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“Crack is Wack”: The Crack Era Narrative of Keith Haring

Updated: Aug 30, 2023


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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

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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

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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

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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

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