Keith Haring was an American artist and social activist renowned for his unique visual language that emerged in the early 1980s, drawing inspiration from street culture, graffiti and the burgeoning hip-hop scene in New York City. Haring's work is characterised by bold lines, bright colours, and simplistic, cartoonish figures and symbols, often imbued with deeper social and political messages. His art was frequently seen in public spaces — from large murals to chalk drawings on empty advertising panels in subway stations.
Throughout his career, Haring tackled subjects like AIDS awareness, apartheid, and drug addiction, utilising his art as a means for advocacy and change. Despite his untimely death from AIDS-related complications at the age of 31, Haring's influence remains profound, as his iconic style and commitment to social causes continue to inspire artists and activists around the world.
Haring was commissioned by Lucky Strike to create designs suitable for marketing and advertising purposes. Haring presented the brand with a collection of signature whimsical creations that showcased his iconic bold lines and minimalist human depictions, integrated with the Lucky Strike logo. Once finalised, three illustrations were launched as posters, while five others were released as screen prints.
Nine of the ink sketches are unmistakably and characteristically light-hearted, yet Haring also created a more contentious tenth illustration: a skeleton smoking a cigarette. Although it was not accepted for the campaign for obvious reasons, Haring clearly couldn't refrain from honouring his activist ethos.
Pierre Keller had arranged for Haring to create posters for the 1983 Montreux Jazz Festival, and also knew Andy Warhol. The Jazz Festival is an esteemed annual music event in Switzerland, and Haring's design featured his signature dancing figures, twisting and set against vibrant colours, encapsulating the feel of music. The posters clearly made a memorable impression, as Lucky Strike asked Keller to commission Haring to create something for them years later.
In an entry dated June 16th 1987, Haring wrote: “[Wake] at 8:30. I begin immediately to do the ink drawings for the Lucky Strike posters. Each poster must contain the logo (drawn) of Lucky Strike. I do 9 drawings with variations of different ideas. They actually came out pretty cool, considering how miserable I was feeling when I started. The final drawing (#10) was a skeleton smoking a cigarette, which I gave to the school to be hung in Pierre [Keller]'s classroom. The man from Lucky Strike was not very amused, but I could care less.”
The Lucky Strike prints feature Haring's signature “dancing figures,” emblematic of his distinct style. Characterised by their simplistic, bold lines radiating energy and movement and rooted in the street and pop culture of 1980s New York, these universal symbols not only celebrate life, unity, and dance but also reflect Haring's commitment to social activism.
Warhol radically transformed the art world by blurring the lines between high art and commercial aesthetics. Drawing from popular culture, advertising and mass media, Warhol created artworks using everyday objects -- challenging traditional art conventions.
Haring, inspired by Warhol's approach, also sought to break down barriers between high art and everyday culture. Haring's public murals, Pop Shop and collaborations with brands and celebrities echoed Warhol's belief in making art accessible to a wider audience. Both artists believed in art's democratising potential and its power to communicate and engage on a mass scale. Their interactions and mutual admiration further strengthened Haring's resolve to use commercial avenues as legitimate spaces for artistic expression and activism.
Prints produced in smaller editions are inherently scarcer, making them more sought-after by collectors and art enthusiasts. The limited availability heightens this series' desirability.
By the point that he created the Lucky Strike series in 1987, Haring had achieved major success in his career. He already participated of the Documenta 7 in Kassel (exhibiting alongside Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cy Twombly and Warhol) in 1982, participated in the Whitney Biennial in 1983 and the Biennale de Paris in 1985 and carried out work for the United Nations.
Having been diagnosed with AIDS only one year after his Lucky Strike collaboration, Haring tragically passed away on February 16, 1990, at the young age of 31. Throughout his life, Haring was an ardent social activist, and after his diagnosis, he channelled his energies even more fervently into raising awareness about the AIDS epidemic. He used his distinctive art to advocate for safe sex, AIDS awareness and research funding. He participated in public awareness campaigns, contributed to educational programs and provided significant support to organisations fighting the disease. His activism and public openness about his own diagnosis at a time when the disease was stigmatised played a crucial role in de-mystifying AIDS, fostering broader societal acceptance and understanding. Even after his passing, Haring's foundation continues to support initiatives related to children's programs, the arts and HIV/AIDS awareness and research, cementing his legacy as both an iconic artist and a tireless activist.
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