Conflict and Cultures
December 17, 2015
Graffiti in New York City:
“Visibility is survival” (Beam, xx) but what makes one form of visibly more respectable than another? The domination of an American ideal narrative has defined who and what groups are deemed worthy of recognition and voice. Subjugated groups of people, as being made out to be inferior, have had to utilize different platforms to have their ideas and beliefs portrayed. Art has played a significant role in portraying these unique messages. Art in its entirety has held great significance but in the 1980s, there were strict standards of what was to be considered art. Graffiti, or street art was not widely accepted by Americans. It was not viewed as art because it was not tailored or cultured by upper class Americans or those who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for pieces of art. Graffiti, ultimately, was left out of the 1980s art market, despite the powerful messages and untold stories it conveyed.
Graffiti, is the written word aspect of hip hop, the predominantly African American youth subculture originating in the South Bronx. Stemming out of the Bronx where as Ketcham tells us, “many families sought social assistance and housing, scores of blocks remained vacant and undeveloped and the media bombarded the world with stories of rampant crime, it rarely discussed issues of insurance fraud, economic distress, racism, and government abandonment of Bronx neighborhoods.” Graffiti became a prominent art form for New York City youth whom, as told by the documentary Style Wars, “referred to themselves as writers. They write their names among other things everywhere, in and on subway trains that carry their names from one end of the city to the other, it’s called bombing.” In 1970, artist TAKI-183, from Washington introduced the idea of becoming an all-city writer. This concept of “bombing” exploded amongst New York City youth that wanted to portray their own style. Despite the demonization of this art from, graffiti writers took pride and joy in seeing their artwork, names, messages and overall unique style being displayed all throughout New York City. Graffiti was and continues to be significant as it “rejects established standards, encourages experimentation, and draws from popular culture” (DeNotto). Graffiti artists were not concerned with the approval of the conservative dominated art market, rather their goal was to immerse themselves in a culture of their own.
Different artists, paralleling the New York City youth, rejected standards and utilized graffiti as a means of communication. Less traditional and anti-conservative artists such as Andy Warhol, paved the way for artists such as Keith Haring to become prominent pioneers and actors of New York City graffiti. Keith Haring arriving in New York City in 1978 as student at the School of Visual Arts in East Village, immediately experienced, a, “multicultural urban community with its own expressive vocabulary; a lively environment in which to explore his gay identity” (Keith Haring Foundation). He was especially intrigued by the, “spontaneity of the graffiti he saw in the subways” (Keith Haring Foundation) and took these characteristics of art with him when developing his own unique style. In an interview with Paul Cummings, Keith Haring expressed, “The context of where you do something is going to have an effect. The subway drawings were, as much as they were drawings, were performances.” Haring drew outdoors, on subways and in broad daylight because he, “had something to say” (Haring Foundation) and found himself engrossed by the social experiment of studying people’s reactions. Keith Haring, in this context, developed his own form of the New York youth’s idea of bombing. Just as the kids of NYC bombed the trains of New York and became city wide writers, Keith Haring embodied a similar essence of being known, seen and heard of.
Club 57, a night club in St. Marks Place in East Village cultivated Keith Haring into the socially conscious artist he became. The night club described by New York Magazine Art Review as, “an ephemeral, anything-goes environment where artists and performers had carte blanche to test-drive their wildest dreams” is where Keith Haring experimented and developed the interlocking shapes he is famously associated with. Later represented by Tony Shafrazi, Haring was then able to expand his artwork. It was his one-man exhibit in SoHo New York in 1928 that launched his career as an artist that conveyed important messages through his work. In his book, Graffito, Michael Walsh notes, “they [graffitists] understand the surreal dreamlike images of their art as ideological statements and symbolic transformative instruments for initiating social change” (Walsh). Keith Haring, despite his growing fame, stayed true to his use of graffiti, art and cartoonish iconography to speak out about AIDS, apartheid and other societal issues.
The first major outdoor mural that Keith Haring created was in 1982 on the Houston Bowry Wall in New York City. This mural, exemplified Haring’s unique use of icons and bold colors. Alison Pearlman explores Haring’s unique style of art in Unpackaging Art of the 1980s, “Haring was inspired by the flow of movement in urban dance styles, as in the easy flow of sexual energy in bouts of anonymous sex he experienced most freely in the pre-AIDS-days of cruising in New York streets and bath houses” (87). She goes on to explain that Haring viewed such freedom as metaphors for creativity. Although this piece was not explicitly political, the mural in how it is painted, presents an element of fluidity and as Pearlman asserts, freedom. Freedom and fluidity of one’s own ideas and ways of being were not embraced by America in this time. Haring, through this mural, created a strong message of acceptance and freedom of all people.
Later on in 1986, Haring created his “Crack is Wack” mural painted on a handball court along the Harlem River Drive. Edith Fairman Cooper, author of The Emergence of Crack Cocaine Abuse, explains that, “by 1986 crack cocaine use was considered to be an epidemic proportions in New York City” (1). The demand for crack, as it was a cheap drug, increased significantly and as Fairman Cooper goes on to explore, “crack cocaine became a household word that was often equated with crime, violence and medical problems that sometimes led to death” (1). Keith Haring, as conveyor of social wellbeing thought this message was important for the city to understand. It was distressing for Haring as his studio assistant, “who became addicted to crack” (Huffington Post) later died due to lack of insurance and support. Crack was killing people and Haring felt it necessary to use his artwork to help end an epidemic. Although illegally painted, Haring’s mural was used as a pinpoint visual for the War on Drugs and still stands as one of the most powerful murals in New York City. In fact, when interviewing Malik Ketcham, he immediately recalled the Crack is Wack mural when asked about graffiti, proving its lasting significance.
The last major mural Keith Haring created before he died of AIDS, was his 1989 “Once Upon a Time” mural. Located in the bathroom of the Center: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center, the mural of penises, fluids and sexual figures, the mural ties Haring’s personal sexuality with his political messages. As he was dying of AIDS, it seemed as if this mural served as a celebration and embrace of his sexuality. During a time where the LGBTQ community was fighting for visibility as gay and bisexual men were dying from AIDS, Haring reinstates his message of freedom and fluidity. Representing both a time before AIDS inhibited gay men from expressing themselves sexually but also conveying pride and enjoyment from his sexuality, Haring, once again, created a lasting mural in New York City.
Upon being diagnosed with AIDS in the late 1980s, Haring became a key activist in AIDS movement. The virus, although leading almost directly to death, was underfunded as Natalie Phillips expresses in The Pop Apocalyptic: Keith Haring’s and Kenny Scharf’s Remaking of Contemporary Religious Art, “because of who was being affected by the disease: largely gay men, who were already socially marginalized” (129). In understanding this, Keith Haring, as stated in “Sex is Life is Sex,” redoubled his efforts to bear witness to the value and richness of life, love and sex, and become aware of the importance of time and the urgency of his work”(The Haring Foundation). He then began to use his paintings as direct activism for organizations such the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (Act Up). In 1989, he created the Act Up poster, “Ignorance=Fear, Silence=Death” and he continued to promote safe sex and visibility. He was asserting that the lack of funding and acknowledgment of AIDS as an issue in need of funding and research, was leading to the deaths of endless amounts of people. The demonization of gay people was problematic and Haring understood this to be stemming from flawed American ideals that were constantly reproduced.
Haring’s his political statements about Republicans were strikingly evident. Keith Haring was said to be anti-Republican and a 1980s piece that he created reading, “Reagan: Ready to Kill” very explicitly displayed this. Haring did not agree with Reaganism or the traditional, conservative American ideal Reagan believed in. When he took office, Reagan’s political agenda demonized all lower class, nonwhite and non-heteronormative groups as, “morally impoverished super-predators wreaking havoc on middle class America” (Weiss, 92). Haring, through this piece of artwork, strongly portrayed what he felt the extent Ronald Reagan would go to uphold the dominance of a white, heteronormative, middle class narrative. Although not physically killing these marginalized groups of people, his Republican policies were demonizing anyone that did not fit the ideal narrative and therefore silencing them.
In continuing his focus on social injustice, Keith Haring in 1984, used his icon like art to speak out against apartheid. His piece, highlighting a black figure stepping on a white figure that has tied a rope to the black figures neck, reads “Free South Africa.” This piece of artwork, along with his others, raised awareness to very relevant social issues. Although specifically dealing with South African apartheid, the neutral colors of black and white represent the racial injustices that were taking place in America during this time as well. Again, in his artwork, universality and fluidity are displayed in such a manner that the interpretation is left up to viewers, but all perceptions offer a strong message.
Keith Haring throughout his career took on a prominent role in grassroots activism. Inspired by the New York City’s youth mentality to get your message from one end of the city to the other, Haring took his messages into international spaces as well. Public art and Haring’s concept of taking any space and making it his own, was his way of, “implementing and questioning methods of resistance and of participation in the making of culture, knowledge and meaning” (Glahn, 252). In 1986, according to a New York Times article published in ’86, Keith Haring traveled to Germany and created a mural on the Berlin Wall. His mural was, “an interlocking chain of red and black human forms on a bright yellow background. The colors are those of the East and West German flags” (“Keith Haring Paints…Wall”). This message of freedom and acceptance was displayed quite evidently and when asked why he created this mural he stated, “It’s a humanistic gesture, more than anything else. The main objective here is that it is not an insignificant act that goes unnoticed. The entire world should know that it happened, reinforcing its political significance” (New York Times). Yet again, Haring took an open space and made a political statement for everyone to see and hear.
Graffiti continued to be platform of communication for subjugated groups of people. It allowed those marginalized groups of people to make the public spaces they were not always accepted by, their own. From Keith Haring Journals, he expresses how his art defined the space in which it was created. In an entry from his early career in 1978 he writes of New York, “I realized today that one of the main reasons I am here is because it is one of the only cities in the world that has a gallery space big enough” (Haring Journals). The universality, movement and expression of New York allowed Haring to create his work in an equally universal and expressive manner. New York was and still is today, vibrant with different types of people, stories and ways of life. Graffiti beginning with the “bombing” New York writers, prompted these unique stories known not just from one part of the city to the other but worldwide.
In reading my initial reflection what stood out to me most was my comment that the 1980’s was a legendary time because of the powerful youth culture. My thoughts have grown and expanded as the 1980s youth culture, along with marginalized groups of people made their own statements. I spoke of the relevance of the hip hop culture for my parents but before writing this paper, it was never clear that graffiti was a part of hip hop. Many of the outlets created by youth in the 80s were parts of subcultures they created. This idea of taking your own space and giving it a personal meaning has affected the course of my life decades later as I am a part of a generation, similar to the New York city 80’s youth and Keith Haring, fighting for social justice but now on college campuses. The ability to articulate a message from one college campus to another, on different ends of the country, I believe is directly related to the subway graffiti that traveled from Manhattan to Queens. We have an important message of racial equality and comfort on our own campuses, not to be socially defiant but to present a message, as Haring would say, everyone needs to hear.
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“KEITH HARING PAINTS MURAL ON BERLIN WALL.” The New York Times. October 23, 1986. Accessed December 17, 2015.
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Pearlman, Alison. Unpackaging Art of the 1980s. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Phillips, Natalie E. The Pop Apocalyptic: Keith Haring’s and Kenny Scharf’s Remaking of Contemporary Religious Art. 2009.
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Style Wars. Directed by Tony Silver and Henry Chaflant. 1983. Film.
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Accessed December 17, 2015.
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