Who is Keith Haring?

April 4, 2022

The Philanthropic Graffiti Artist

It’s almost impossible to observe American pop culture without seeing Keith Haring’s influence. From Sesame Street animations to apparel collaborations with Adidas and Supreme, Haring’s energetic, bright graphics are highly sought after by art collectors, celebrities, brands, and everyday consumers.

Inspired by Disney and Dr. Seuss from a young age, Haring turned his childlike love of cartoons into an artistic empire that continues to grow today. Ironically, Haring never wanted to get into commercial art and he preferred his art to be affordable and accessible. Nevertheless, his art soared in value during the 1980s and beyond as pop culture embraced his youthful drawings. Today, his work easily sells anywhere from $100k to $2M. The most expensive Haring work sold for $6.5M at Sotheby’s, and in October of 2020, 140 works in a collection titled “Dear Keith” completely sold out for $4.6M.

BornMay 4, 1958
DiedFebruary 16, 1990
MediumsPainting, Murals, Graffiti
MovementsPop Art, Street Art

Keith Haring and His Path Towards Commercial Fame

Keith Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania to a traditional middle-class family. Inspired by his cartoonist father, he loved drawing and was fond of the Bugs Bunny Show and the world of Disney characters. He enrolled at the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh, but eventually dropped out because he didn’t want to be a commercial artist. He later moved to New York City to study at the School of Visual Arts.

Moving to New York was the best decision Haring could have made to unleash his creative energy. He was fascinated by the subways, dance halls, nightclubs, and musicians, which inspired his lively, expressive artwork. He was exposed to an alternative community of artists and befriended Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, among others, who encouraged Haring to express himself through graffiti and street art.

Haring first made a name for himself by drawing chalk outlines of animated figures, dogs, and stylized images on empty advertising panels in the New York subway system. The subway became Haring’s unlikely studio and lab for experimentation–it was a place where he could freely express himself and absorb the bustling energy of the underground.

In 1982, Haring quit his various day jobs to join the Tony Shafrazi Gallery and dedicate 100% of his time to art. His work quickly gained traction, and he began exhibiting in solo and group shows in New York and internationally at the São Paulo and Whitney biennials. Haring’s work extended far beyond the traditional galley scene–he created advertising billboards, set designs, album covers, and public murals. For Haring, art was about serving the community through shared experiences and activism.

Keith Haring’s Artistic Style

Creating a Universal Language, One Drawing at a Time

Keith Haring’s style is unmistakable. He is known for using bright colors, bold lines and shapes, and cartoon-like figures that almost look like they are dancing or vibrating with energy. His trademark graphic expression is like a universal language–it’s direct and communicates themes of life, death, love, and social justice. As an openly gay man, Haring advocated for the LGBTQ community and used artwork to display important messages. His painting Safe Sex (1988) features two men fondling each other with the words “safe sex” plastered above in bulky lettering. Similarly, paintings like Ignorance = Fear (1989) and Free South Africa (1985) display simple, yet powerful messages that advocated for minorities and criticized apartheid and war at the time. His ability to address serious political topics using lighthearted paintings and drawings created an open invitation to the viewer, allowing them to approach his work in a curious, almost childlike manner.

Between 1982 and 1989, Haring created 50 public works for charities, orphanages, and hospitals to bring color and life to places traditionally forgotten by society. He also designed imagery for public service campaigns and literacy programs for youth. While much of his work had political and sexual undertones, plenty of his paintings and street art were simply for fun. Common iconography included dogs barking, babies crawling, flying saucers, robots, hearts, and dancing figures. His work caught the eye of major brands, including Swatch and Absolut Vodka, and he even designed sets for MTV and stamps for the United Nations.

Sadly, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS and tragically passed away in 1990. His legacy is not forgotten and his estate lives on through collaborations with major brands and organizations, honors and awards within the LGBTQ community, and via the Keith Haring Foundation. His foundation provides funding and artwork to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. In 2019, Haring was inducted into the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument.

Keith Haring Featured Works

Crack is Wack (1986), mural painting

Without any legal permission, Haring created the Crack is Wack mural in an abandoned handball court in East Harlem. Although he was arrested for graffiti, he received enormous support and praise from media outlets and the public, who understood the message he was trying to convey. The anti-crack mural addressed the widespread epidemic of illegal drug use during the 1980s and was a public service announcement to remind New Yorkers of the repercussions of crack cocaine.

Radiant Baby (1990), silkscreen

The crawling child was a repeated design in Haring’s work. To Haring, the baby represented innocence and the purity of human existence and became part of Haring’s language of symbols. Over time, Haring used this design in multiple contexts, even going so far as to place the baby inside an atomic mushroom cloud to juxtapose innocence with war and violence.

Growing (1988), screenprint series

Growing is one of five in a series of prints featuring animated conjoined, stacked figures. Growing uses three vibrant colors–yellow, red, and green–with his signature black outline and bold “energy lines” surrounding the figures. The piece evokes a sense of solidarity and community, as the conjoined figures appear to be working together in a tetris-like manner and building off one another.

Keith Haring Top Collections and Exhibits

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