In USA of the mid 1980s, the dangerously addictive drug Coccaine was so popular among different strata of society that it gave rise to what was termed a ‘cocaine epidemic’ in the Country!
The then President of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan introduced several policies and severe penalties in an attempt to curb the use of these drugs. While the Country incessantly toiled to salvage its youth from coccaine addiction, in 1986, Keith Haring, a young street artist from Pennsylvania came up with a massive mural on East 128th Street of Manhattan in New York City that served as a powerful message against crack cocaine use and called it CRACK IS WACK. Various reports suggest that Haring's inspiration to do this mural lay in his futile efforts to help his friend and studio assistant Benny overcome addiction. Having failed repeatedly, an angry Haring decided to create the mural in honour of his friend.
A wall in an abandoned handball court in a park near the Harlem River Drive served as the canvas upon which Haring unleashed his frustration and talent alike manifesting a mural that would soon draw worldwide attention. Combining graffiti art and pop art, in cartoon style, the mural that is a striking orange hue also showcases dynamic human forms and monster like images. Thick black lines outlines all the figures and the words CRACK IS WACK is also encased in a bracket out of black wavy lines. Standing right along a public parkway the mural was loud and eloquent enough to be able to absorb the public into its vault and generate internal dialogues. And suddenly, art was no longer esoteric! Art critic Bruce Kurtz says that the ‘intentional lack of gender, race or age in his figures gives the artwork a sense of accessibility to all people’.
Despite the urgency of the theme and it’s propinquity with the lives of American youth of the mid 80s caught in the terror of substance abuse, the creator of this significant piece of art considered to be one his iconic works, Keith Haring was arrested by police soon after the completion of the mural, on charges of vandalism of public property. However, due to the massive support that he received from media houses and public who came out to speak for him, Haring was left free but penalized a USD100 as a fine. But soon after, the mural was defaced by a vandal into a crack supporting version and Haring ended up painting a newer version of his original work with the support of the Parks Department.
“One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw”. Those are the words of the phenomenal creator Keith Haring who discovered a massive opportunity for his art and social revolution hidden in subways on poster spaces. He began by creating art on all sorts of themes and subjects ranging from Apartheid to AIDS, from Love to Sex and drug abuse and many more. His visual commentaries got subway passersby gripped and engaged - reading, thinking and talking, all the while sharing their opinions with him. Thus his art that resonated with the sensibilities of common man who could perhaps not be found in the corridors of museums or galleries, received the support of a cross-section of humanity. In the 80s, Keith Haring's popularity was was no longer confined to America but he was a substantial figure internationally whose activism and art despite being non-elitist, colourful and stylized like cartoons, were powerful statements born in the social and political fabric of the time. In 1989, Keith’s IGNORANCE = FEAR SILENCE = DEATH poster which forms part of his suite of works that were meant to raise awareness about AIDS caught international attention. In his signature style, using bold colours, he created the poster that has three human figures in yellow with pink X on their chest. The X represents the disease AIDS. The figures are typically cartoon style with thick black outlines that are his hallmark. The background is orange and each figure has either the eyes, ears or mouth covered. Through this poster Haring tried to bring out the fears and stigma that surround the disease of AIDS. The sufferers are silent, afraid and stigmatized by society. The three figures are sandwiched by the words IGNORANCE = FEAR and SILENCE = DEATH, on top and bottom respectively. As a sufferer himself, he was able to identify with the emotions of others in the throes of the disease and his poster was aimed at helping people to come out in the open and speak about their tragedy for he felt that their silence hampered research.
Ironically, in 1990, at the age of 31, Keith Haring an outspoken AIDS activist succumbed to the disease; but his meteoric works bearing nothing more than simple cartoon figures, crawling children, barking dogs, thick black lines and other similar motifs continue to speak and travel across the globe with messages that still seem so very pertinent. His works born in the street and subways of New York City travelled to museums and galleries across the world breaking several boundaries between public art and museum art, bringing about a true democratization of art.
Note: this is a researched article