A Rare Look at Keith Haring’s Original “Crack Is Wack” Mural

June 17, 2014 | Marina Galperina

Artist Keith Haring painted his famous Crack Is Wack mural in 1986, at an abandoned handball court along the Harlem River Drive. These images taken by photographer Juan Rivera, only recently available through Getty, show Haring at work and reveal a different version of the now iconic mural, before it was vandalized, buffed and repainted.

“Because the wall looks like a big billboard on the highway, it’s perfect for painting,” Haring wrote in his autobiography. “As usual, I didn’t ask permission, and I just brought my ladders and paints and, within a day, I had painted this mural, Crack Is Wack.” Haring felt very personally about the Crack Is Wack mural, having nearly lost his young studio assistant to crack addiction in 1984.

In court, Haring was slapped with a $25 fine for the illegal art piece. The judge recognized Haring’s good intentions but condemned the vandalism. “I was relieved I guess,” Haring told the New York Times later. “I’m waiting for the city to provide me with a wall.”

But when the mural was defaced by “an unknown hand” to say “Crack Is It,” the Parks Department personally invited Haring to repaint the illegal mural, as well as giving him the other side of the wall and seven additional spaces to paint.

Even now, the NYC Parks Department glosses over the mural’s illicit nature. “By using chalk, a temporary medium, he did not commit large-scale vandalism,” the department emphasizes, downplaying an important part of history. At a point in Haring’s career when he could sell a single canvas for $50,000, the mural was done without permission.


Getty specifies: “This first version of the mural, painted in response to the then-ongoing epidemic of crack cocaine usage in New York, was executed illegally and was subsequently completely repainted with different imagery (and legally, with the blessing of the city’s government who renamed the park the ‘Crack Is Wack Playground’) at least once by Haring in the following months.”

After years of wear and tear, the mural was restored in 2007.

Restored mural, 2009. (Photo: @Jim Kiernan)

Sadly, Juan Rivera, Keith Haring’s former lover and the photographer behind these rare images, passed away two years ago. ANIMAL spoke with Tod Roulette of Roulette Fine Art, who worked River for nine years and exhibited his work.

“Juan was a budding photographer, amateur in every good sense of the word, very enthusiastic. You can just see the passion,” Roulette explained of the time these images were taken. Along with photos of Keith Haring’s high life and his meetings with celebrities, Rivera documented the artist at work in the studio and at home, offering an intimate look into his life and their life together. The personal body of work grew in volume after Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He passed away in 1990. He was 31 years old.

“You see in a lot of these photographs of [Haring’s] last three years with Juan,” Roulette went on. “Juan brought his camera with him wherever he went when they were together.” Roulette, who teaches a class on Black Arts in the Age Of AIDS (1981-1996) feels that Rivera’s prolific documentation was driven by the somber reality and Haring’s diagnosis. “People were dying en masse around them. That had a part to do with it.” A book of Juan Rivera’s photograph with Keith Haring was in the works, but unfortunately, it wasn’t completed in time.

In his journals, the artist wrote: “The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a ‘self-proclaimed artist’ to realize that the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for a few and ignore the masses.”

(Photos: Juan Rivera/Roulette Fine Art/Getty Images)