Emerging from the New York City street art scene of the 1980s, Keith Haring very quickly shot to international fame with his trademark pop-graffiti style. Catapulted into a career that would see him befriending stars like Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Yoko Ono, and Madonna, Haring came from humble beginnings, born into a traditional family in Pennsylvania and raised by his parents Allen and Joan alongside his three sisters. Here we take a look at the artist’s tragically brief but intense life and career that has left a lasting and vivid legacy. 

Keith Haring 1986 - MyArtBroker

Keith Haring at work in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1986 © Nationaal Archief

Where did Keith Haring live?

After deciding that commercial graphic art was not for him, Haring dropped out of the School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and in 1978 moved to New York City to enrol in the School of Visual Arts. It was in New York that Haring lived and worked for the rest of his life, finding a vibrant alternative art scene that was born outside of traditional art institutions, and developed in the downtown streets, subways and in spaces in clubs. Haring quickly immersed himself in the energy and spirit of the community and went on to organise and participate in famous exhibitions and performances in spaces like Club 57, Studio 54 and Paradise Garage.

Between 1980 and 1985, Haring famously created hundreds of Subway Drawings where his signature images emerged as white chalk drawings on blacked out advertising panels.

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Keith Haring with Madonna, 1988

Keith Haring with Madonna, 1988

Was Keith Haring political?

Widely recognised for his use of vivid colour and bold, linear motifs, Haring’s works often confronted contemporary social and political events of the 1980s such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the drugs epidemic and Apartheid in South Africa. As an openly gay artist and activist in the LGBT rights movement, Haring used his work to fight against homophobia and advocate for safe sex, awareness and research around HIV and AIDS.

Occupying the public realm, Haring’s work uses a positive language, seen and understood by the masses in New York, to clearly communicate weighty moral messages. One of his most notable examples is the Crack is Wack mural in Harlem, painted in 1986 without any legal permission to make a bold stand against the government’s response to the crack cocaine epidemic that devastated New York. Haring also created posters such as Crack Down (1986) with effective slogans and bright colours to raise awareness around the drugs epidemic.

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Keith Haring at End Apartheid rally in Central Park, NYC, 1985

Keith Haring at End Apartheid rally in Central Park, NYC, 1985

What was the Pop Shop?

In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop in downtown Manhattan, seeing the boutique primarily as an extension of his work where his art could be accessible to everyone. Aimed at kids and collectors alike, the Pop Shops were a place where Haring could sell his art for as little as 50 cents. The store stocked t-shirts, badges and magnets featuring his now ubiquitous designs. Speaking of the importance of opening the shop as opposed to making large canvases to please collectors, Haring said, “I could earn more money if I just painted a few things and jacked up the price. My shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art”. After twenty years of selling affordable clothing and gift items all featuring Keith Haring’s trademark icons, in September 2005 the Pop Shop finally closed its doors to the public.

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Example of bag purchased from the Pop Shop in 1985

Example of bag purchased from the Pop Shop in 1985

How did Keith Haring die?

After seeing the gay community devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, in 1988 Haring himself was diagnosed with AIDS. In March 1987 Haring wrote about the possibility of having the disease in his journal, ‘I am quite aware that I have or will have AIDS. The symptoms already exist…my days are numbered.’ Crucially however, Haring was determined to continue creating as much art as possible, writing that ‘Work is all I have and art is more important than life.’ On 16 February 1990 Haring died of AIDS related complications, aged just 31.

In the years leading up to his death, Haring continued to use his platform to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and created pieces such as Once Upon a Time (1989) that celebrated the gay community’s halcyon days of free love. Creating in the year before his death, Haring’s works like this were an act of resistance. Glenda Testone, the Executive Director of the LGBTQ Community Centre where Haring’s mural is located, said the work was Haring’s ‘vision of a world before AIDS – a celebration of gay male sexuality and resiliency at a time when mainstream America was quite terrified of gay male sexuality.’

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Ignorance equals Fear by Keith Haring - Poster, 1989

Haring, Ignorance = Fear – Poster, 1989

What is the Keith Haring foundation?

A year after his AIDS diagnosis, Haring set up The Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding and support to AIDS research, charities and education. Much of Haring’s work during the last years of his life, such as his poster Ignorance = Fear (1989), focused on generating activism and awareness about AIDS as well as speaking to his own experience of the illness.

The Foundation also supports not-for-profit organisations that assist underprivileged children and works to maintain and expand the legacy of Keith Haring, his art and his ideals. Haring was well known for his generosity, contributing his talents and resources to numerous causes throughout his career. He ran art workshops for children, created posters for public service agencies and produced murals, sculptures and paintings in the public domain.

Haring’s legacy lives on today in large part due to the work of the Foundation in maintaining a collection of art along with archives that facilitate art historical research about the artist. The artist’s work is frequently seen in contemporary collaborations with UNIQLO, adidas Originals and Element, working to continue his legacy of the democratisation of art on into the present. Haring’s work has also been used for TV campaigns such as Change4Life and the story of his life and art has been made into a children’s book Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing.

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Pisa Mural by Keith Haring - 1989

Keith Haring, Pisa Mural, 1989

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