Keith Haring, in the wild

Alex Smee
3 min readJul 22, 2021
Keith Haring ‘Crack is Wack’ 1986, in Harlem, New York City
Keith Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’, in Harlem, July 2013

Heat seems to rise up from the stained pavement to saturate the air. Layers of dirt baking under a strong sun and heavy humidity. Big sounds, smells and the grand atmosphere of New York City in the middle of summer.

I’m walking east along 125th Street, away from the busy centre of Harlem at 6th Avenue. Ten days into the July heatwave of 2013. Soon fewer people are walking with me and the patch-worked sidewalk seems even wider without the crowds. I turn and walk the few short blocks north to where 2nd Avenue quietly begins near the top of the island of Manhattan. Beyond the parking lots and shuttered buildings is a small park, next to a final tall metal fence that imprisons the expressway against the Harlem River. I’ve walked a little over a mile from where I’m staying on 131st Street to find an old concrete wall with a mural by Keith Haring.

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Inner cities of the US were tormented by the crack cocaine epidemic in the mid 1980's. Neighbourhoods across New York City crushed by robberies, homicides, and also the brutal government response. The South Bronx, Harlem, and Washington Heights were places to avoid by day and night.

When I first visited New York in 2000 so much had changed economically and socially after the 90’s, yet you’d sometimes see boarded up brownstones and signs of the still recent past. By the time I went looking for the ‘Crack is Wack’ mural in 2013 it was like finding a forgotten time capsule. On an old handball court the large concrete wall rises along with the weeds, you can stand looking at the painting without anyone likely to pass by. Studying the fading brushstrokes on chipped dusty stone it feels intimate despite the surprising size of the wall, somehow a gentle touch of humanity that stoically survived those troubled years.

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Keith Haring’s art celebrates connection, using strong bold graphic marks to bring a surface alive with energy, creating universal images everyone can understand and relate to. Depictions of love, hope, fear, death. There’s a comfort in being reminded of the commonality of shared experiences and vulnerabilities. Rejection of the dehumanising aspects of modern society is a frequent theme. A longing for a collective transcendence that reminds us of a simple yet often forgotten idea — maybe we aren’t so different after all!

Untitled, Keith Haring 1983

The passing of time had given the mural a new quality. From both the hugely different city it now quietly sits in, and the material patina as it aged. Some years after visiting I read that it had been given a necessary restoration, but I’m glad I saw it when I did. My timing was probably spot-on to see the beauty in the contrast between the original paint, untouched since 1986, and the environment and society all around which marched on.

Keith Haring by Tseng Kwong Chi, with the ‘Crack is Wack’ mural in October 1986.

Keith Haring never got to see this evolution, he died in February of 1990 at the age of just 31, as the decade that would transform New York City was beginning. Tragically of complications due to AIDS which only a few years later would become easily treatable. Fortunately he was incredibly prolific, leaving behind thousands of works across all mediums, materials and scales.

His murals remain in many hidden corners of cities around the world. Outside on the walls of architecture where the weather slowly erodes them. Inside in the hallways of public buildings where a blur of generations file past them. You can sometimes find a canvas or sculpture of his in the major galleries, but there’s something more special about seeing the images living out in the wild, still silently vibrant, patiently waiting to be found.