In 1980, soon after leaving the School of Visual Arts, Keith began drawing his own graffiti on the streets. Like other graffiti artists, he invented his own tag or signature. Keith's tag was an animal, which, as he continued to draw it, started to look more and more like a dog. Then, he drew a little person crawling on all fours, and the more he drew it, the more it became The Baby. In this way, Keith began to build his own personal vocabulary, which would vary and increase with the years.
Keith also organized exhibtions and performed at Club 57, in the basement of a church at 57 Saint Mark's Place. He participated in the Times Square show, an important exhibition of new art held in New York City, and made the first drawings with flying saucers; animals and human images that recur in the subway drawings.
Haring wanted to demystify art at any cost and make it universally accessible; this led him to create countless graffiti.
As he had little money, Keith went everywhere by subway. One day, while waiting on a subway platform, he noticed some empty black paper panels which were used to cover up old advertisements against the platform walls. Keith thought, "These panels are just dying to be drawn on!" Then and there, he rushed out of the subway, bought some white chalk, came back and began drawing on the black panels.
The drawings were quite simple - pyramids, flying saucers, human figures, winged figures, television sets, animals, and babies. Soon the baby with rays all around it became a kind of signature, and the people of New York who rode the subways began recognizing these drawing, although they had no idea who made them.
Haring worked with one eye over his shoulder, always on the lookout for the police who repeatedly caught and arrested him. He continued drawing in the subway until 1984, sometimes producing as many as forty works per day.
|"One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down and did a drawing on it. It was perfect--soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.
"I kept seeing more and more of these black spaces, and I drew on them whenever I saw one. Because they were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn't rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power. It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was. People were completely enthralled.
"I was always totally amazed that the people I would meet while I was doing them were really, really concerned with what they meant. The first thing anyone asked me, no matter how old, no matter who they were, was what does it mean?
"The context of where you do something is going to have an effect. The subway drawings were, as much as they were drawings, performances. It was where I learned how to draw in public. You draw in front of people. For me it was a whole sort of philosophical and sociological experiment. When I drew, I drew in the daytime which meant there were always people watching. There were always confrontations, whether it was with people that were interested in looking at it, or people that wanted to tell you you shouldn't be drawing there...
"I was learning, watching people's reactions and interactions with the drawings and with me and looking at it as a phenomenon. Having this incredible feedback from people, which is one of the main things that kept me going so long, was the participation of the people that were watching me and the kinds of comments and questions and observations that were coming from every range of person you could imagine, from little kids to old ladies to art historians."
|"Every two weeks, I'd add new elements to the drawings," said Keith. "Often I'd do thirty or forty drawings in one day. Now I found a way of participating with graffiti artists without really copying them, because I didn't want to draw on the trains. Actually, my drawing on those black panels made me more vulnerable to being caught by the cops - so there was an element of danger. Well, I started spending more and more time in the subways. I actually developed a route where I would go from station to station to do just those drawings."|
He also painted on plastic, metal, found objects, and garden statuary. Curated exhibitions of drawings and graffiti art an the mudd club. Solo show at Club 57. Participated in the New York/New Wave Show in New York City. Painted his first mural in a schoolyard on the Lower East Side. He met the graffiti artist l.a. Ii (Angel Oritz).
For fun, Keith and his many friends spent their nights at the Paradise Garage or at Club 57, an East Village hangout, where Keith would do performance pieces involving the recitation of poetry, the showing of videotapes he made himself, and the acting-out of various crazed charades. Mostly, Club 57 was a place where everybody seemed to lose their inhibitions, dancing madly and generally having a pretty wild time.
During this time, Keith supported himself by working at various downtown clubs. At Danceteria he was a busboy. At the Mudd Club he organized underground art shows. At one point, he worked as an assistant to a gallery dealer named Tony Shafrazi.
December 18, 1981
Before too long, however, he began selling more and more of his own work out of his studio. Earlier he had resisted going with a gallery - "I just felt that the whole gallery situation was incredibly confining," he said - but now the need for a gallery seemed essential. And so began Keith's professional association with the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo.
"For four years, Haring turned the Manhattan Transit Authority into his own Museum of the Underground. His ever-changing exhibition was open to the public 24-hours a day, for the price of a token." (-- Barry Blinderman, from Keith Haring, Future Primeval)
|"The subway drawings opened my eyes to this whole other understanding of art as something that really could have an effect on and communicate to larger numbers of people...."|
"However offensive the graffitist abuse of public space -- and Keith was alive to its adverse aspects -- one still remembers the pleasure, even security, that Haring's drawings introduced into an otherwise noisy and threatening netherworld." (-- Robert Pincus-Witten, from Keith Haring, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art)
All Haring images © Estate Of Keith Haring