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

26th June 2020

Keith Haring: Street Art Boy is showing on BBC Two on July 4th at 9.15 pm.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When does art become political activism and political activism art? This is a question embedded in the city art scenes that have gone on to define a generation, time or place, from the rise of graffiti art to avant-garde sculpture and artistic protest. Many artists have led these movements over the years, from Banksy to Ai Weiwei, Andy Warhol and, of course, Keith Haring – a man whose career was born on the New York subway as he combined art, activism and pop culture. Haring’s white chalk drawings would become synonymous with gay rights, global AIDS campaigns and anti-nuclear protests, his art adorning posters, placards and subway walls. Despite dying at a young age from AIDS, Haring’s work has continued to speak to new generations, now decorating ruck-sacks, posters and t-shirts.

Haring was born on the 4th of May 1958 in Reading, Pennsylvania, where his love of drawing was evident from an early age. On graduation in 1976, Haring enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art, Pittsburgh; however, it was clear that commercial art didn’t match his vision or flare as he sought out experimental and activist-driven projects. Therefore, early into his college life, Haring Dropped out and moved to New York, making the same trip as many young gay men as he escaped the rigidity and oppression of small-town America.


In New York, Haring met fellow artists Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat while embracing the abundance and energy of the legendary Club 57. It was here that he would experiment through performance art and media. However, it was within the vibrant and daring world of graffiti art that Haring would ultimately find his voice. Here, the expressionism and activism of black inner-city culture would inspire him. His initial work was a mix of graffiti, new wave punk and pop culture, as his striking yet straightforward figures appeared in chalk and black marker across New York’s subways and walls. But this would soon expand into a world of colour, expressionism and political art as Haring announced his arrival.


In Street Art Boy, director Ben Anthony explores Haring’s development as an artist with a clarity that only comes from a deep-seated love of his work, embedding his journey in the divisive politics of the Reagan administration and the devastating impact of AIDS. But this exploration of early eighties culture and change is also linked to the freedom of the late 70s art movement, where the power of community activism challenged the established world of art.

Anthony uses Haring’s personal film footage to narrate his life and legacy. While at the same time shining a light on the passions and experiences that inspired him to fight for equality, representation and diversity. In a modern world where division and inequality dominate our shared human experience, Haring’s spirit continues to point the way toward a world where art embraces change.


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