Keith Haring got his start in the street art scene shortly after graduating high school by drawing his now instantly recognizable white-on-black figures, such as Radiant Baby, in the New York City subway. In his desire to reach a wider audience through a public platform, he often created dozens of “subway drawings” a day. Although he was new to the up-and-coming graffiti scene, Haring quickly established himself in the art world throughout the early ‘80s by forming relationships with other emerging icons of the scene such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Madonna; soon, he was exhibiting his art in galleries around the world and had even opened his own retail store called the Pop Shop in 1986. While some criticized him for commercializing his work, Haring maintained that, by selling his art at low prices, he was “breaking down the barriers between high and low art” and making it accessible to everyone.
Haring’s work emphasized activism, often reflecting and commenting on social and political topics relevant to the time; his Crack is Wack mural, for example, has become one of his most-recognized public pieces. As an openly gay artist in an era when sexuality – especially homosexuality – was stigmatized, Haring used art as a platform to spread awareness and open viewers’ minds to new perspectives. After his diagnosis of HIV in 1988, his focus shifted to focus almost solely on AIDS awareness and on society’s notion of the interplays between homosexuality and the AIDS epidemic. His diagnosis motivated him to devote himself entirely to his art and to create as quickly as possible in the limited time he had left; the resulting works provided HIV/AIDS sufferers with a voice at a time when knowledge and acceptance of their disease was essentially nonexistent.
Haring understood the importance of art as a means with which to incite change, and he used his calling as a way to spread awareness about issues that were of importance both to him personally and to society as a whole. By making his art accessible to everyone – even today, prints of it can be found on clothing and merchandise of all kinds – he ensured that his message wouldn’t be lost on those who needed to hear it.