Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Combat Jack Remembers Keith Haring

I'm so effin lame right now. With this blog that is. Kids homes for vacation could be an excuse but excuses are tools for the incompetent (Blue Phi!). Honestly, I've been addicted, playing that new EA Sports Fight Night 4 though. Game is dope, especially how they've marketed it as the ultimate Ali vs. Tyson simulator. I know it's just a game, but for years, me and many boxing fans' ultimate fantasy fight has been Ali vs. Tyson and who would win. I used to be inclined to say Tyson, just cause dude is from my era, hip hop's first official athlete and all. But now I dunno. In Fight Night 4, Ali stay murking Tyson almost every time. Like I said, just a game, but I'm saying. In real life though, who do you think would win?

I used to be a real hater. Going back, the first person I remember professionally hating on was the late great Keith Haring. When I was in high school, I had to commute on the daily to Manhattan. I remember being on the subway, rush hour crowdedness making me swear that I'd have a career where I'd never have to ride the iron horse during rush hours in my adult life and peeping out the train car windows to see bizarre images posted up on black empty ad spaces, drawn out in white chalk.

I'd see one, then another, and as the days passed, these pieces would become a common sighting. Radiant babies, barking dogs, all types of art to make them hellish train rides that much more pleasant. Didn't know who was tagging them at the time, just knew they were busy putting in work. But then, back in the early 1980's, New York was graffiti city. Artists like Fab 5 Freddy, Phase 2, Lee and KOOL 131 and Adrock were putting up burners like it was a day job. And to them it was. New York was a filthy smelly dirty little city, mad dangerous too, and the tag artists that were getting it in were doing their part in beautifying, as well as making my city the historic landmark that it remains today. Graffiti then was most definitely a part of the new Hip Hop aesthetic that was nurturing my young psyche then. But I never looked at those weird white drawings as part of the urban graf movement, even though, technically, it was.

Still, being that I was on my way to being a fine artist major, all that free street artwork was being soaked in. Around 1982, 1983, Keith Haring started gaining national and international acclaim. I began seeing the familiar works from the subway posted up in the newspaper and magazine articles, along with photos of the little scrawny white boy who had been responsible for them. Seeing how it was a white, and how fast he had achieved fame, I instantly called race shenanigans. Youth is a precious time, where most of us live by and through our passions, and being passionate about my culture, I was quick to call out anything I saw as fake, as commercial. So I let the hate flow. Keith's work was way too amateurish in comparison to the other graf artists I had grown to appreciate. Plus, he was white, not Latino or Black, like most other artists I was aware of, so this definitely played out like the art world was propping up it's next poster boy. My hate didn't matter though, as the 1980's continued to progress, Haring's work became more ubiquitous. Dude was doing shit for companies like BMW and Swatch. Shit was disgusting B, especially how this fraud was getting money like that.

Towards the end of the 1980's, I was now in law school, at Georgetown. One of my best friends and housemate down in Washington, DC was my dude Sam Gonzales, who went to high school with me and hailed from Spanish Harlem. Sam had a twin brother James, who was on his way to medical school. Sam was one of those Puerto Rican cats who knew everybody in Manhattan. One of his childhood friends was this dude named Adolofo Arena. Adolfo just happened to have landed a position as Keith Haring's assistant. It helped that Adolofo was gay, as it had been common knowledge that Keith also repped the rainbow set. [||]. Intrigued by Sam's connection to Keith, I let dude know how I felt Haring was one of the sham artists that helped corporations in co-opting the whole graf/ Hip Hop movement. Sam didn't give a fuck what I thought though. We had a break from school coming up, and since we'd both be driving from DC to NYC, his first stop, before I landed in Brooklyn, was Keith Haring's art studio down on Broadway, in the village. Not really knowing any celebrities then, I decided I'd tag along, see what Mr. Haring was like in real life. Probably let him know my thoughts about him for good measure.

One of many buildings lining up Broadway, Keith's studio was almost impossible to spot. Back in New York, Greenwhich Village, the city was so effin alive, back in '87, '88. You had to take a real narrow and tight elevator which would bring you directly into the studio. Sam and I rode up and once at our destination, we entered a studio that was completely white, except for the paintings and artwork, drippings and shit that was evident that we had entered an artist's work shop. We were greeted by Adolfo, then Keith, who initially came off as a bit shy. Maybe dude was busy because he had just been commissioned by Germany to do some public artwork for kids. Or was it Japan? Still and all, dude was mad welcoming, any friend of Adolfo was a friend of his was his creed. Plus he loved Sam and James, being that they were twins. Haring made sure that we felt comfortable. Even pulled out his finest greenery to burn, and burn we did. Instantly I forgot all the hate, all the questions I had lined up about how dude was a fake, how he had used his whiteness to climb far and beyond his "fellow" artists in claiming fame, wealth too. Maybe I forgot because of his warmth, maybe it was the weed, but regardless, dude was incredibly cool, especially since he was as famous as he was. Maybe I was starstruck, but I doubt it since Keith didn't give off that self important vibe. Must have been one of the most down to earth cats I had ever met. But man, was his personal artwork insane. Not just the kiddie shit most people know him for. Haring was heavy into tribal art, or art that showed how tribal African patterns had been a source of his inspiration. Then he had his whole gay collection which I didn't really check, but it was there. The designs for companies like BMW who he had done some work for was unreal as well. Keith was complex with his. Deep too. Being that he had made it public that he had contracted aids, he also had a deep collection demonstrating how that disease was like a demon, ravaging through the lives of so many people locally, globally, how it had taken the lives of so many people around him, young talented artists, like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Keith knew he was living on borrowed time, and it showed in the volume of work he was putting out. Most importantly, Keith loved the kids. No R. Kelly pederast. Keith felt kids around the world were truly unrepresented, and gave hundreds of his pieces to organizations that repped children.

Didn't realize then how big it was that I could casually burn an L and flip through Haring's personal work like that. And the more Sam and I would drop by his studio on the humble, and burn more L's and flip through more of his work, Keith became more flesh and blood, more human. It didn't matter that I was getting free shit from The Pop Shop, the store he opened in Soho to sell tee shirts and what not, or that he loved Mr. Chow's and was free with his money and wanted to share it with us, or at least what it brought. Well maybe those perks in knowing dude did. A little bit. I was working at Def Jam the last time I saw him. It was at the 3rd Bass album release party, December 1989. He was chilling dolo. One of the things that I really appreciated about Keith was that he wasn't on the celebrity shit. A lot of the celebs I know, no matter how many times I see them, it's like a game of ego chicken in figuring out who's going to greet whom first, or even if I'll be greeted (I see you Puff). Keith always went out his way to greet me, like it was nothing, like he wasn't the then king of the pop art world, like he didn't have millions in the bank account, like he wasn't dying of aids. Seeing him alone at the party, we dapped. I asked him how he was doing, how he felt, asking him about the aids thing without being that direct. He looked at me and said he felt great, even though he didn't. Said he was happy, even though his life was filled with sadness. Said he had mad work to complete, especially since he knew he had so little time left. Then he did what he did, he pulled out an L and we burned. Then we laughed at how silly the whole self importance of the music industry seemed, watching MC Serch dancing in a circle of fans a coupla feet away from us. Heh. Then we dapped, again, and I bounced. Keith Haring died two months later, on February 16, 1990. I'm still kinda mad at Sam and his brother James too. Knowing his death was soon coming, Keith left the twins a parting gift. Since they wore Carhart Jackets (who didn't then) Keith "borrowed" the jackets to paint two interlocking figures on the back of each jacket to demonstrate the closeness of their brotherhood, them being twins. Kniccas sold them jackets within a year after Keith's death. But I remain so thankful that Sam introduced me to Keith.

When I drive my kids to school on the daily, now that they commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan to go to school, we are greeted by this ginormous mural of Keith's, on Houston, by Bowery. The kids love it, always asking me question about it, and about the artist. And whatever it is that I tell them, I'm thinking inside how ironic it is, how funny karma works, how Keith's work is one of the first things the kids see on their daily commute to school. One thing I tell them for sure is how Keith was one of the best that New York City had to offer. Peace to my dudes Adolfo, Sam and James.

Keith Haring (May 4, 1958 - February 16, 1990)


  1. CJ - you're one illustrious MFer... As a Haring fan, it was nice to read a personal perspective on dude. I remember when I first saw the "Crack Is Wack" handball courts off the FDR drive and bugged, the Absout ads, the "Very Special Christmas" covers. Truly a pop artist of the pop-era. He's the father to alot of these tagger-cum-lately's that are still trying to shark his style.

    Props to Keith Haring...

  2. Good ish. I think a lot of people felt like that.

  3. Jack, even in the streets of Korea (where I am for work for the next 9 weeks and the past 3), Keith Haring's name rings big. Every day on my daily run around town, I run thru a neighborhood whose buildings are all emblazoned with distinct homages to Haring's most-well-known styles.

    Homey truly went All City to def.

  4. At least the "Crack Is Wack" mural is still uptown. Never toyed.

  5. Great piece, thanks a lot for sharing.

  6. this illustrates how great this blog is. keep writing, and i'll keep reading/supporting.

  7. Truly a great piece. Oh yeah, a bunch of art students hate on other artists when they're coming up. SOME STILL HATE HARD, I have a friend that stays hating but I guess the hate keeps you hungry and competitive . . . just as long as you do something. Note, the hate wasn't and isn't always based on race. What is art, talent and commerce is crazy in the art world, including fashion and film.

    This is a really great write up. I didn't know much about Haring until after his passing. I basically saw his work everywhere in the late 90's. Haring was/is New York, and he was/is an extremely effective communicator.

  8. Used to have a huge 'Free South Africa' poster on my bedroom wall in my first apartment (when I was 17). Many a lady was killed under that poster, and South Africa was freed.

    Keith Haring was known for getting up in your black book if you caught him at Pearl on Canal. I never met him but he laced my dude Marcelo with a double page illustration. Marcelo is the Queens writer known as MQ.

    The sham pop artist you wanted to shit on back then was actually Mark Kostabi. He ran a sweat shop production studio and jacked anything and everything fresh. Fuck that faggert.

    Respect always to KH

  9. Tyson wouldnt have the slightest chance against Ali. I don´t even mean Ali in his Prime!

  10. CJ- I read all your posts, but today I didn't get past the Blue Phi!!! Where did you pledge?


    Blue_JihaD, Spring 04, "Nasty" Chi Chapter

  11. Ill artist. The good always die young!

  12. as an 80s baby I'd heard of Keith Haring but didn't know a whole lot about him. having that inside track of knowledge makes me interested to learn more..

    *goes to google/wikipedia*

  13. This is a moving story!

    Could it be that in the 80s, even hip hop was more gay-friendly? Seems nowadays, ppl feel compelled to include "f***n faggot" or "no homo" in every other sentence.

  14. Great read as usual.. His art was fun but there was so much more to it..

    This pic puts a smile on my face seeing as this is my favorite car.. Wonder where it is.. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_y9JCP1wazVo/RdUHdTFkcBI/AAAAAAAABa0/M42x30aux0M/s400/bmw.jpg

  15. Combat Jack,

    This was a great read....and my blogosphere just increased by 1.

    I too did my share of hating on Keith. Not because he was white (I just thought he was some random downtown kid at the time) but because he started to be regarded as this next level graffiti artist. I simply could not wrap my head around a highly regarded graf dude who didn't even have the gangsta to go rack some paint (or use any color). I too came around...and eventually met him years later. You speak the truth about the way he came off. And ironic is some of his chalk would stay up long after some of the next man's was painted over..

    Barking dog and radiant baby tees were a must have...and that poster for the cause was damn near free. Those napbacksacks were whack though.