Keith Haring’s 1986 mural Crack Is Wack, which turned an East Harlem handball court into a contemporary art pilgrimage site, is a vital piece of NYC activism. The artist, who had become well known for his graffiti drawings in the City’s streets and subways and had just opened the Pop Shop in Soho as a vehicle to make his work more accessible, was cited for disorderly conduct for painting a mural that spoke out against an epidemic ravaging the City in the 1980s—one that was also afflicting an assistant of his. (Haring appeared in court to face the charges and paid a $25 fine.) After it was defaced and painted over, the Parks Department gave him permission to repaint it, and they promote the wall and its history on their website. They even renamed the playground in which the mural stands after its slogan.
The piece has withstood more than just some early vandalism (the words were changed to “Crack Is It” months after it debuted). The elements have taken their toll, and Crack Is Wack has needed to be restored several times, the most recent of which was unveiled in late 2019. At the time the Haring Foundation reintroduced the mural, it had been four years since it was on display. Thanks to the painstaking work of Louise Hunnicutt and her assistant, William Tibbals, Haring’s spirited art again has pride of place in a park at East 128th Street between Second Avenue and Harlem River Drive.
What you will see
Haring’s faceless cartoonlike characters—frequently shown in a state of movement—are as recognizable a signature as any modern artist’s. The vibrantly orange side of the concrete wall bears the phrase “Crack Is Wack” inside a bubble, with a prominent skeleton holding a $0 bill; in the mass surrounding it, figures seem to alternately be raising their hands up in surrender or falling to the ground. The other side repeats the words within a band of orange paint, with a snake above and dancing forms below—each with an “X” where its heart should be, a symbol Haring commonly employed in his work to indicate a victim.
A few Crack Is Wack facts
- Haring did a lot of large-scale works, and this one is no different; the painting measures 16 feet tall by 26 feet wide.
- The version that stands now is based on the second iteration that Haring did. The first included a depiction of someone being hung by their feet above the waiting jaws of a sharp-toothed creature.
- Haring chose the East Harlem park setting, visible to cars passing on busy Harlem River Drive, to make his message as public as possible.
Where to find more of Keith Haring’s art in NYC
Untitled, Museum of Modern Art (1982)
This enormous ink drawing wraps around multiple walls in a second-floor MoMA room; it’s a dense riot of black-and-white imagery, with dogs, snakes, light bulbs and aliens populating the scene.
Mural, Woodhull Hospital (1986)
Out in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Haring painted brightly colored figures on the walls of a hospital lobby. It’s one of a number of pieces of public art on display there.
Pop Shop Ceiling, New York-Historical Society (1986)
The ticketing area of NYC's oldest museum displays a section of ceiling from Haring's short-lived Pop Shop, complete with his trademark energetic design.
Mural, Carmine Street Pool (1987)
The public pool at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center is bordered by a wall bearing aquatic-themed drawings.
Once Upon a Time, LGBT Center (1989)
What looks like graffiti covering the second-floor bathroom of this community hangout is definitely the most outré Haring mural you can espy in the City.
The Life of Christ, Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (1990)
Haring executed this triptych altarpiece, one of his final pieces, in bronze and gold; there are similar versions in churches in San Francisco and Paris. It has a hopeful feel, with angels on the two side panels and Christ cradled in the center.
Gay Men’s Health Crisis flyer, Activist NYC, Museum of the City of New York (1991)
Haring’s work was intensely political and often dedicated to activism, including causes related to HIV/AIDS, which would prematurely take his life in 1990. This posthumous flyer uses an image of his from a few years earlier.
Bowery Art Wall (ongoing)
Back in 1982, Haring and artist-partner Juan Dubose painted over a giant wall on the corner on East Houston Street and Bowery. It became a site for graffiti until it was transformed into a rotating mural space in 2008, beginning with a tribute that replicated the original. While you won’t see Haring’s actual work, you’ll be able to appreciate his lasting impact on NYC’s street art scene.