Born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring is best known for his contributions to the New York City art scene in the 1980s. His graffiti-inspired artwork depicted simplified people, dogs, babies, hearts, and flying saucers. He often painted bold lines and bright colors to convey feelings of movement and radiance, and although he died in 1990 at just 31 years old, his artwork and legacy live on. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the artist, who would have turned 60 years old today.
1. ALL HIS SIBLINGS’S NAMES ALSO STARTED WITH THE LETTER 'K.'
Long before the Kardashians, all the children in Keith Haring’s family shared a first initial of K. His parents, Allen and Joan Haring, named their four kids Keith, Kay, Karen, and Kristen. The oldest child and only son, Keith loved watching and drawing cartoons like Mickey Mouse, Dr. Seuss, and Peanuts. As a young adult, he moved to New York City to pursue his love of art. Kristen Haring later recalled how her older brother would call home from New York to tell his family about his celebrity dinner companions, such as Grace Jones and Madonna.
2. NEW YORK SUBWAYS AND STREET CULTURE INSPIRED HIM.
Beginning in his early twenties, Haring used chalk to draw art in New York’s subways. The walls of the subway stations had panels—empty spaces for advertising—posted with black paper that Haring drew on with white chalk. His subway drawings were simple, and he did dozens of drawings per day in front of people who would watch him and ask him what the drawings meant.
3. HE FREQUENTLY GOT ARRESTED FOR HIS SUBWAY ART.
Although people generally felt positively towards Haring’s subway drawings, the NYPD ticketed and arrested him multiple times for vandalism. And despite drawing quickly to avoid getting arrested, he was still caught in the act by the cops. “More than once, I've been taken to a station handcuffed by a cop who realized, much to his dismay, that the other cops in the precinct are my fans and were anxious to meet me and shake my hand,” Haring said. By 1984, Haring’s artwork was so popular that people would steal his chalk drawings from subway stations and sell them.
4. HE BEFRIENDED ANDY WARHOL AND MADONNA.
Haring became very involved in the 1980s downtown New York art scene, befriending visual artists and performers such as Andy Warhol and Madonna. In a series of paintings called Andy Mouse, Haring depicted Andy Warhol with sunglasses and Mickey Mouse ears. And Haring tried his hand at fashion designing when he made a jacket and skirt for Madonna to wear for her performances—which she says she'd "never give up." She told Rolling Stone that she'd been introduced to him through a roommate, and then "we started hanging out at [legendary New York nightclubs] Danceteria and Mudd Club and the Roxy. … We'd dance, we'd watch break-dancing crews there and on the street."
5. HIS ORIGINAL ARTWORK IS ALL OVER THE WORLD.
In the 1980s, Haring drew public works murals around New York City, including his "Crack is Wack" mural at East 128th Street and Harlem River Drive. Although he’s best known as a New York artist, he didn’t stay solely in the city. He traveled all around the world to paint public murals in cities such as Paris, Berlin, Pisa, Sydney, Melbourne, and Rio de Janeiro. In these cities, he painted at children’s hospitals, charities, churches, and orphanages.
6. HE OPENED HIS OWN SHOP TO MAKE HIS ART ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYONE, NOT JUST ART COLLECTORS.
In 1986, Haring opened the Pop Shop, a retail store in Soho (New York), to sell merchandise. The store offered shirts, posters, magnets, and buttons with his artwork on them. Aiming to make his art accessible to a larger audience, Haring opened another Pop Shop in Tokyo in 1987. Critics accused the artist of engaging in crass commercialism, but Haring asserted that he was doing the opposite of "selling out." "My work was starting to become more expensive and more popular within the art market," Haring said. "Those prices meant that only people who could afford big art prices could have access to the work. The Pop Shop makes it accessible."
7. HIS AIDS DIAGNOSIS INSPIRED HIS ARTWORK.
In 1988, Haring, who was openly gay, was diagnosed with AIDS, after many of his friends and partners had been dying of AIDS for years. He worked to raise AIDS awareness through his artwork, such as with his piece Silence=Death, and he incorporated symbols of homosexuality and AIDS—a pink triangle, horned sperm, and devils—in his art. "The hardest thing is just knowing that there's so much more stuff to do," he told Rolling Stone in 1989. "I'm a complete workaholic. I'm so scared that one day I'll wake up and I won't be able to do it." He died of complications from AIDS six months later, at 31 years old.
8. HE STARTED THE KEITH HARING FOUNDATION TO CONTINUE HIS LEGACY.
In 1989, a year after his AIDS diagnosis, Haring started the Keith Haring Foundation. Besides being passionate about AIDS awareness and prevention, Haring loved working with children to create collaborative murals. During his life, Haring led art workshops for kids in museums and schools around the world. The Keith Haring Foundation gives funding to children’s charities, AIDS research, and AIDS education, and it manages and licenses his artwork. Haring’s Pop Shop in New York stayed open for 15 years after his death before closing in 2005. (The Pop Shop in Tokyo closed in 1988.)
9. THE WORLD’S BIGGEST JIGSAW PUZZLE FEATURES HARING’S ART.
You can buy and assemble a massive jigsaw puzzle, which features 32 of Haring’s art pieces in one giant puzzle measuring over 17 feet by 6 feet. The 32,256 piece “Double Retrospect” puzzle, manufactured by a German puzzle company, weighs 42 pounds and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest commercially-available puzzle in the world.
10. A KEITH HARING BALLOON IN THE MACY’S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE CAUSED TROUBLE.
A 48-foot tall Keith Haring balloon, called “Figure With Heart,” appeared in the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but it caused a ruckus when it hit the NBC broadcast booth, briefly interrupting the televised broadcast of the parade. The balloon—a white figure holding a red heart over its head—was based on an ink drawing that Haring had done. Manned by Haring's father, the balloon was featured in the parade to celebrate 50 years since the artist’s birth.