Chalk was the medium that made pop artist
famous. The short-lived drawings he sketched on blank posters throughout the New York City subway had surprisingly long-term effects on his career, boosting widespread recognition of his tessellating figures that appealed to art connoisseurs and children alike.
And so, it follows that he was no stranger to temporary art. Haring knew that even his murals—close to 50 in total, scattered across the globe from Tokyo to Minneapolis—were subject to the same sort of impermanence.
“I realized, of course, that when you put something in public that it is in a certain way a gift,” Haring said in an interview about his Houston Street mural in New York. “It’s vulnerable to whatever is going to happen to it from the outside world.”
That vulnerability was the intention for We the Youth, a collaborative mural the American artist created in Philadelphia in September 1987. The work, which marks its 30th anniversary on Sunday, was always meant to be temporary.
It was also Plan B. Plan A was for Haring to paint a mural on a trash truck that would drive around Philadelphia, bringing art—and sanitation services—around town. The Philadelphia Sanitation Department refused to lend a truck for that purpose, however, so the project organizers came up with another idea.
Haring was instead invited to Philadelphia by representatives of two multicultural art nonprofits that work with urban youth: Allan Edmunds, founder and director of Philadelphia-based Brandywine Workshop, and Laurie Meadoff, founder and director of the New York-based CityKids Foundation. Meadoff had collaborated with Haring the previous year on CityKids Speak on Liberty (1986), a 90-by-30-foot banner that the artist volunteered to paint with approximately 1,000 children in celebration of the Statue of Liberty’s centennial.
We the Youth was another pro bono collaboration between Haring and urban kids, in a project that commemorated a different American milestone. Timed to coincide with the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution on September 17th, Haring created the mural with a group of high school students (six from New York, eight from Philadelphia) and assistance from three local artists (Clarence Wood, Gilberto Wilson, and Jose Seabourne). The artwork would not enjoy the premier placement of the official festivities planned for Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, but its unceremonious location was intentional.
“Keith Haring didn’t want to put this mural in a part of Philly that everyone saw all the time, one of the trendier, more commercial parts,” recalls Rita Martello, a Seattle-based web designer who was among the mural’s student collaborators in 1987. “He wanted to put it in an actual urban neighborhood.”
The neighborhood selected was South Philadelphia’s Point Breeze, where We the Youth hoped to shine the spotlight of Haring’s commercial success on the urban blight of a low-income area. Painted on the side wall of a rowhouse at 2147 Ellsworth Street, the mural faced a vacant lot—one of hundreds that dotted the neighborhood at the time. (In a letter to Haring that year, Edmunds of Brandywine Workshop counted 900.)
The project organizers expected the mural to be a placeholder until redevelopment actualized the area’s potential—not for it to be around for decades. “We didn’t paint that with the idea that it was going to be there 30 years,” says Edmunds. “This is the whole point: It wasn’t about putting murals all over the city, and monuments to the artists. It was about sparking community, economic, and social development. So progress is when a building gets built on that lot,” he says—progress that would, inevitably, turn Haring’s mural into a shared wall between two rowhomes.
Despite the absence of new construction and repopulation of the dilapidated district in the years preceding We the Youth, there were nevertheless several active community organizations and residents trying to improve the area. Point Breeze neighborhood associations and businesses cooperated on the mural by providing supplies and other support.
“There was curiosity and excitement about the project,” says Judy Kim, a Philadelphia-based designer who filled in one of Haring’s outlined figures as a 16-year-old high school art student. “Children would ride by on their bikes circling the mural, smiling, laughing, and pointing at the details. Some of the neighbors would come out to take a look and seemed undecided about the mural and how the artwork fit in the neighborhood. This was when the mural was new, but I’m sure things have changed since then.”