When Keith Haring arrived on a cold, gray October morning at the Berlin Wall, he discovered a major obstacle to the day’s planned activities. Though he had accepted an invitation from a local institution, the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, to paint a 110-yard mural on the concrete barrier, he didn’t realize that East German guards—with little appreciation for unofficial art—actually patrol both sides of the fence. “I have never dealt with the fear of being shot,” said Haring, who nonetheless knows more about living dangerously than most artists. At least five times during the past few years, New York City police snapped handcuffs on his wrists when they caught him drawing on various public surfaces. None of his past artistic escapades, however, scared him quite as much as this one. “If the police tell me to stop, I will,” he said.
Having established the rules, Keith Haring began business as usual. He flipped dance music onto his cassette player full-blast and applied the first bold stroke to a wall that has borne an ever-changing layer of graffiti. In four and a half hours Haring created the largest, most audacious work in the 14-foot-high wall’s history, a chain of red and black human figures on a yellow background. Noting that the colors of his mural match the flag colors of both East and West Germany, Haring explained, “It’s about the ridiculousness of all walls and enemies and borders.”
No matter what country they come from, plenty of people who pass the Berlin Wall won’t need to look for a signature to know who painted it. Since 1981, when he left his first cartoonlike chalk drawings on blank advertising spaces in New York City subway stations, Haring, 28, has become almost as well known as his mentor, Pop Art progenitor Andy Warhol. Haring’s works have been displayed worldwide, including shows at New York’s Whitney Museum and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum. Paintings in his current one-man show at Paris’ Daniel Templon Gallery sell for $8,000 to $42,500. But more than the price tag, it was the ubiquitous appearance of Haring’s symbolic images—a glowing baby, a dancing human figure, a monster with a computer head—that made his fame. He has painted them directly onto Grace Jones’s skin, as a backdrop for a Brooke Shields poster and on the back of Madonna‘s leather jacket. Murals hang in Manhattan’s Palladium nightclub and San Francisco’s Club DV8. “I’m shocked sometimes,” says Juan Rivera, 29, Keith’s companion. “When I come home at night he’s finished huge, intricate paintings.”
Haring has also designed the faces for four Swatch watches and opened the Pop Shop, his own Manhattan store where he sells T-shirts, inflatable toys and refrigerator magnets imprinted with his familiar logos. Though such exposure has increased his audience, it hasn’t done much to please the upper reaches of the art world. Whereas the highbrow Artnews called Haring’s works “provocative, far-reaching and uplifting” in 1983, a would-be-trendy new humor magazine, Spy, recently accused Haring of “greedy insecurity” in an article titled, “Downhill From Here.” Haring, not surprisingly, objects. “I could earn more money,” he says, “if I just painted fewer things and jacked up the price. But my shop is an extension of what I was doing in the subway stations, breaking down the barriers between high and low art.”
Haring also does a good deal of pro bono work, including designing the logo for the Great Peace March and giving away his anti-apartheid posters at rallies. Fined for painting an anti-crack mural in a New York City park this year, he was then praised by the Parks Department and agreed to paint others for free. Even as he was achieving fame, Haring served as artist-in-residence at an Iowa grade school and before that worked at a Brooklyn daycare center for a summer.
His permanent presence on the New York nightclub circuit, as well as his friendship with Grace Jones, Boy George, Warhol and other night stalkers, seems to contradict Haring’s populist sympathies. But at the annual birthday party he throws for 3,000 or so of his closest pals, the Lower East Side street kids befriended by Haring far outnumber the stars. “I’m just as comfortable being with Madonna as being with a 10-year-old,” he says. “Neither one is more important.”
Haring dreamed up some of his current motifs as a child in Kutztown, Pa., where he learned to draw from his father, a supervisor at Western Electric. His later art education included two years as a handyman at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts—where, eventually, he was invited to hold his first one-man show—and two years at New York’s School of Visual Arts. The success of his subway drawings and art shows in nightclubs finally won him the chance in 1982 to sign up with an influential New York gallery.
His latest work drew mixed reactions. “This is a human gesture that makes the wall disappear,” said a West German teacher who brought his art class to watch Haring work. But French artist Thierry Noir griped as he watched his own Statue of Liberty paintings disappear under Haring’s mural. Embarrassed to be covering another artist’s work for the first time in his career, Haring apologized: “I expect my mural to be temporary too.”
He was right. In the end other artists, not the East Germans, posed the greatest threat to the work. One, who claimed that “the wall is so dark that it should not be diminished by a childish painting,” covered a section of the mural with gray paint. A day later someone else painted much of the mural black. Rainer Hildebrandt, 71, the Checkpoint Charlie museum curator who invited Haring, looked on wistfully at the result. “I think Haring was so successful,” he said, “that other artists could not forgive him.”