Keith Haring by Russell Dean Stone
Illustration by Elena Durey.
Russell Dean Stone is a writer from London, currently based in Berlin. He is online editor at London's premiere music magazine BEAT. Having starting his career as junior editor at now defunct style mag Sleazenation, RDS now freelances for titles like i-D, Vice, Noisey, High Snobiety and Electronic Beats. His main focuses in his writing are music and LGBTQ culture - especially the points at which the two converge.
I’ll never get to meet my heroes because they’re all dead, prematurely swept away in the 1980s by the horror of the AIDS crisis. I’m writing this on 1st December 2017, it’s World AIDS Day and it’s been 27 years, 9 months and 15 days since one of those heroes, art star Keith Haring, died at age thirty-two from AIDS-related complications.
It’s not Haring’s death that I want to talk about though, it’s his life, because Keith Haring lived life to the max. Haring was raised a small town boy in conservative Kutztown, Pennsylvania. As a child he was encouraged by his cartoonist father to draw from his imagination, rather than purely copying his favourite Disney and Dr. Seuss cartoons. Haring would eventually attended Pittsburgh’s School of Professional Art, before escaping to New York in 1978 to study at the School of Visual Arts (SVA).
It was in New York that Haring initially achieved cult status via his subway drawings, chalked up onto vacant black panels—empty advertising spaces—across the city. Haring painted with a beat, using the city as a canvas to paint his unique iconography and, like his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, elevated the idea of street art/graffiti in the process. Haring revelled in the danger of drawing in forbidden public spaces and the possibility of being busted by the cops (which he was on numerous occasions). It wasn’t just the subways that he used, Haring also recognised the creative importance of NYC’s nightclubs and the people in them. He was a regular at spots like Club 57, taking his work to the club for projects like body-painting Grace Jones for a live performance at legendary discotheque The Paradise Garage.
Just like the club scene, Haring’s whole aesthetic was vibrant, it was boomboxes, graffiti, hi-tops and those trademark specs he wore. Whether it was his radiant baby figure, the pseudo-egyptian barking dog dude, or the phallic Debbie Dick (shamelessly flaunting his sexuality because he was simply into dicks!), Haring’s hieroglyphs were a semiotic study in global issues, a simple medium for powerful messages. Haring was a rebel with many causes, tackling issues like AIDS, the crack epidemic and South African Apartheid. There was a purity of purpose to Haring’s work and life, he operated from a place of empathy and had an innate sense of social justice. His positive messages - “Respect yourself,” “Knowledge is power” - were fuelled by his belief in the interconnectedness of humanity. Basically, Haring was woke.
Haring was a populist who believed in the democratisation of art. He worshipped the idea of pop art, but unlike his friend and confident Andy Warhol, Haring felt the selling part of his work was fundamentally “anti-art.” When the art establishment advised Haring to make less work to increase its value, Haring opened his Pop Shop selling his work for next to no profit, en masse, emblazoned on all kinds of paraphernalia, from pin badges, t-shirts and mugs. “Money breeds guilt (if you have any conscience at all),” Haring wrote in his Journals, “And if you don’t have any conscience, then money breeds evil.”
I’m sure that Keith Haring is the nicest person I’ll never meet. The people that knew him best talked endlessly about his generosity. When Haring began to sell his work for thousands of dollars, he would openly offer friends cash, like he did with his friend Kenny Scharf after selling a bunch of work he was throwing in the trash to one collector who came by his studio. This was community and camaraderie that I aspired to, it was anti-materialist and it was Haring living by his mantra that he wasn’t into art for the money. A selflessness reflected in the individual doodles Haring would take time to do for people instead of autographs.
Haring’s posthumously published Journals are a direct portal into his world and thinking (Haring having written them conscious that they would one day most likely be read by others). Here Haring is at his most relatable, writing about longing for intimacy and casual sex in bathhouses, with (totally true) declarations like, “Museums are one of the cruisiest places in the world.” Haring was busy thinking about boys, about rejection, about sex, about love - “These fucking beautiful boys drive me crazy,” he write frustrated. Haring questioned whether sexual energy was the strongest driving impulse in his life, he felt sexual energy fuelled his art, writing that, “It was always impossible to separate art and life for me and life was inevitably dominated by sexuality.”
Haring also talks about his love for children - not in a Jimmy Saville way but more like a Whitney Houston children are the future type thing. “I would love to be a teacher,” he muses, “because I love children and I think that not enough people respect children or understand how important they are.” In other people these declarations might seem corny at best and Michael Jackson-esque at worst, but from Haring they come from a place of respect for the human condition and their innate goodness. He believed we could build a better future by investing in, teaching and listening to young people - and that they have something valuable to teach in return.
It’s impossible to talk about Haring without discussing AIDS. Like Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Klaus Nomi, Arthur Russell, Mark Morrisroe and so many more, Haring’s life and his work is intrinsically linked to and viewed through the prism of the AIDS crisis.
When Haring was diagnosed he wrote in his Journal, “I accept the struggle.” But he wasn’t resigned to death, instead he took up the cause, painting works like his now iconic “Stop Aids” and “Silence = Death” pieces. He was fearlessly open and articulate about his diagnosis (at a time when people were being shunned like lepers for their positive diagnosis) and its consequences - talking to Rolling Stone in 1989, Haring says he feels AIDS had made it even harder for people to accept homosexuality because it, “Has been made to be synonymous with death.” It’s devastating to imagine Haring trying to hold his life together as it rushes uncontainably through his fingers. It’s inspiring to picture him determined to fit in as much living and working as humanly possible into whatever time he had left.
Haring’s tireless work ethic in the face of impending death, was nothing but heroic. He worked right up until the day he died on February 16, 1990. As Haring himself said: “Art is life. Life is art.”
Keith Haring was here.
Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.