Keith Haring was born on May 4, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania to a religious and fairly conservative family. From a very young age, he expressed interest in art and, specifically, in cartoon styles. His earliest inspirations came from the work of Dr. Seuss and Disney and he began to learn the basics of cartooning from his father. Upon his graduation from high school, Haring studied commercial art at The Ivy School of Professional Art. He studied there for two years before he decided to drop out due to a lack of interest, on his part, in becoming a commercial graphic artist. Art still remained prevalent in his life, however. He was hired for a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and was able to explore the work of modern artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobe. Soon after dropping out, he moved to New York City to study at the School of Visual Arts. In the city, Haring would hone in on his craft and quickly make a name for himself in the worlds of art and of activism. Throughout his short, yet intense, career as an artist, Keith Haring created a legacy for himself, which lives on, still today, through his art and through his part in AIDS movement.
In New York, Haring discovered a diverse community of artists who were working steadily outside of the more mainstream galleries and museums. Instead, they put up original works in subways, clubs, and other accessible public spaces. Drawing inspiration from this community, he began to put up exhibitions and performances at Club 57. He became most recognizable for his chalk drawings in the New York subway system, which helped him to experiment with ideas and to interact with the public while he was creating. Interaction with the general public, not just with the societal elite, was of the utmost importance to Haring. He believed art is and should be for everyone, which led to the opening of his Pop Shop in SoHo, which made his artwork affordable and approachable. While his beliefs and his shop received a plethora of critique from other artists, Haring maintained that “The Pop Shop makes my work accessible. It’s about participation on a big level.”
Art was about more than just accessibility and creativity to Haring. It also served as a form of activism. Haring was openly gay and a long time advocate for safe sex before being diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. Since an AIDS diagnosis was essentially a death sentence, Haring knew he did not have much time in life and, therefore, wanted to impart as much positive change in the world as possible. He used imagery as a tool in his art in order to speak about his illness and to ignite activism against the AIDS epidemic which was sweeping the country at the time. He devoted much of his time to charity work, creating 50+ public pieces in hospitals, daycares, orphanages, and charities. One of his most famous works, “Once Upon A Time” was put up in a male restroom, raising awareness about the AIDS crisis. A year after his own diagnosis, Haring established the Keith Haring Foundation, providing support to nonprofit organizations, especially surrounding research, healthcare, and education related to HIV/AIDS.
Keith Haring died of AIDS complications at age 31 on February, 16 1990. His memorial service on May 4 drew a crowd of over a thousand people. He is featured on the AIDS memorial quilt. Haring’s usage of simple lines and universal, ageless subject matter to this day attracts a multitude of diverse audiences who keep his legacy alive and ensure that his art remain accessible to everyone.