, even if I came at the end of Brooklyn’s Black renaissance.  

Black love was still in the air. We weren’t separated yet. I fell into it myself. I represented Queens, she was raised out in Brooklyn. 

I made an attempt to get close to Bedstuy and more importantly Brooklyn. I had a renewed interest in the film DO THE RIGHT THING, which was filmed in the neighborhood years before. Remnants of the film were still visibly present at Stuyvesant and Hart. 

There was a faded graffiti mural, which read “BROOKLYN’S OWN MIKE TYSON.” I searched, but there was no Mookie. No Mayor. Mother Sister had passed away years before. But there, on the block, was Buggin Out. The righteous Black man, the God, still living and breathing in the hood. Still rocking the frames, Africa medallion, pristine Jordans and shining with Radio Raheem’s LOVE and HATE. 

I told him how much I appreciated Brooklyn, the culture, the art, the vibrance. He squashed all of that up and coming borough talk with a question. 

"Who grieves for Michael Stewart?"

That name rung bells. I couldn’t put my finger on it, or why the name sounded so familiar. It stuck with me. Perhaps the name was brought up during frequent NYPD brutality and murder cases over the years. Or there was the chance that during my youth, his name seeped through my parent’s black and white television and like so many other things in 85, it was stored in my mind, while traumatized during a time of commotion. 

Had it not been for Radio Raheem’s death, many would have forgotten Michael Stewart’s murder in 1983. The coverup by the New York City Police department, the medical examiners, the district attorneys and the press. 

The New York transit police said he was a graffiti vandal. The press, through their articles painted a picture of a wild, high, coked up nigger, who liked to write on walls and resisted arrest.  The officers who killed him, continued working and were indicted on lesser charges in 1985. No one was charged for the actual murder.

As I spent time digging in the crates, I found and continue to find proof of gross injustice and coverup. A murder that started, not with vandalism, but a police officer who had the devil in his eyes. 

Someone might ask me, why I care about Michael Stewart. 

Perhaps it was a trip back to Queens. Receiving a piercing stare from Sean Bell’s widow which translated to me that I had failed her and my community. Or maybe, it was sitting in an auditorium, hearing Cornell West speak from the podium, being edified by his words. His sentences telling me not to give up. Telling me that I had the choice to fight and the consequences of doing so.

More recently, I started caring because of the murders of Rohan Marley and Reynaldo Cuevas. The outright violation of human rights and freedom of speech, visibly executed by the New York City police department during the Occupy Wall Street campaign. 

Truth be told it was the graffiti along the path line in Jersey, which brought me back to New York City after a 9/11 hiatus. It was the removal of a graff piece in Queens, a masterpiece, that encouraged me to appreciate the art that I had taken for granted. With no hand style, I became an advocate, learning along the way. There, in several graff publications, there was Michael’s name, the “graff writer,” with a missing black book, murdered by the NYPD. 

Actually it was the story of the graffiti writer Sane, whose brother Smith still puts up for him, honoring his fallen brother and Smiths’s example of using art to fight against the tragedy associated with his brother’s death. By consistently and continually putting his brother’s name up, he kept Sane alive. Through his work, he grieved for Sane.

Truthfully it was all of these things that made me care about the Michael Stewart tragedy. It was remembering that I’m a native New Yorker and occasionally knowing that I need to put up for my city and a culture that I’ve often neglected.

I’ve written on walls, but I won’t disrespect the culture by calling myself a graff writer. As someone who cares about the visual medium, I believe it has its place in New York City. 

Quite possibly, just maybe, I may have been provoked by the writing on the wall,”TAWANA TOLD THE TRUTH!” I’m not sure if she did, but what I’m trying to get at is this — Spike Lee can’t do everything. Doing the right thing, meant fighting the power! It can be interpreted by artists and activist, as a way to fight against the system that continues to oppress us.

If we, do the right thing, we’ll encourage others to embrace the laws of mankind.  Speaking out against grave injustice and if nothing else, remembering those who have suffered these fates. 

One journalist who got it right, stated “Justice for Michael Stewart, when it comes, will not come from the same system that killed him!”

A corrupt system used the graffiti label, to tarnish Michael Stewart’s name. Ironically, it is the graffiti community, the writers, these individuals, more than any other group of people in New York City, have the power to transcend the laws that oppressed them and if they work together, vindicate Michael Stewart’s name.

But on the real, none of these things caused me to reflect on Michael Stewart. Truthfully, it was Buggin Out, the righteous Black man still in Bedstuy, brushing his Jordans and occasionally boxing the gentrifiers in the head, with LOVE and HATE. I asked the God for lessons. He told me to “Stay Black!” and that the lessons were in the street. 

I took walks with my camera, documenting the visual poetry. I began to hear voices at night. One voice continually urging me to remember Michael Stewart. To put up for Michael Stewart and to fight for Michael Stewart. 

That voice, led me to a wall. It said “Damn Clarke, can’t believe I heard my name on the realest shit you ever wrote!” The voice asked me to grieve for Michael Stewart. 

And so I did…