Today, a two-sided mural painted over a handball court stands at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem. Demonstrably overlooking busy FDR Drive, the mural reminds all onlookers that “Crack is Wack,” standing as a monument, or perhaps a relic of a different time. The story of the mural, as well as its artist, tell us much about the historical context of the Crack Era.
The parable of the “Crack is Wack” mural and Keith Haring might aptly begin with its inception in 1986, a pivotal year—the pivotal year in the trajectory of crack, urban spaces, and their residents. On this day, Haring’s legitimate international career as an artist mattered little. Because of his location and the medium of his work, Haring found himself constructed as a criminal, or at the very least, a public nuisance. Before he finished, Haring found himself slapped with a summons by a surly policeman tired of punks defacing public property. Haring ended up paying a $25 fine for disorderly conduct. Then, a funny thing happened. The ordeal helped Haring towards his goal, that of added publicity and awareness to his anti-crack message.
More than likely, the officer in question neglected to read the message of Haring’s mural nor did he consider the artist’s considerable thought behind its location. Haring must have been just another resentful youth tagging public property for no good reason. In reality, Haring picked the relatively deserted site because of its visibility to thousands of motorists driving into Manhattan from the Bronx, upstate New York, and New England—many of them less familiar with the devastation wrought by crack and the exigencies of the era. Later Haring acknowledged his strategy explaining, “the wall looks like a big billboard on the highway, it’s perfect for painting.” Much like various grassroots, New York based, anti-crack crusaders, Keith Haring sought to increase awareness of a major neighborhood problem by speaking to folks within and without the confines of Harlem.
The mural itself teaches of the ways in which Haring and others viewed the coming of crack and its effects. On both sides of the mural users are portrayed as a nameless, faceless, desperate hoard. On one side, presumed users pull on each other like crabs in a bucket, contorting their bodies in various ways in attempts to grasp at both money and a crack pipe. On the other, crack is given new form as an ominous, cunning snake. Slurping up users in it’s wake, the victims in question appear to be falling, their fate sealed with an “X”.
Shortly after it’s painting, lesser known graffiti artists—or perhaps low-level dealers—changed the wording to “Crack is It.” Provided some contrast by the new message, New York City Parks Commissioner Henry Stern came to realize that graffiti spouting positive messages for youth should not be treated as a crime, but rather, a public service. As such, Stern personally invited Haring back to the scene of the crime to repaint the mural. Haring arrived with cans of latex house paint and a booming ghettoblaster, filling the block with the sound of the moment. Closely tied with both graffiti and B-boys, the music and its associate aesthetics formed the holy trinity of Hip-Hop. Parks Commissioner Stern—likely aware of the press coverage garnered by anti-crack related exploits by the fall of 1986—showed up wearing a “Crack is Wack” t-shirt. What’s more, Stern made a public display of asking Haring to sign his shirt. Riding the cresting wave of Crack Era hysteria, Keith Haring went from public nuisance to local hero in short order.
Haring’s original inspiration sheds more light upon an often ignored reality of the period, that of urban disinvestment. According to the artist, he began his campaign because a friend involved with the drug “was having trouble getting help.” As the Reagan administration cut state funding for drug rehabilitation and other vital community services through the Trojan horse of block grants, countless victims of addiction were denied the opportunity to take personal responsibility and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. With frighteningly long and irresponsible waitlists for beds, many users seeking help found that kicking their habit required much more than just saying no.
Haring’s journey also highlights significant cultural issues for historians. First, the “Crack is Wack” saga calls attention to the muddy boundaries between art and crime. During this period artists like Haring and more notably, Jean-Michel Basquiat found critical acclaim. Graffiti art found its way into high-end galleries, smugly ogled for its “authenticity” and “grit”. Haring’s hit-and-run use of public space as a platform for his work and message has inspired future generations of artists like guerilla propagandist Shepard Fairey (you know him, he’s the Obama guy). Moreover, post-Stonewall, Haring became one of the first high-profile artists after Andy Warhol to create widely distributed, openly gay art for the mainstream.
In 1988, Haring’s tale took another twist found in many Crack Era narratives. He fell prey to the greatest predator of his time. Haring did not fall into addiction or incarceration. Haring acquired AIDS. He would lose his battle in 1990 at just 31 years of age. Years after his passing Haring’s mural fell into disrepair as districts like Harlem found little funds for community beautification. In 2007, Haring’s estate restored the mural at their expense. The city renamed the public playground which houses the mural “Crack is Wack Playground”. During the restoration the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation neglected to mention that Haring was criminalized for his first attempt.