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Keith Haring’s life, art and activism: a story told through four famous designs

Whilst Keith Haring is famed today as an immensely successful global artist, his career began firmly on the streets of New York. It was a life shaped by social and political campaigning, warm friendships and art filled with colour, vibrancy and energy.

Today, we tell the story of Keith Haring’s life, art and activism – illustrated through four famous designs. From his early graffiti to later celebrity crowds, commercial artwork and the Keith Haring Foundation, discover the amazing story of this inspirational artist…

1. Growing communities

Keith Haring’s work unceasingly responded to social and political issues such as the end of Apartheid in South Africa, the Berlin Wall and increasing issues of poverty and drug abuse in New York (referenced in the famed Crack is Wack mural).

As part of this outlook, Keith Haring admired young people’s imagination, humour and lack of prejudice. He consequently painted several murals for children’s charities and hospitals. Keith Haring always tried to create joy and make people laugh (no matter how young or old!), whether through characters escaping UFOs or developing all too quickly in Growing I.


As an openly gay artist, Keith Haring also represented the LGBTQ community and their fight for equal rights during the 1980s. As will be of little surprise, he was frequently arrested whilst creating this graffiti art. In one humorous anecdote however, Keith described how the policemen handcuffing him were fans of his work – anxious to meet the artist and shake his hand! Keith Haring utilised his growing platform to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic. He created posters combating ignorance and silence over the condition, trying to reach as large and diverse an audience as possible.

The artist himself was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987 and subsequently set up The Keith Haring Foundation, to provide funding and support to AIDS research and education. Keith Haring himself died from AIDS related complications. He passed away on 16 February 1990, at the young age of 31.

2. Friendship and festivals

Keith Haring was deeply engaged in cultural and commercial artwork. Indeed, many of his most famous images derived from chalking his vibrant figures on top of subway advertising boards. The artist was never shy of commercial projects, arguing they helped his art reach broader audiences.

Keith Haring once said that art’s purpose was to “communicate and contribute to culture”. As such, he was a firm believer that art should be accessible and open to all.

Poster art was therefore a natural progression. In 1983, Keith Haring designed three posters for the 17th Montreux Jazz Festival (held on the shores of Lake Geneva). Keith Haring’s fun way of working perfectly suited the musical world, as he often listened to jazz and hip-hop music to inform his rhythmic lines and sense of movement.


Pierre Keller (the artistic director of the Montreux Jazz Festival) took a chance on the little-known artist. After meeting Keith Haring at a gallery show in New York, he invited him to flood city walls, cars and t-shirts with his bright, waving characters. Keith Haring’s three poster designs (in green, pink and yellow) were all gladly accepted by the festival, but failed to sell well.

Despite this, Keller kept all the unsold stock and offered each work for over 8,000 francs just a few years later! By this point, Keith Haring’s fame was increasing. Pierre Keller invited him to create another festival poster in 1986, this time in collaboration with Andy Warhol. The result was a series of musical staves drawn by Andy Warhol, with Keith Haring’s distinctive dancing figures squeezed between each stave.

3. A pop shop pioneer

Putting his artistic philosophy into practice, Keith Haring opened a “Pop Shop” in 1986 at 292 Lafayette Street. Based in the Soho neighbourhood of New York, Keith Haring positioned the shop as an extension of his belief that art should be accessible to all. It was designed to appeal to collectors as well as “kids from the Bronx”.

He sold everything from badges to T-Shorts, posters and novelty items – all adorned with his designs. Contemporary friends and artists also contributed to the project, including legendary street artists such as Kenny Scharf and Jean Michel Basquiat.

After the success of the New York Pop Shop, Keith Haring opened another store in Tokyo in 1987. He maintained complete artistic control and painted massive murals at each site. Whilst the Tokyo store only opened for a couple of years, the New York store remained open until 2005.


Pop Shop III, See No Evil is just one of the artworks originating around this time. Employing Keith Haring’s characteristically simplified figures, drawn with thick black outlines and primary colours, it continued his original subway aesthetic.

4. Keith Haring’s celebrity circles

Keith Haring developed a vast social circle whilst living and working in New York’s East Village. This included fellow artists, designers and musicians such as Madonna, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.

As an artist and individual that prized social connection – these close friendships frequently made their way into Keith Haring’s art. We’ve already seen how Keith Haring collaborated with Andy Warhol on the famed Montreux Jazz festival posters, and Jean-Michel Basquiat on his Pop Shop.

In the spirit of creative collaboration, Keith Haring even went so far as to design another friend’s wedding invitations! When the artist’s close friend “Dr Winkie” was planning his wedding to Estefania (Este) Fu Yum Kong in 1988, there was only one man to create the invites…


Dr Winkie was a colourful character who owned and promoted the hip San Francisco club DV8. Keith Haring created a design (Dr Winkie Wedding Invitation) especially for his nuptials, inviting guests to attend the event at DV8, 4.30pm on 21 February, 1988. Reflecting the joy of the occasion, Keith Haring featured two purple figures joyously dancing, sharing a heart-filled head against a pink background. Each guest was sent an original canvas, with the invitation itself on the back.

Representing both established and emerging artists, the Artmarket Gallery has a wealth of art world experience. We love matching people with artworks they adore, and our expert consultants are always here to help with any enquiries. So why not get in touch today, or pay our Cottingham gallery a visit?