If you've ever driven downtown on Manhattan's FDR
Drive by 108th St, you might have noticed a large-lettered
mural that states plainly: "Crack is Wack." This is part of a great legacy
left on the world by the artist Keith Haring
. As an artist myself, I often visit galleries
, but it's rare that I find something I can easily relate
to. I know I'm not alone in this frustration, and Keith's passion was to change that. His art incorporated popular
styles to find resonance with a tremendous range of people spanning many cultures and age groups.
I'd like to share with you aspects of his story that have influenced me, as well as provide you with a brief summary of Keith's life and contributions made to the visual history of NYC and beyond.
Keith was raised in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, but he arrived “home” in New York City in 1978 at the age of 20. He immediately found inspiration in the gay, punk, and artistic subcultures that were prevalent downtown in the 1980’s, and his interest in graffiti art also started at this time. These were the days when subway cars were covered in graffiti murals, with bright bold colors and the solid black lines of cartooning that Keith had been obsessed with since his youth. Keith was often *so* intrigued by the subway art that he would intentionally miss his train to see what would be on the next one! He longed to communicate with the public in a similar manner.
Towards the end of 1980, he had found his niche. He started using white chalk on the black paper that filled the space between advertisements in subway stations, creating free-form storylines with characters he had developed. The crawling baby, which you might also recognize, became his signature, and the barking dog always had something to say. A flying saucer started zapping rays at characters, and they would then in turn become empowered by these cosmic glowing rays. His images were direct; his characters alive in movement, telling intuitive tales of the brutal world around us in a humorous but uplifting manner, and communicated our very basic conflicts: love, lust, pride, sadness, joy, and much, much more.
Within weeks, Keith upped his production to 30-40 drawings a day, riding the subway for hours followed by Tseng Kwong Chi taking pictures. As the images gained notoriety, so did his harassment from law enforcement, but even cops were among his fans. Keith was continually encouraged and motivated by the public in their reaction to his art, and he continued drawing in the subways until 1986. These drawings fulfilled his dream of letting art live through the experience of the observer.
From 1982, Keith worked around the world constantly, painting bold, interactive murals in public places such as hospitals, schools, churches, and parks, often involving children in the process. Other murals in NYC can still be seen in the halls of Wyckoff (and/or Woodhull?) Hospital in Brooklyn, and at the Lesbian and Gay Center in the West Village of Manhattan. It should also be noted that Keith conducted educational art workshops for thousands of children throughout his career.
Keith was impassioned to support the causes of people of color, having felt that he himself was born in the wrong skin. He contributed artwork heavily to the “Free South Africa” movement, and supported many young hispanic and black street kids with meals, attention, and art.
In 1986, he opened the Pop Shop, which you can still visit today on the corner of Lafayette and Houston in downtown NYC to purchase gear with his art. It’s an adventure -- you’ll find the insides completely covered with his chaotic patterns, and most of the proceeds, by the way, go to charities.
Keith’s art in the mid-to-late 80’s, focused on the fear and severity of the social changes brought about by the rise of the AIDS virus. He designed posters promoting "Safe Sex" and the NYC AIDS Hotline in addition to numerous AIDS murals across the world. His images communicated the urgency of the situation in simple terms, and the consequences of ignorance.
In August 1989, Keith revealed that he had the AIDS virus in a Rolling Stone interview and the price of his art instantly skyrocketed. When he tested HIV positive, though, Keith didn't despair. Instead, he said, "it makes everything that happens now so much better because you never know when you're doing something for the last time. So you live each day as if it were the last." It seems that he had already been abiding by that notion from the day he was born.
On February 16th, 1990, Keith Allen Haring died in the company of friends and family. His very last drawing was two days before of his Radiant Baby, and sadly, Keith could barely hold the marker while he was doing it. At a memorial held later that year his sister Kay said, "Keith showed me that it is possible to live what you believe." This is what has inspired me the most about his story.
1. Gruen, John. Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1991.
2. Haring, Keith. A biography using his own words. http://www.haring.com/master1.htm (15 October 2003)
3. Haring, Keith. Art in Transit. New York: Harmony Books, 1985. Rpt. In
http://www.haring.com/art/subway/arttransit_haring.html (15 October 2003)
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