Before he was propelled into international art stardom—through a playful pop sensibility, signature thick black contour lines, and vibrant participation in the ’80s downtown New York scene—Keith Haring disseminated a body of ephemeral artworks in subway stations. Seeking out advertisements that had been blacked-out with paper, Haring would cover these void-like surfaces with full-fledged drawings, all in white chalk. As his prominence within the street art scene grew, admirers would cut the drawings out and take them for their own. New Yorkers had a similar reaction to Banksy’s NYC takeover last year. For Haring’s fans, fresh pieces appeared constantly thanks to his obsessive output, which lessened as his fame grew and legal concerns confined his practice to the studio. As a result, these chalk drawings are particularly hard to come by.
These pieces stand alone as one-of-a-kind, fragile creations from the artist’s own hand, made at a rather insecure time in his career in the early ’80s. Haring would go on to launch Pop Shops in New York and Tokyo in 1989, and make his work accessible to a consumer audience rather than just the art world elite. Even after his tragic death from AIDS in 1990, his work continues to appeal to a broad viewership.
The black-and-white contrast of these pieces is a nostalgic reminder of a bygone, grittier New York. One can imagine the raw, jarring beauty—and fun—of seeing one of these pieces thrown up over a subway ad today, but Haring spent years of obscurity proving himself in the tunnels with no internet hype or social media to expedite the process. The designs established in these chalk drawings—including the most famous motif, Radiant Baby, conceived around 1980—were later elaborated in paintings and prints. His subway pieces aren’t only creative monuments of the artist himself, but also immersive relics of a wild New York, long passed but still radiant.