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An Inspiration from Keith Haring

Everybody has once seen the stylized figures of Keith Haring, faceless and flat like in a 2D world, they move and dance and run around. Keith Haring gave them meaning through their relationship with other flat and faceless figures, often portraying social and political messages. We would like to study Keith Haring a little further. What can and did we learn from Keith Haring’s art and how does SAMA relate to his work?

About Haring When Keith Haring grew up, his political beliefs were shaped by the radical politics of the 60’s and the horror of the Vietnam war. He stood suspicious towards organized power, religion and political structures. He saw it as the job of the artist to be a provocateur; to speak against inequity and injustice. Not only in his artistic works can one see his activist ideas, but also in his operating methods. Keith Haring, while doing art school in New York, started guerrilla pasting headlines of the New York Paper as urban statements. He liked the audience these public interference could reach, and soon decided to use the public environment for contributing his art on greater scale. Between 1980 and 1985 Keith Haring painted between 5.000 to 10.000 billboards on subway stations in New York. The billboards were black and empty between different advertisement, Keith Haring drew on them with white lime paint, during daytime or whenever he would pass by them by. He grew into being an internationally recognised and well-known artist, with an unique style that lives on till today.

Keith Haring drawing on one of the subway billboards.

Inspiring lessons Through his work and lifestyle Keith Haring is an inspiration for the Street Art Museum Amsterdam. Here are four lessons we learned from him and apply in giving space for street art in our city.

First of all, Keith Haring showed us it is important to open up to all kinds of people. To not make art just for the elite, but for a wide audience. He did this at first by using the blackboard on the subway and after that he opened the Pop Shop in 1986 in downtown Manhattan. As he stated himself “The Pop Shop makes my work accessible. It’s about participation on a big level”. Keith Haring showed not to hold back in sharing your work and thoughts with the public; for a protest march against the use of nuclear weapons in 1982 he gave away 20 000 copies of posters for free. SAMA follows his lead in opening up to a wider audience than the people that normally go to museums, by combining street art with social activities. For kids and youngsters the museum tries to make the art lively and accessible. For example by organising workshops for kids and movie-nights for teenagers and young adults.

The second lesson learned from Keith Haring is to stand for what you know is unjust. He was actively involved in tackling social problems; he spread the word about the seriousness of aids and he did not hesitate to speak up against the problem of drug addiction in New York.

Like Keith Haring, the Street Art Museum Amsterdam was founded with social justice in mind. The museum tries to fight against social segregation in the Nieuw-West neighbourhood. By painting, the museum aims to create dialogue among the people, to create diversity instead of segregation. Next to it, the museum functions as a social place. It gives space people who are easily excluded from society, giving them opportunity to create and give meaning.

‘Crack is Wack.’ One of the murals tackling the social problems and drug addiction.

Thirdly, Keith showed us to keep going: you can do a lot but only if you act. Keith Haring painted whenever he could; he made posters for art exhibitions of himself and friends, between 1980 and 1985 he painted practically every black billboard he encountered. In his short lifetime he participated in over 100 exhibitions an made another 50 public paintings.

SAMA acknowledges the importance of keep creating new works. The museum for example like to keep the motto ‘It is only a collection if you keep on collecting’. We expand every year with new paintings or murals, but also lose some through demolition. By producing the message becomes stronger.

A fourth lesson derives directly from the painting style of Keith: keep it easy and put it everywhere. Cause next to painting whenever he could, Keith also painted on any possible sport. Throughout his career he painted on walls, doors, ceilings, posters, canvases, billboards, papers. He made chairs, mugs, calendars. Following his method, SAMA decided to step out to the canvas as well. We focus not only on painting but also on different methods. The collection already includes spray can, acrylic, ink and shoe wax, used on wood, stencil, paper, banners, walls and metal.

Keith Haring painted every possible corner of this car.

In short, Keith Haring proves to be a very inspirational figure. A man with beliefs, vigor and a love for art. In the run-up to the project with Keith Haring Foundation, we will keep you further updated. But already right now, let us learn from the energy and power that the act of drawing can release. And let me finish with a quote of Keith Haring celebrating the art:

“Art should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further.”

Keith Haring


Keith Haring: The Political Line – Fine arts Museum of San Francisco, published by DelMonico Books Prestel

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