Keith Haring: Artist, Activist, Icon

Freddie Team

This Pride season, Freddie is partnering with the Keith Haring Foundation for our “Protect Our Pride” campaign. But who is the man behind the famous graphics?

Keith Haring is one of the most legendary artists of the 20th century. His paintings, drawings and graffiti figures are instantly recognisable – and they’re everywhere. In fact, you may have seen them without realizing! His icons like barking dogs, crawling babies and cartoon figures can be found across the world on everything from t-shirts to phone cases. And although he died from AIDS-related causes in 1990, today his art is more famous than ever.

Keith Haring products might seem like typical brand partnerships. But if you look closer at Keith’s story, they continue the mission he started in his lifetime. From the start of his career, his goal was to make his art accessible to the public. And as his career grew, Keith used this art to raise awareness of issues like HIV/AIDS, the crack epidemic and apartheid. 

Keith’s work shared messages about topics like safer sex, and he also donated murals to hospitals and community organizations. In 1989, he started the Keith Haring Foundation to preserve his art and continue his philanthropy after his death. And now, when brands use Keith’s art, the Foundation raises money for underprivileged children and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.

“Art is for everybody”

Keith Haring was born in 1958 in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. He was an avid cartoonist from an early age, having learned to draw from his father. After a brief stint at local art school in Pittsburgh he moved to New York City in 1978 to attend the School of Visual Arts (SVA). There, he found a queer community and an alternative artist community – which often overlapped. He started to try out different styles of art, including graffiti.

Keith’s first experiments with public art quickly got attention. He started doing chalk drawings in empty advertising spots on the subway system, and before long he attracted an audience of commuters who saw his art each day. He continued these drawings for three years. At the same time, his career began to take off. 

Through the early 1980s Keith showed his work in exhibitions and public projects across the world, including partnerships with Swatch and Absolut vodka. In 1986, he launched his “Pop Shop” in New York that sold t-shirts and other products featuring his art, and the next year he opened a branch in Japan. By the end of the decade, he’d created over 50 murals and public artworks across the world. Keith’s mantra was that “art is for everybody” – and with products, murals and graffiti, he made this art accessible to everyone.

Art as Activism

Keith firmly believed that art can produce social change. To do this, he lent his artwork to political causes he cared about. He produced posters and t-shirts for protests against nuclear weapons and apartheid, and also explored the topics in his art. This meant that he didn’t just bring art into activism – he also brought activism into art galleries. He exposed art audiences to political topics, which helped change minds and alert them to urgent political issues of the time.

As the HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolded through the 1980s, Keith got involved with local activists who were tackling the crisis in their community. These groups, like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), realised that the media was a powerful way of raising awareness and pushing governments to act. Posters were an important tool for this, and Keith’s art – which shared messages in a simple, attention-grabbing way – were a perfect fit. He attended protests and designed graphics for ACT UP, which are still in use today. He also began to address HIV/AIDS in paintings, which became personal after he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987. 

Keith always planned for his art to live on after him. And after his diagnosis, he was spurred to keep working at lightning speed. More than thirty years after his passing, his archive lives on through the work of the Keith Haring Foundation. And for every barking dog that appears on a t-shirt, the Foundation raises funds for his charitable work – proving that even though Keith may be gone, his art can still change the world.

© Keith Haring Foundation. Licensed by Artestar, New York. Partnership done in collaboration with Artestar, a global licensing agency and creative consultancy representing high-profile artists, photographers, designers, and creatives

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