Keith Haring’s Iconic East Harlem Mural, “Crack Is Wack,” Is Back


“I saw it, and I thought: that must be a Keith Haring!” exclaimed Alejandro Bonilla, Sr., a former arts student from the Bronx who walked past Haring’s famous “Crack Is Wack” mural for the first time this week. Painted on both sides of a concrete handball court wall in Harlem River Park at 127th Street more than three decades ago, the mural has been shielded by a protective structure and scrim, hidden from public view since the fall of 2015 while the adjacent Harlem River Drive highway underwent construction. This summer, NYC Parks and the Keith Haring Foundation commissioned two artists to refurbish and repaint the mural, and it reopened to the public this Saturday. A piece of East Harlem history — and art history — has been restored to its community.

Haring, a ubiquitous graffiti artist and social activist, painted the bright orange mural on the northern face of the handball court wall in 1986, at the apex of the crack epidemic that disproportionately affected low-income communities of color in the United States and ravaged Harlem. Moved by his young studio assistant and friend Benny Soto’s struggles with addiction and riled by government inaction, the artist mobilized his recognizable visual language of boldly-outlined shapes and energetic figures to send a cautionary message.

Haring was known for inserting his work into the urban landscape of New York City without authorization, tagging subways and buildings quickly and surreptitiously. “Crack Is Wack” was no exception.

“As usual, I didn’t ask for permission, and I just brought my ladders and paints,” he once recalled.

As he was wrapping up the final touches, police drove by and gave Haring a court summons for defacing public property (though the artist did not serve time in jail and ultimately paid a reduced fine of $25.) In the days that followed, the mural gained visibility as the media used its image in its coverage of the crack crisis. Eventually, it was vandalized by someone in the neighborhood, and NYC’s Parks Department responded by painting over it with a drab gray. But by that point, the mural’s existence and Haring’s summons had become public knowledge, and the Parks Department commissioner, lamenting its effacement, asked Haring if he would repaint it. Haring agreed, producing a two-sided mural this time, spelling his anti-drug message on both faces of the court wall and altering the original imagery.

This signaled the cause’s extreme importance to the artist. “It wasn’t in his nature to recreate the same thing twice,” said Gil Vazquez, acting director and president of the Keith Haring Foundation.


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