Keith Haring: Street Art Boy – The power of activism and art

When does art become political activism or political activism become art? This is a question embedded within both creativity, culture and community from the dawn of human history to now. From the rise of graffiti art through to sculpture and protest. However, one artist rarely mentioned in the same breath as Banksy or Ai Weiwei is Keith Haring. Despite a career that combined art and activism throughout New Yorks streets and subways. His white chalk drawings becoming synonymous with gay rights, global AIDS campaigns and anti nuclear protests. The art that adorned posters, placards and subway walls now adorning backpacks, posters and clothes. As Haring’s enduring appeal continues to thread through pop culture despite his death from AIDS aged just 31. Now a brand new documentary Keith Haring: Street Art Boy shines a light on the man, his beliefs and his passion.

Haring was born on the 4th May, 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania. His love of drawing clear from an early age, in a childhood where he refused to conform to the ‘norms’ of 1960s small town American life. Upon his graduation in 1976, Haring enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh. However, it was here that Haring quickly learned that commercial graphics simply didn’t match his vision or flare. Dropping out and moving to New York to find his true artistic voice in a city of emerging talent, closed artistic communities and sexual freedom. The latter drawing many young gay men to New York as an escape from the stifling rigidity of small town America.

It was in New York that Haring met fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, while also becoming wrapped in the exuberance and energy of Club 57. Experimenting with his artistic voice through performance art and media. However, it was within the vibrant and daring world of graffiti art that Haring truly found his voice. The expressionism and activism of inner city black culture both inspiring him and encouraging him to leap back into drawing. His initial work providing a mix of graffiti, new wave punk and pop culture. As his simple yet striking figures appeared in chalk and black marker across New York’s subways and walls. His own youthful energy and sexuality threading through each and every image.

With ‘Street Art Boy’ director Ben Anthony explores Haring’s development as an artist with a clarity that only comes from a pure love of his work. While embedding his journey in the divisive politics of the Reagan administration. A politics built on capitalism and American superiority, as inequality grew and the LGBTQ community were ostracised through AIDS. However, these serious notes are also dovetailed with the freedom of the late 70s and early 80s art movement. The power of community activism and the belief in building a better world. Painting a beautiful portrait of the man, his art and beliefs in a rapidly changing landscape of social development and individuality.

One that proudly uses Haring’s own footage in narrating his short but powerful presence in our world. His legacy one of both humanity and creativity in world where division and hate were common place. His passion and truth something many young artists continue to emulate and aspire to achieve. In a modern world where both division and inequality continue to dominate our shared human experience.

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy comes to BBC Two on the 4th July at 9.15pm


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