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  • Writer's pictureUshrayinee

Keith Haring Makes Art Accessible for All

What do you think of when you think of art? For most people, it’s the smell of paint lingering in the hallways of a stuffy museum, some pieces kept behind protective barriers like velvet rope fencing or glass. You’ll think of security guards milling around and long lines to get into these museums. 

Keith Haring at Work in Amsterdam

For most, art comes with the standard of a certain high society nature of it, a barrier that exists both physically and societally to access it. You’ll think of oil paint and fiberglass sculptures, of the rich and maximalist combined in a mishmash of highfalutin artistry. You’ll think of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre behind its bulletproof glass and the throngs of people that crowd to see it with tickets reserved months in advance.

Luckily, not all art is reserved for the higher class in this manner. Many artists, especially those that are contemporary, have worked hard to make art something that is accessible to anyone. One such artist is the beloved Keith Haring.

Introducing Keith Haring To You

Haring is practically a household name by now – a timeless artist without a doubt. You’ll see his work emblazoned on mugs, shirts, and socks at the mall and the eponymous style that he is associated with is referenced in many magazines as well; it’s practically its own visual dictionary at this point. The artist’s iconography sticks out as its own language with letters of the alphabet being perhaps the large hearts he’d always use, flying saucers, barking dogs, and the radiant baby. 

The Inception of Keith Haring’s Art

A pop art work by Keith Haring

Haring’s distinctive pop art style emerged from the New York graffiti subculture of the 80s. His pieces covered a variety of topics: from safe sex to anti-crack and anti-apartheid motifs, to homosexual imagery, and more. He was a strong believer of social activism, and his pieces reflect that.

In 1980, Haring found a method of displaying his art that made it so that anyone could see it. He found that the matte black of the unused advertisement panels in the subway made for a perfect medium for his rhythmic chalk drawings. He’d get many passersby asking him questions about his art as he worked on it in the subway, his act of creation almost performance art by itself. 

Keith Haring was a believer that the act of making the art itself was just as important as the resultant art, after all. Through this subway series, the artist came to realize exactly how important it was that all kinds of people be given access to art. People were approaching him and commenting on their feelings about the pieces and interacting with them in a way that couldn’t be achieved through a sterile museum setting. Haring understood that if given a chance, people would enjoy art.

The Keith Haring Pop Shop

In 1986 Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail art store in SoHo selling products such as pins, posters, and toys, all with his art on them. The interior of the store itself was uniquely his; it was painted in black and white murals. With the opening of the store, Keith Haring’s art was now readily available for the public to purchase and have for themselves, making his art a new level of accessible for all. 

This was also around when the artist stopped making his subway drawings. He’d achieved what he had originally wanted by getting his art to the public. There was also the issue with the fact that people were taking his subway drawings and selling them at high prices, which went against what the artist stood for.

Raising Awareness Through Public Art and Murals

Most of the time though, Keith Haring dedicated himself to public works, and he has a very large number of murals across the US, some even outside the US. Many are still viewable today. These murals emphasize important social issues. One of the most famous ones has “Crack is Wack” emblazoned on it, taking a strong anti-crack stance. This piece was actually seen as vandalism originally, and Haring was arrested for it.

The popular Keith Haring Graffiti 'Crack is Wack.'

Haring has commented that he’d often be arrested for his public art, and it was common that there were many officers who were eager to talk to him, holding great respect for his art. Other murals bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, bringing awareness to a much-needed subject. “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” is written prominently on several AIDS-related murals, bringing to light how important it was to have education on the disease.

Haring’s friends remind us that the artist very much enjoyed his work, painting was something that came from within the artist’s soul. Haring enjoyed listening to hip-hop music while he worked, timing each stroke with the beats of the rhythm of the music. He loved working with children, bringing them together, and inspiring them through art. Many of Haring's murals were painted in children’s hospitals in an effort to bring some color and vibrancy to those places.

The Untimely Demise of a Timeless Artist

Haring himself unfortunately died at 31 years of AIDS-related complications. He left behind a legacy of art that resonated with many people across the world, bringing light to subjects that sorely needed attention. Haring founded the Keith Haring Foundation, which still exists today and provides funding for AIDS research, education, and charities. Keith Haring’s impact on the art world and the world outside of it is resounding. He will forever be remembered as a positive presence, an activist, a legendary artist, and most of all, someone who cared very deeply.


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