Queer art and activism on the streets. Keith Haring’s open-air murals

How about reading this article while listening to Larry Levan, a great friend of Haring’s?

I can’t remember when I discovered Keith Haring’s work. I get the feeling I’ve always known him. Its language is so familiar, so ingrained in the collective imagination, that it seems to have always been everywhere…

I remember when I went to New York for the first time, I was 16 years old. At the time I went to see the play RENT on Broadway. On stage a bunch of young and enthusiastic characters, sang and danced, expressing their dreams and sufferings as artists, lgbtqia+ (the acronym was not yet so popular at the time) in a big, cruel city in the process of gentrification. The cultural effervescence of New York was etched in my memory as this magical space, where artists from all over the world meet in an urbanity full of excitement and danger.

Years later, while studying architecture at college, I became interested in public art as a research topic and from there came a need for direct intervention in the city. It was at that moment that I started to develop academic research on the explosion of street art in big cities and I started to carry out my first interventions on the walls of São Paulo. It was there that I decided to delve into Keith Haring’s production.

Originally from Reading, Pennsylvania, Keith Haring threw himself into commercial art studies. He soon realized that this was not his path and in 1978 he moved to New York, where he enrolled in the Visual Arts School. He quickly became involved with the city’s “underground” cultures and with artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat , Kenny Sharp and the leader of the American Pop movement: Andy Warhol.

If his first urban interventions were made with chalk on the subway walls. From the beginning, Keith has already presented a simple and accessible language, seeking to convey his messages to as many people as possible. He has made many collective murals with underserved communities and youth groups across the United States, working towards community building and in a fight to advance mentalities on issues such as sexuality, drugs and the sad HIV epidemic that ravaged the world. For him, art and activism were one thing.

Between 1980 and 1989 he gained visibility in the official world of the arts (galleries, museums, cultural centers…) and was invited to create large murals in cities around the world. His work gained international recognition and so he was able to spread his art wherever he went at the invitation of museums and other cultural institutions. According to Keith Haring Foundation, there were more than 50 public achievements.

Among the most notable are the famous mural “Crack is Wack” in New York, the work done on the facade of the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, his painting on the west side of the Berlin wall and the facade of the Church of St. Anthony in Pisa, Italy.

Keith Haring Mural in Paris at Necker Hospital

Mural of Haring in Paris – photo: Keith Haring Foundation

Or mural “Crack is Wack “was painted in the Harlem neighborhood in 1986 illegally. During his execution, Haring was arrested for vandalism. The media repercussion was such that the artist was quickly released. Meanwhile, the mural has been transformed with pro-crack messages by local drug dealers. The district’s sub-city hall saw in Haring’s art a tool to fight the drug epidemic that was spreading through the city and thus hired the artist to redo the painting. The new version was a little different, but brought the same message, through images of skulls and monsters together with the phrase “Crack is Wack”. The work can still be seen on site and has already undergone three stages of restoration, the first in 2007, then in 2012 and the most recent in 2019.

Keith Haring and his Crack is Wack mural

Keith and Harlem kids during the execution of the Crack is Wack mural – photo: Keith Haring Foundation

In 1987 on the façade of the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris, Haring painted, using thick black lines, the figure of a pregnant woman, surrounded by children and adults in a celebration of color and movement: “I created this painting to amuse the children of the hospital. today and in the future”, says the artist. After years of abandonment and aging, in 2011 the structure on which the painting rests was threatened with demolition, but thanks to the efforts of the gallery owner. Jerome de Noirmont, together with the Keith Haring Foundation, the painting has been restored and preserved. To accomplish this feat, they were called William Shank e Antonio Rava, the same ones who had restored the painting “All world” in Pisa.

Mural Tuttomondo, de Keith Haring

The Tuttomondo Panel in Italy – Photo: Keith Haring Foundation

“Tuttomondo” covers one of the facades of the parish of St. Anthony in Pisa. The 180 m² painting was made for a week in 1989. In this work, Haring represents peace and harmony in the world, dialoguing with Christian inspirations and with the colors of local architecture. The work can be interpreted as a hymn to life, performed one year after his death in 1990 as a result of complications related to HIV. The mural, which features 30 figures that are articulated like a puzzle, became a tourist attraction in the city and is protected and valued by the religious institution and the city hall.

In 2019, it was found in the Tendal da Lapa, cultural equipment managed by the city of São Paulo, a two-meter long panel, made by the artist in 1984 when he came to Brazil at the invitation of the Bienal Internacional de São Paulo. In the composition, a robot has an open head, through which human silhouettes emerge, in an analogy to the complex relationship between men and machines. A very pertinent reflection nowadays, when artificial intelligence begins to develop exponentially. The painting was behind a bleacher, covered with siding, among other paintings. Luckily, it was recognized by its signature and restored by the city to be preserved.

Keith Haring Panel at Tendal da Lapa

Haring panel at Tendal da Lapa, in São Paulo – photo: Youtube reproduction

In 2005 I returned to NYC and stayed there for 6 months. At that moment I read Keith Haring’s diary. They were his daily notes, reflections of his daily life as an artist, travels, projects, parties, loves and adventures. This book left a mark on me and from then on it became my biggest inspiration as an artist. I understood that it was possible to make art accessible and transforming, free and challenging.

Keith Haring epitomizes the urban spirit of our times. A creative spirit that manifests itself clandestinely, talking about taboo subjects, such as homosexuality, AIDS, drugs, among other provocative topics, without moral filter or censorship. Its pop language communicates with the greatest number of people, bringing artistic content to the streets and directly questioning the world in which we live. Even if many of his murals have not withstood time (which is normal, considering the ephemeral essence of graffiti), the “Keith Haring Foundation”, together with the owners of the artist’s works, has been successful in preserving his legacy and spreading it. with exhibitions around the world.

If his language is simple and straightforward, his messages are profound and continue to multiply, even more than 30 years after his death. Haring teaches us to be free and not to be afraid to face, with an open heart, this big world that, at times, can seem scary, but that can and must be transformed through our actions and positioning.

Rafael Suriani

Rafael Suriani – photo: disclosure

Rafael Suriani


Suriani was born and raised in São Paulo. In 2002, while studying architecture at FAU-USP, he felt the need to relate to the city through his art. Since then, the artist has carried out urban interventions with paintings and collages (lick-lambes). In 2007 he moved to Paris to pursue a master’s degree in contemporary art and soon joined the local street art scene. Suriani’s work is inspired by the cultural diversity of large modern cities. It usually consists of the insertion of hybrid characters in the urban context. These hybrids are metaphors that refer both to city dwellers and to the universe of mythologies. His characters often mix humans and animals, male and female in a representation of the “wild” component of human nature. Currently Suriani lives and works in São Paulo where he opened a studio in the Vila Madalena neighborhood.