After emerging from the underground graffiti subculture in the 80s, the pop artist Keith Haring became a sensation in the New York art scene. With his signature figures of babies, barking dogs, flying saucers, hearts, and people in kinetic poses, and rays of light, Haring took the art world by storm.
Haring’s artwork went from the street to being displayed in the hippest downtown art galleries. While he enjoyed the vibrant party atmosphere his newfound celebrity brought him, Haring couldn’t help but see that within the downtown scene, a new scourge was decimating the people: the crack epidemic. He decided that the best way he could bring attention to the social problem of crack cocaine was to leave the art gallery and go back to the street.
Haring’s earliest street art was in chalk and thus temporary. But over time he switched to paint, which made his art longer-lasting. (Haring painted his first major mural in 1982 on the Bowery Art Wall.) He placed the mural on a handball wall, ensuring that young people who frequented the park would see it. While authority figures in the 80s pushed the anti-drug slogan, “Just Say No,” Haring opted to use street slang to better resonate with a young and urban audience and wrote “Crack is Wack.”
The mural, which was completed in one day, debuted on June 27, 1986. Haring had not received permission from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation before painting, and was arrested for vandalism shortly after the mural was completed. Public outcry and sympathetic media attention influenced the city to work with Haring rather than against him. His sentence was reduced to a $25 fine with no jail time, and the city agreed to fund the restoration of the mural, which had been painted over while Haring was in custody. He painted a new version of Crack is Wack on October 3, 1986.
Crack is Wack is, in fact, two murals, one on each side of the handball wall. Haring used darker imagery in this work, including a giant snake pursuing people with “X’s” imprinted on them as if marked for death, and a skeleton holding a crack pipe and burning money.
The mural proved to be so popular that the park itself was renamed Crack is Wack Playground. The Parks Department now oversees the regular upkeep and restoration of Crack is Wack in partnership with the Keith Haring Foundation to ensure that Haring’s message will continue to reach future generations.