Keith Haring’s iconic ‘Crack is Wack’ mural in East Harlem is getting restored
Image via Flickr
It’s been 33 years since Keith Haring painted his “Crack is Wack” mural on a handball court near the Harlem River Drive in East Harlem, and now the iconic work is getting a much-needed restoration, as amNY reported. Inspired by his studio assistant Benny—who was struggling with addiction but later recovered—Haring painted the 16-foot by 26-foot mural on June 27, 1986, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic and intended the piece to function as a warning to young users. Celebrated as one of Haring’s most important works, the mural has been shielded by protective coverings in recent years during reconstruction work on the Harlem River Drive.
View of the mural’s south-facing side; image by Jonathan Kuhn, courtesy of NYC Parks
“Appalled by what was happening in the country, but especially New York, and seeing the slow reaction (as usual) of the government to respond, I decided I had to do an anti-crack painting,” Haring said. The site he chose at East 128 Street was abandoned but clearly visible from the highway and Haring imagined it almost like a billboard. One day—despite not having a permit—he drove up with a rented van full of supplies and set to work, completing the entire mural in one day.
“When you have a van, ladders, and paint, policemen don’t even consider asking whether you have any permission, they just assume you do,” Haring remembered. Though he didn’t get in trouble during the act of painting, he was shortly after arrested and handed a $200 fine. Over the next few weeks, media coverage of the crisis escalated and Haring’s mural became a referential image. “Every time the news did a story on crack, they would flash to the [mural as a visual],” Haring said. “NBC did a public service announcement using it as a background.”
Eventually, with so much media and public support, Haring’s fine was reduced and then Parks Commissioner Henry Stern called to apologize (the site was actually Parks Department property, not city property) and say they would be “very proud to have the painting.” That was short-lived also because a few days later the work was vandalized and turned into a pro-crack mural. Stern called Haring again and asked if he’d want to repaint the piece, this time with the full support of the Parks Department. The second iteration was painted on both sides of the handball court wall, making it visible to both South and Northbound drivers.
Artist Louise Hunnicutt was selected by the Keith Haring Foundation for the repair work and she’s already started. “I just take my chisel and hammer it out as hard as I can without damaging it, then I take my little scraper and I scrape it. I fill it with water sealer, then fill it with concrete,” Hunnicutt told amNY.
This time around, the City is also fully supportive of the mural. “We are happy to see that Keith Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’ mural is being refinished and repainted, thanks to the work of Louise Hunnicutt and support of the Haring Foundation,” said NYC Parks director of art and antiquities Jonathan Kuhn. “The mural is a lasting reminder of Haring’s art, which continues to instruct and inspire through its wit and vibrancy.”