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Keith Haring

Source: Joe McNally / Getty

Keith Haring made a huge impact within the art scene and his popularized chalk and colorful stick images are still visible across the world. Aside from his huge impact on the arts community, the artist made serious movements as a social and political activist. Haring accomplished a lot in his short time on Earth. From creating record covers for RUN DMC and David Bowie, directing a music video for Grace Jones and developing a fashion line with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, he introduced his art and ways of thinking to as many people as possible. Today, Keith Haring would have celebrated another lap around the sun. Here are a few interesting things to know about the influential artist.

1. Keith Haring Infamously Tagged The Streets

Haring was a popular artist and activist who was apart of the huge New York art scene during the 80s. He is known most for his colorful and iconic motifs such as the radiant baby and the barking dog. However, most of his work was a response to the social and political events that transpired during that time including the battle to end Apartheid, the massive AIDS epidemic and ongoing drug abuse. Haring was an openly gay artist who also made a conscious decision to properly represent the hardships of the LGBTQ community in his art including gay rights.

Haring was notably inspired by the rise of graffiti artists and he began filling up New York’s subway stations with his legendary drawings. He would tag empty poster spaces with his chalk drawings for people to see each day. His goal was to make his art accessible to the masses and these works allowed him to interact with a diverse audience. Though his work sparked joy and interest from the public, it also caught the eyes of several police officers. Haring was arrested for vandalism on a number of occasions.

Haring famously quoted, “More than once, I’ve been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realized, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct are my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand.”

2. His Work Made Huge Social and Political Statements

Despite the criticism from police and the government, Haring consciously included some of the challenging topics in America and the world at large. Many people may view Haring’s work as colorful and animated bringing about joyful emotions, but he often used catchy slogans and phrases to effectively make his point.

One of his most famed representations of this is his legendary “Crack is Wack” mural referencing the crack cocaine epidemic and its effects in New York City. The mural was large enough for cars on nearby roads could also view and internalize his message.

Another notable moment in Haring’s career happened in 1986 when he was invited to paint on a section of the Berlin Wall in an attempt to destroy the wall through painting it. He painted a bright figurative mural using colors from the German flag, symbolizing hopefully unity between East and West Germany. His work was eventually destroyed three years later when the entire wall was demolished.

A note from his diary in 1987 mentions, “If it is not regarded as ‘sacred’ and ‘valuable’, then I can paint without inhibition, and experience the interaction of lines and shapes. I can paint spontaneously without worrying if it looks ‘good’; and I can let my movement and my instant reaction/response control the piece, control my energy (if there is any control at all) … It is temporary and its permanency is unimportant. Its existence is already established. It can be made permanent by the camera.”

Haring seemingly unbothered by the wall’s demolition as he believed his art still existed even if it is not in the physical form.

3. An Activist Early On

Activism for Haring didn’t come out of nowhere. Around the time that Nixon ran for president, Haring was a pre-teen joined by his childhood friend, Kermit Oswald, who both began parading the streets with bars of soap scribbling anti-Nixon slogans all over the buildings in his hometown of Kutztown, Pennsylvania.

In their rural town of Kutztown, no graffiti would ordinarily be seen. The two rebellious preteens started an early movement of social and political activism that would be recognized later on in Haring’s artist career.

4. Haring’s Fabulous Celebrity Friends

Keith Haring had a large social circle, which included artists and performers who enjoyed the underground art scene. People such as Madonna, Jean-Michael Basquiat and Andy Warhol were amongst his close knit group of friends while living and working in the East Village in New York. As he grew to be a household name, his collaborations eventually expanded to involve other prominent artists, musicians and fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood.

American Foundation For AIDS Research Fundraiser

Source: Michael Ochs Archives / Getty

One of his most recognizable collaborations with a popular celebrity was with Grace Jones, where he became even more innovative finding the intersection between art and fashion. He painted Grace Jones’ body with his graffiti before music performances and also featured his art in her music video I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You).

5. Starting The Keith Haring Foundation

Haring created a platform through his notable artwork to raise awareness of AIDS. He was diagnosed with the disease himself in 1988. His widely spread poster Ignorance = Fear refers to the challenges people who were living with AIDS faced. The significance of starting his own foundation was to reach as many people as possible while spotlighting the importance of AIDS education.

A year after his diagnosis, Haring established The Keith Haring Foundation to provide essential funding and support to AIDS research, charities and education. On February 16, 1990, Haring died of AIDS related complications at the early age of 31 years old. His foundation continues to uphold Keith Haring’s wishes today.


Keith Haring’s Message Lives On: 5 Facts About The Artist’s Influence & Social and Political Activism  was originally published on