My first time seeing a Keith Haring painting was on a t-shirt. It was purple with two little caricatures embracing drawn with bold, white lines. I did not yet know who Keith Haring was, much less that I was wearing the work of an iconic American artist who shaped much of popular art culture in the 1980s, and one of the most impactful art activists of all time. The embracing figures symbolized love and promoted messages of acceptance and togetherness. His signature characters and bold style are characteristic of Haring’s many pieces created throughout his brief, but prolific career as an artist whose work frequently stood for greater societal messages.
Haring did not initially begin his art career intending to disseminate social justice messages. He had originally gone to art school and studied painters that influenced his work, like Picasso and his contemporary, Andy Warhol. However, he soon dropped out because he felt he had a higher calling to produce art for the masses, not just the museum-going elite. His first major breakthrough was when he painted his now-iconic figures all over the walls of the New York subway stations. People soon began to recognize his caricatures, figures drawn with bold strokes and with lines emanating from them so as to show activity and kinetic movement. So began his public career as one of the most famous contemporary pop artists.
As his work gained prominence, Haring began creating commissioned pieces for bigger audiences. One of his most known works – a “Crack Is Wack” mural that was commissioned by the New York Parks Department – still stands today in Harlem. In addition to over 50 public works that he created during his short life, Haring was a lifelong advocate for social justice issues. He used his art to emblemize the causes he believed in. As an openly gay man during a time when being “out” came with much discrimination, Haring did not shy away from creating art that illustrated homosexuality and sexual liberation.
During the AIDS epidemic, Haring produced some of his most memorable works to show solidarity with the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ communities that were disproportionately affected by the disease. In his piece “Rebel With Many Causes,” Haring depicts three of his most iconic figures – one covering its ears, another covering its eyes, and the last covering its mouth – an interpretation of the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” proverb. The piece was an attempt to break down the stigma of talking about HIV/AIDS in order to stop the spread of misinformation about HIV-positive individuals. He also made a painting called “Safe Sex” to bring awareness to the often-taboo conversation about safe sex practices and remind people what actions can be taken to prevent the transmission of HIV.
In 1988, Haring was diagnosed with AIDS. Always an outspoken supporter of AIDS awareness and vociferous critic of government negligence regarding the epidemic, Haring created one of his impactful pieces “Ignorance = Fear/ Silence = Death” in 1989 for the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP. The poster depicts three figures in the same poses seen in the “Rebel with many Causes” piece. But the poster is outlined by the powerful words “Ignorance = Fear” on top and “Silence = Death, FIGHT AIDS, ACT UP” on the bottom. His art-based activism helped bring attention to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, working to normalize HIV-positive individuals and bring political attention to the crisis.
Although Haring passed away of AIDS-related complications on February 16, 1990, his legacy lives on through his artwork and the Keith Haring Foundation, which supports AIDS research and activism. As we recognize him 29 years after his passing, let us look back at his commitment to speaking up to end stigma. Let us be empowered by his messages and seek to bring his spirit of advocacy as we continue to fight for an AIDS-free generation.
Written by Adrija Chakrabaty