The Crack is Wack mural in New York City is more than just one of the most recognized works by the legendary Keith Haring. It’s a piece of art that has defined the generation of the 1980s and New York graffiti culture far beyond that.

The mural has stood the test of time for nearly 30 years now, remaining an important political and social statement on the changing state of America. It served as the catalyst for the nationwide coverage of the devastating crack epidemic – something I experienced first hand, growing up in Harlem during the 1990s.

At that time I didn’t know what crack was or what it did, but I knew that anything associated with it was bad. A decade and a half later, I would learn the history of both the epidemic and the man behind the mural.

Matthew Israel, an Art Historian and director of Arsty’s Art Genome Project wrote an article for the Huffington Post about the creation of the mural. According to Israel, the exact details of its origins are hazy, but he explained that Haring’s good friend and studio assistant Benny became addicted to crack cocaine in the ’80s, and this later became the drive for creating the work.

Haring and the rest of his closest friends had tried to help Benny kick his addiction by enrolling him in various hospitals and drug treatment facilities, but it was to no avail. The ordeal was an incredibly distressing experience for Haring, and Israel mentions that while on his travels throughout the city, Haring would often drive past the abandoned handball court near the Harlem River Drive. Almost as if a light bulb appeared over his head, he decided the court would be the ideal place to paint a statement about what was happening all around him.

Haring is quoted as saying, “inspired by Benny and appalled by what was happening in the country, but especially New York, and seeing the slow response of the government, I decided to do an Anti-Crack Mural.” In the summer of ’86, without permission from the Parks Department, the artist rented a van, gathered his materials and set about painting the mural. It only took him a day to complete it.

However, celebrations on its completion would be short-lived. As luck would have it, a police officer approached Haring and his friends, initially for smoking a joint out in public, but later arrested him for painting illegally. According to Israel, Haring was faced with a $100 fine (about $300 nowadays) and a year in jail.

Despite the punishment he was facing, Haring remained defiant. Things were beginning to be set into motion, and the combined effect of Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs and the worsening national crack epidemic meant mainstream media outlets were taking notice. Some even began referencing Haring’s mural in order to raise awareness of the families and communities ravaged by the drug problem, catapulting Haring into the national spotlight.

In a short space of time, he became one of America’s most recognized contemporary artists, with both public and media support. With awareness of the circumstances in which the mural was created spreading, it wasn’t long before the prison charges were dropped and the fine was reduced.

Today, decades after the mural made national headlines, NYC has changed. The crack epidemic has ended and is now etched into American history, replaced with a new encroachment into New York’s deprived neighborhoods: development. Ever since mayor Rudolph Giuliani took office in 1993, New York districts that were once red zoned (meaning developers were not allowed to build in those areas) are now green lighted. Gentrification has transformed the majority of inner-city communities, including my neighborhood in Harlem, and with it have gone cultural practices deemed “disruptive.”

5Pointz, located in Queens, NY, was considered a “Graffiti Mecca.” One of the greatest collections of street art the world has ever known, 5Pointz was a giant abandoned warehouse that served as an open mural ground for aerosol artists from around the globe, attracting everyone from writers, musicians, artists and filmmakers. Not to mention curious tourists by the thousand.

It was a dazzling spectacle not only of color, but of 30 years of history and culture. Unfortunately the time finally came when the building’s owners, Jerry Wolkoff and his family, wished to develop the property. Plans to remove the building were announced in the summer of 2013, and despite a vigorous campaign to save them, the murals were unexpectedly whitewashed. In 2014, 5Pointz was demolished completely.

Time Out

Yet, in the face of this increasing readiness to tear down the walls of history, Haring’s Crack is Wack mural still stands as an official cultural landmark. Having been restored to its original pristine state in 2007, the mural remains one of the very few reminders of a time when the country was in a state of national crisis, but also a time when the city was brimming with raw, personal expression. It’s essential for us to learn about how these elements of culture have shaped the livelihoods of individuals today and how they’ve defined generations to come.

Time and censorship are the only things that can erase these things from existence, so in honor of Keith Haring’s memory and the generation he represented, we must do our part to preserve his legacy today by keeping the knowledge alive — before it is too late…

  • Words & Images: David "Vades" Joseph /
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