14. To the Memory of Michael Stewart

1985, 14’ x 8’


Photo © Camille Perrottet


French born and raised in Paris, Etienne came to the United States in 1979 to study for a PhD in pure mathematics at Columbia University. Before settling in New York City, he traveled around the country, hoping to meet people who, like him, were working on “personal issues with identity, gender, politics.” Etienne recalls that his “favorite hanging place in San Francisco was the Mission district where I discovered Balmy Alley—the inspiration for La Lucha—and Precita Eyes Muralists. Soon, there I was, on top of a scaffold, painting and drawing for a few weeks. It was a very good way for me to get involved with the community and delve a little more in the Central and South American side of the local culture. 

“I settled in New York a year later to start my PhD and was very impressed by the work of graffiti artists on the subways. Temptation was strong to try to join these courageous artists. Although I never got the nerve to go into the yards, where it happening, I started making stencils on the streets and began to sign ‘El Chino’. 

“I was living uptown in Manhattan Valley in a Dominican neighborhood and helping building tenants fight our slumlord in court. I also spent a lot of time on the Lower East Side, getting to know local figures, musicians, dancers, junkies, activists, experimental filmmakers, and emerging gallery owners. With Paul Chelstad, I announced concerts via street graffiti at happening places like the Pyramid Club where Michael Stewart had been before leaving for the subway. I did not know Michael Stewart, but for our loose community of street artists, his death was shocking. We all had our problems with the police. It was not a very funny game of hide and seek, but we never thought it would threaten our lives.” 

To the Memory of Michael Stewart reads like a comic strip. It opens at the Pyramid Club where Michael is “bartending and meeting a lady who kisses him goodbye. Then, all love drunk, he gives way to his inspiration on the subway platform. What happens next is that the transit police fall down on him, and he eventually ends up at the morgue where Mayor Koch can be seen in the background.” 



In the early hours of September 15, 1983, 25-year-old Michael Stewart left the Pyramid Club on Avenue A and headed for the First Avenue and 14th Street subway station to catch the L train home to Brooklyn. As he waited for the train, he allegedly pulled out a marker and began scrawling graffiti on the wall, not noticing nearby transit police. The events that followed are not entirely clear but, at 3:20 AM, he arrived at Bellevue Hospital in police custody, hog tied, badly bruised, with no pulse. Hospital staff got him breathing again, but couldn’t bring him out of a coma. Thirteen days later, he died in his hospital bed. 

Years before, the city had declared a “war on graffiti,” waging a costly, and even sometimes violent, effort to eradicate it. However, as details of Stewart’s murder became known—for tagging a subway wall—New Yorkers were shocked by its sheer brutality. The six officers—all white—were acquitted. 

At the time, Michael Stewart’s death was emblematic of the widespread police brutality faced by people of color in New York City. Thirty-two years later, nothing has changed.



Etienne returned to France and teaches mathematics full time to engineering students in Marrakesh and Paris. He is also the producer of shows and films by his wife, the Spanish choreographer Blanca Li who began in New York—her performances were announced by his street graffiti— and became a star in France.  blancali.com 

Jane Weissman