Engage like Haring

Keith Haring had busy hands. He made 100,000 works of art – and they were unmistakably his.

Babies, dogs, UFOs jived across his canvases – characters that recurred on billboards and subway walls.

Haring graffitied his way through 1980s New York and wound up in your wardrobe.

Haring just couldn’t help himself. While his friend Andy Warhol feigned cool detachment, Haring was all smiles.

He engaged with rappers, with activists, with celebrities, with shoppers, with regular folk who thought his dancing dudes were cool. 

“He was unique,” says Mare139, a graffiti artist who sprayed dank tunnels alongside Haring.

“The vernacular of his art was so appealing, with a quality of entertainment. But it was also a tremendous, beautiful response to the activism of the time…

“… the really unusual thing about Keith is that he felt he could be of service.”

Let’s draw another comparison.

While the enigmatic Michel Basquiat left more and more to interpretation, Haring pumped up the volume. His messages were broadcast, loud and clear.

For instance, Haring thought crack was whack. So he said so. Straight up. There was no missing the building-sized memo on Harlem River Drive.

That mural and other artworks by Haring, they teach us something: inspiration lives in the streets. He made breakthroughs because he reacted to events in the real world.

The happenings could be as small as the appearance of a blank space. When an ad was pulled from New York stations, it was replaced with black paper, and Haring would pounce upon these swatches with white chalk.

“He was a phenomenon,” says Lenore, who collected Haring’s paintings.

“He would just get up in front of a wall and right from his head, no drawing, he would start working. It was unreal, his understanding.

“He saw the space and he filled it and it was beautiful and it was balanced, it had a rhythm.”

But not all the happenings were as slight as a gap on a station wall. Apartheid, nuclear threat, AIDS all pushed Haring to scrawl.

Haring’s gift was his line.

“His line was astonishing,” said Kenny Scharf – a contemporary and friend of the departed pop icon.

“Keith was totally confident, that’s one of the reasons why his art is so strong: the confidence in his line, the conviction, everything about it.”

Each image was simple. And, yeah, you could argue the symbolism was personal to Haring but, when the message was pressing, he’d complement the vibrating cartoons with bold statements:

Presented with a choice like the above, I’d choose knowledge and noise. I’d act up, as Haring desired.

In the suitably titled “To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple”, Harvard Business Review cites a study of 7,000 consumers.

And it turns out Haring was on to something. What people want from marketers is “decision simplicity”.

Haring’s blatant in-yer-face message of CRACK IS WACK follows the article’s advice. It increases the ease with which consumers can “weigh their purchase options”.

Hear that, NYPD? Haring was waging the public health campaign his city needed.

Oh, and there’s one other point I’d make. It’s illuminated by Haring’s Day-Glo career.

There is no abstract realm of pure ideas, not really. Even Mondrian’s geometric grids developed from paintings of trees.

So, if you’ve built yourself an ivory tower, expecting to be alone with your ideas, you might find yourself just… alone.

Clamber down from the window. Leave a tag on your way out.

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