The vibrant life and works of creative Keith Haring

February 16, 2023

L-R; Aerial picture of Tuttomondo mural created by Keith Haring in Pisa, Italy, taken by Guglielmo Giambartolomei, under Creative Commons licence at Wikimedia Commons. Detail by Marco_Pomella from Pixabay

This LGBT+ History Month, Jamie Aldridge explores why the legacy of Keith Haring’s art and activism is so important

Keith Haring was a modern pop artist whose works gained recognition in the 1980s New York art scene and quickly spread across the world. His work often featured cartoon-style people, babies, dogs, and love hearts in a bold and striking aesthetic.

What makes his art accessible to all is its visibility. His work is not only hung on huge white walls in modern art museums but his murals and sculptures can be seen in public places around the world.

He was born in 1958 and raised in Pennsylvania, USA, on a diet of Walt Disney, Looney Tunes and Dr Seuss cartoons. His family encouraged him to pursue a career in the arts from a young age and in 1979, Haring, aged 19, got a place at the School of Visual Arts, New York.

Living within the vibrant East Village counterculture scene, Haring had a large social circle, including artists and performers; Kenny Scharf, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Madonna and Andy Warhol were amongst his close knit group of friends.

Haring’s early works focused on themes including the power of love, sexuality and connectedness

His graphic works were inspired by the graffiti he saw across New York, especially on the subway. He actually began his career by daubing his works on pavements and chalking figures on unused advertising spaces and subway carriages, before moving into a more traditional workspace – the art studio.

Haring’s early works focused on themes including the power of love, sexuality and connectedness. Many show people embracing in front of love hearts, with lines radiating from the figures to create movement and kinetic energy. Dogs, spaceships, crawling babies, abstract lines and swirls often fill the backgrounds of his pieces.

Haring frequently juxtaposed warm and cool tones with strong dark outlines to capture attention. His use of vibrant palettes aimed to disarm viewers, who were simultaneously being forced to confront serious topics in his work such as addiction, death and suffering.

‘We The Youth’ by Keith Haring, Philadelphia, USA (1987). Photographed by Molly Des Jardin on Flickr under Creative Commons licence

He was a profound and prolific creator, sometimes painting as many as 40 pieces a day, including huge murals painted on buildings across the world, in the USA, Europe, Australia and South America.

Haring’s, We The Youth mural was a collaborative project created with young people in Philadelphia. It’s Haring’s only public mural to remain in its original location and was restored in 2013 by artist Kim Alsbrooks and her team. Check out more here about this amazing project.

Haring was openly gay and used his work to advocate for safe sex during the HIV/AIDS crisis, especially after he himself was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. He told Rolling Stone in 1989: “AIDS has made it even harder for people to accept [homosexuality], because homosexuality has been made to be synonymous with death. It’s a justifiable fright with people that are just totally uninformed and therefore ignorant.” He aimed to encourage people not to close their eyes or deny the reality of difficult topics such as homophobia and racism.

“Together we can stop AIDS” mural by Keith Haring, Barcelona, Spain. Photograph by Fred Romero at Flickr under Creative Commons licence. This image has been cropped

He’s most well-known for his works focusing on the AIDS crisis and its impact on the LGBT community, such as Todos juntos podemos parar el SIDA (Together we can stop AIDS), a mural painted in Barcelona in 1989 to raise awareness of the human toll of the AIDS epidemic.

In the same year, he created the Keith Haring Foundation to provide funding for AIDS organisations and children’s programmes. At the age of just 31, Keith Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990.

Haring’s visual activism highlighted many social justice issues including drug addiction, South Africa’s Apartheid and the threat of nuclear holocaust during the Cold War era.

His painting Free South Africa was a critical response to the segregation and mistreatment of black citizens under South African colonialism, upheld by its white leaders.

‘Free South Africa’ painting by Keith Haring in Modern Art Museum, Amsterdam, Holland, photographed by charcoal soul on Flickr. This image is licensed under Creative Commons

In 1986, Haring painted a mural on the Berlin Wall to draw attention to the divide between East and West Germany after World War Two. The mural featured interlocking red and black figures against a yellow background. These are the colours of the modern German flag and were chosen to symbolise Haring’s hope for unity between East and West Germany. Three years later the Berlin Wall was torn down as the two sides were finally brought together into a unified Germany. For images and more about the story behind Haring’s Berlin Wall mural you can check here.

During his lifetime, his messages were widely disseminated through his Pop Shop, selling posters, badges, t-shirts and magnets. He also collaborated behind the scenes on magazine photoshoots, music videos and designed vinyl covers. He also featured posthumously in Silence = Death, a 1990 documentary about the responses of gay artists in New York to the AIDS crisis.

More recently, his work lives on through collaborations between the Keith Haring Foundation and fashion retailers such as H&M, UNIQLO and Lacoste.

If you’d like to find out more about Keith Haring’s life and works, we recommend you check out this documentary, ‘Street Art Boy’, directed by Ben Anthony. It’s a beautiful film about an incredible pioneering artist. Enjoy!