Articles and Features

The Art and Dancing Figures of Keith Haring

Detail from We Are The Youth, a work of street art by Keith Haring in Philadelphia showing his famous dancing figures.
Detail from We Are The Youth, Keith Haring’s mural at 22nd and Ellsworth Streets, Philadelphia

By Charlotte Lydia Stace

Art should be something that liberates your soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.

Keith Haring

Keith Haring was an American artist who came to fame in the 1980s for his unique Graffiti-like Pop Art. Although his career was tragically cut short, he left his mark as both an artist and an activist. His work provided touching cultural commentary on social and political issues of his time, from drug abuse to AIDS awareness to the threat of a nuclear war, and bridged the gap between street art and the then-exclusive “high art” spaces of museums and galleries.

Read on to find out more about his life, art, and legacy. 

Biography of Keith Haring

Born in Pennsylvania in 1958, Keith Haring’s talent for art shone through at a young age. He began by learning basic drawing skills from his father and forms of popular culture – most notably Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney. He attended a local high school and after graduating he went to the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh. Yet, the budding artist didn’t want to become a commercial graphic artist, so decided to drop out and continued to develop his own artistic skills in Pittsburgh. In 1978, he held his first solo exhibition of work at the Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center.

Later, he moved to New York and joined the School of Visual Arts (SVA). It was here that he found got involved with local communities of artists who enjoyed creating art outside of conventional practices, participating in exhibitions in iconic underground venues such as Club 57. He met musicians and graffiti writers and fellow artists that would deeply influence his work, from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf to Andy Warhol and Christo. This led Haring to begin work on his own style. Convinced of the public nature of art as something for everyone to enjoy – not simply those attending galleries and museums – he found his laboratory in the subway and his audience in the New York commuters, and his canvas in the empty subway advertising spaces covered with black paper. Soon hundreds of his “subway drawings”, realized in chalk against the black surfaces of the unused advertising spaces paper, started to populate the subway system on a daily basis and became familiar to the commuters. The drawings would eventually be covered with new ads, in one of the most legendary and ephemeral art projects, one that would gain Haring him significant attention in the art world and beyond.  

Exhibitions and recognition 

The 1980s were Haring’s successful decade. He started exhibiting his work across cities in America and further afield. In 1986, the artist opened his Pop Shop, a store in Soho where he sold everything from T-shirts to toys, posters, and buttons, all using his own images; an attempt to make his work widely accessible that many criticized, accusing Haring of commercializing his work. Notably, the artist’s clothing began to appear on consumers around the streets gaining him even more popularity. 

Haring was interested in spending much of his artistic career on public works – most of which conveyed social and political messages. Over the course of the 1980s, he created over 50 artworks in the form of street art and graffiti art in several cities around the world. He did these mainly to raise awareness of health issues, charities, hospitals, and children’s needs. Haring also participated in prestigious national and international group shows such as documenta in Kassel, the Whitney Biennial in New York, the São Paulo Biennial, and the Venice Biennale.

Later years

In 1988, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. Following this, he established the Keith Haring Foundation which aimed to raise funding for AIDS organizations and research programs. Over the remaining years of his life, he spoke widely about the illness in an attempt to raise awareness and help others. He also created a number of street art pieces designed to shine a light on the issue too. One of these was his 30-meter long red mural, Together we can stop AIDS (1989), which he created on a wall behind the contemporary art museum in Barcelona. 

Keith Haring died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at the young age of 31.

Keith Haring working in Amsterdam in 1986
Keith Haring at work at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, 1986

Artistic Style & Themes

Keith Haring’s artwork was largely inspired by the trends and social-political issues of the time, particularly those experienced in New York City where the artist resided – from the beats and rhythm of hip hop music, which was growing in popularity at the time, to themes such as AIDS, drug abuse, sexuality, religion, war, nuclear threat. With his cartoon-like silhouettes of accessible imagery realized in bright, bold colors against solid or patterned backgrounds, he developed an unmistakable aesthetic, in the intersection between Pop and Street Art, contrasting with the more abstract and conceptual approaches of the previous generation. Believing in the idea that art is for all to enjoy and represents a means to convey political messages to multiple audiences, he pioneered the use of public sites for artistic purposes and his works of public art can still be seen around the streets of many cities in the world.  

Famous works by Keith Haring

Here is a selection of Keith Haring’s most popular works and most symbolic images from his short, but impressive career. 

Crack is Wack

Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack (1986) in New York City, located on a court at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue, is one of his most famous murals. The artist created this after his young studio assistant became addicted to crack, with the goal of raising awareness of the increasing number of crack addicts, especially in New York City in the 1980s. Haring repainted the mural after it was defaced by a vandal shortly after its completion, and this iconic artwork is protected under the law of the City Department of Parks. 

Crack is Wack, 1986, mural by Keith Haring in New York.
Keith Haring, Crack is Wack, 1986. © Keith Haring. Courtesy Keith Haring Foundation and NYC Parks

Radiant Baby

One of Keith Haring’s most popular figures, the Radiant Baby (1990) shows an image of an outline of a young child or baby crawling with lines emanating from it as a symbol of innocence and all things that are good in the world. 

The Radiant Baby, one of Keith Haring's iconic pop art figures
Keith Haring’s iconic Radiant Baby.

Ignorance = Fear

An advocate of raising awareness of AIDs, much of Keith Haring’s art focused on this topic. Ignorance = Fear (1989) is one of his most poignant works of Protest Art. The poster, created on behalf of a New York AIDS charity, references the monkeys that see nothing, hear nothing and speak nothing as a way to highlight the ignorance surrounding this issue. His ultimate aim was to encourage people to have conversations around the illness, breaking down any taboos. 

Poster by Keith Haring titled 'Ignorance = Fear'
Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, 1989, Whitney Museum of American Art.

Barking Dog

Keith Haring’s Barking Dog features a cartoon dog barking on a block-colored background. One of Haring’s most recognizable elements in the artist’s imagery, the barking dog is informed by the style of Egyptian hieroglyphics, which particularly interested him as a means of communicating complex experiences through universal signs and simple shapes. 

Barking dog, recurrent motif in the imagery of Keith Haring
Keith Haring, Barking Dog, 1990 

Legacy 

Keith Haring’s art has been celebrated internationally and now holds a firmly established place in art history and popular culture alike as shirts, hoodies, skateboards, and other objects displaying Haring’s iconic moving figures populate the streets of major cities around the world.

Besides his numerous public works such as the infirmary at Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and the second-floor men’s room in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan, Haring’s work is in held in major private and public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam among others. In 2007, the Nakamura Keith Haring Collection opened its doors in Hokuto, Japan, as a museum exhibiting exclusively artworks by the creator of the Barking Dog.

Not only did Haring make an immense contribution to twentieth-century art history, but also to social activism, supporting a number of causes such as awareness, research, and funding of AIDS programs, but also children’s hospitals and local charities. The Keith Haring Foundation, established in 1989, upholds his legacy, providing funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and youth programs.

Keith Haring – FAQ

Who was Keith Haring?

Keith Haring was an American pop artist who created a lot of street and graffiti art in New York City during the 1980s. He rose to fame during the 1980s and is known worldwide for his innovative style. 


Where was Keith Haring born?

Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, United States. He later moved to New York City to study art at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). 


When was Keith Haring born?

Haring was born on May 4th, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania.


What is Keith Haring known for?

Keith Haring is well known for being a pop artist. Most notably, he is recognized for his bold use of color and cartoon-like artwork. He is also famous for using a lot of lines in his work.


What medium did Keith Haring use?

Keith Haring worked with the medium of painting mostly. He produced graphic art that was similar to cartoons.


How did Keith Haring die?

Sadly, Keith Haring died of AIDS-related complications. After being diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s he set up the Keith Haring Foundation to raise awareness of the illness. 


When did Keith Haring die (and how old was Keith Haring when he died)?

Haring died on February 6th, 1990 in New York City at the age of 31. To commemorate his death, a memorial service was held in New York at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and was attended by approximately 1000 people.

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