Haring was gay and active in the 1980s LGBT rights movement, and made striking posters and paintings advocating for safe sex, awareness, and research around HIV and AIDS. One of his most searing pieces shows three figures with large X’s on their torsos, and hands over their eyes, ears, and mouth. Slogans that read “Ignorance = Fear” and “Silence = Death” box them in.
When the LGBT Community Center invited Haring in 1989 to create a work in their new 13th Street home, he enthusiastically accepted, choosing to locate the mural in the building’s second-floor men’s bathroom. “The work really powerfully captures a time and an energy when our community was fighting for our lives— trying to stay resistant, and celebrating what we could,” says Glennda Testone, the LGBTQ Community Center’s Executive Director.
Haring titled the piece Once Upon a Time, a nod to the gay community’s halcyon days of free love. Over the course of several days, he covered every un-tiled surface of the bathroom with turgid, squirting penises of all sizes. Some are attached to buff male bodies tangled together in pleasure. Others float like happy clouds or hungry dragons. One impressively large specimen hovers over a line of small figures who are either dancing the conga or enjoying an orgy.
When he painted the mural, Haring was fighting his own battle with AIDS; he’d been diagnosed just a year before, in 1988. During the late 1980s, he and his community not only faced the fear of death, but also disregard and antagonization from the Reagan administration, which simultaneously laid blame on the gay community and refused to put resources towards AIDS research.