Activist and artist Keith Haring brought gay art and safe sex onto the streets 

Inspired by the vibrancy of pop art, the political undertones of street art and the social issues present at the time, Keith Haring was one of the defining artists of the 80s.

Starting out making chalk drawings in subway stations, Haring evolved his art to use paint, performance, videos, murals and art merchandise. But it is still his subway drawings that stand out among his most popular and celebrated work. 

A native of Reading, Pennsylvania, Haring’s early love of art was inspired by influences such as Pablo Picasso and Walt Disney. But it wasn’t until he moved to New York at the end of the 70s that the young artist came into his own with his unique style and message. His subway drawings evolved into line drawings, and he’d be arrested on several occasions for vandalism. 

His work attracted the attention of fellow pop art contemporaries such as Jean-Mchel Basquiat and the famous “pope of pop,” Andy Warhol. One of his good friends during that time – an ambitious singer who slept on his couch and later enjoyed her own success – was the legend that is Madonna. 

For most gay men, the 80s and 90s were polarised decades, representing freedom of sexuality and sexual identity but also a fierce battle for survival as AIDS swept across communities worldwide. Haring’s work expressed this struggle, and for many, his work defined the era.

Haring quickly became a hit with many celebrities, namely Grace Jones, who appeared in many of the artist’s designs. You can even spot the man himself in the singer’s “I’m Not Perfect” music video:

But despite his newfound fame and celebrity status, Haring remained committed to social change, devoting his time to public works that carried a powerful social message. Between 1982 and 1989, he produced more than 50 public artworks in dozens of cities around the world, many of which were created for charities, hospitals, children’s daycare centres and orphanages. The artist also collaborated with groups and causes such as National Coming Out Day, World AIDS Day and ACT UP.

When Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 — a time when the disease triggered much fear and unrest in people — he took the news candidly, creating artwork specifically for HIV awareness and safe sex campaigns that were unapologetically ‘in your face’. His designs even popped up on similar campaigns in Australia.

Haring continued to work right up until he died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 and still, to this day, remains one of the only artists to have used his artistic expression to advocate for gay rights and HIV awareness. 

“Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people,” Haring once stated. “Art is for everybody.”

More than thirty years on, Haring’s legacy continues to inspire other gay artists, and his influence can be seen in much of the art we see today. 

Red Eight Gallery is delighted to be offering some of Keith Haring’s most inspiring works. Please contact us to reserve your unique Keith Haring artwork (subject to availability).