Keith Haring & Hip-Hop

Written By Chris Kelly

Photo’s By The 2&6 Collective



50°51’1.62″ N 4°20’55.61″ E

In December of 2019 the Liverpool Institute of Modern Art released its expansive collection of Keith Haring works to the world. We were lucky enough to see this exhibition once it had set up shop at the BOZAR Museum in Brussels. Keith haring did so much good in one life with the skills and artistic vision he possessed. It is therefore understandable that may aspects of his legacy are discussed before his impact on Hip-Hop and street culture of 1980’s New York. To us, this is one of his greatest achievements. So lets talk about Keith Haring’s legacy in Hip Hop, as a fan, an activist for the genre and a commentator. The 2&6 Collective presents: Hip Hop & Keith. 

Keith Haring & New York

Let’s preface this story just with this statement: Keith Haring impacted so many avenues of contemporary culture that its impossible to truly do justice to his expansive social impact in one article. During the course of his complex and all too fleeting life he used his skills as an artist to challenge the injustices of his time. His works reflected the public outrage and anguish against the Vietnam war, the AIDS epidemic, Nuclear proliferation and the disastrous social injustices of the post Jim Crow era. He even painted a mural of his signature dancing men, holding arms in unison on the Berlin Wall before its destruction.

However like almost all revolutinaries, his cultural impact started small and close to home. He was constantly in tune with the city in which he dwelled and dreamed, New York. It was therefore not surprising that he found refuge from the madness of the times in the lucid and experimental culture of the streets he painted.

Keith Haring, Bad Boy, Bordeaux France
Tseng Kwing Chi: Keith Haring, Bad Boy, Bordeaux France, 1985
Eric Firestone Gallery

At the core of every work Keith created was the notion that art, just like music, was for everybody. During the 1980’s, Keith used this defining principal to create accessible art by turning the familiar sights of everyday life into messages of joy, outrage, anguish and ecstasy. Recorded within the texts later knows as The Keith Haring Journals, Keith wrote: “My paintings, themselves are not as important as the interaction between people who see them and thee ideas that they take with them after they leave the presence of my paintings”. Keith new that if his goal was to inspire as many ideas as possible then he had to put his art in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Bringing art to the streets

Usig froms like posters, flyers and record covers, Keith became a part of the landscape of New York. He would go on to design the album cover of RUN DMC’s christmas hit Whilst Hip Hop was domination the sonic world of the streets, Keith Haring was dominating the visual. The video game inspired simplicity of keiths art, worked harmonious with the freedom of expresion that Hip Hop embodies. Energy personified through movement or political, social or sexual transformation were endemic motifs of Keiths work, early 80’s hip-hop & life in New York. Keith was very much inspired by the people and urban environments he found himself surrounded

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Keith Haring & Jean-Michel Basquiat,
Whitney Museum of American Art

In 1981 Haring would meet Jean-Michel Basquiat at an exhibit curated by Diego Cortez in which they were both featured. The American art critic Rene Ricard entitled the two revolutionaries “the most original artists at the birth of the new decade” stating that this was because they “saw their work as an echo of the streets and club culture told through the immediate urban vernacular of hip-hop music”. Keith created art while grounding it in the vocabulary & reality of normal people, displaying their stories, worries and desires shamelessly. Just like Hip-Hop.

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Haring’s signature character of the dancing man, is reminiscent and inspired by the moves and energy of the b-boys that he would see while dancing at the Paradise Garage. The energy that oozes from the charterers in Keith work originates from the raw hedonism he witnessed in the underground clubbing culture. As if he was able to bottle it in his spray paint can.


This explains why Keith’s imagery is inseparable from the memory of 1980’s New York Hip-Hop because his work was in the background of every rave, every first block party and dingy creative space in the city. Haring in essence, eliminated the distance between the galleries and the street as places for art. This effect was recognized by Keith himself in his 1983 solo show. He transformed the basement of his studio into a disco hall and filled it local hip hop legends, as a result b-boys turned up and danced in the middle of the exhibit for the entirety of the show.

In doing so, Keith had achieved his goal of allowing the streets and its culture to invade the galleries, tearing down the pretenses of elitism and pomposity that keep art locked out of reach of normal people. What somebody like Grandmaster Flash had done for hip-hop, Keith haring ha done for street art & activism. He made it accessible to everyone, and changed the world forever in the process. Mc’s, DJ’s, B-boy’s & Graffiti artists are the four pillars that gives hip-hop its spirit. Nobody respected that more than Keith Haring, that’s why hes a part of it now.

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