Life as a graffiti artist in 1980s New York was tough. The backlash against the freedom of colorfully-sprayed expression that had taken over the city in the 70s was harsh: politicians claimed the art form was a harbinger of crime and violence. During the graffiti crackdown, Keith Haring, one of the leading players in the city’s street art scene, was no stranger to the long arm of the law—he was arrested on multiple occasions for vandalism.
But the threat of the NYPD was nothing compared to the threat Haring faced on a gloomy October day in 1986 when he arrived at the site of his latest canvas—the Berlin Wall. The artist had been invited by the Checkpoint Charlie Museum to paint a large, 330-foot mural on the West German side of the wall.
Starting in 1961, the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) built the extensive concrete barrier to cut their communist citizens off from the democratic West. It served as both the physical and symbolic division between the East and West and it was a daily reminder of the deadly divide in the nation.
While no formal consensus has been reached as to how many people died trying to cross the wall, the estimates range from the official figure of 136 to as high as 483 people who are thought to have lost their lives attempting to reach freedom.
The Wall would eventually come crashing down in late 1989. But in the decade before, as the cold war started to falter, a rogue movement began to create commando art on the drab grey surface of the Berlin Wall. The graffiti that began popping up was a symbol of freedom of expression, of hope, and a big middle finger to the Orwellian overlords in East Germany.
Thierry Noir was one of the earliest artists to use paint as a form of protest at the site. In a 2013 interview with the blog Street Art London, he characterized the work as political, saying “It was forbidden to paint the wall, so in a way it was a revolutionary act.”
When the movement first started, the street artists, who were largely foreigners, were often criticized by local Berliners who thought their work was mere decoration. Noir says he was constantly having to make it clear that the point was not an aesthetic one. “You can’t make the wall beautiful because it is a deadly border,” he says he constantly told people. “Even if you put thousands of kilos of colors on the wall, this wall will never be beautiful.”
While Noir was starting to plaster his colorful images on the Berlin Wall in 1984, Haring was making a name for himself across the Atlantic Ocean.
The young artist had moved to New York City in 1980 at the age of 20 to study at the School of Visual Arts. Soon after, he began developing his distinctive style—cartoonish characters that could be both universally identified and identified with—on the walls of the city’s subway system. On pieces of black paper, Haring would draw his playful and expressive figures—dancing people, barking dogs, crawling babies, dolphins, and more—in white chalk and post them in empty advertising spaces. When he was really on a roll, he could create 40 of these works in one day.
By the time he made the trip to Berlin in 1986, Haring had become a big name in the New York art scene, both in the world of unsanctioned street artists and that of the official gallery system. His style had become instantly recognizable, and he had sold formal pieces for as high as $50,000.
Despite his success, Haring remained committed to his graffiti work and was interested in “breaking down the barriers between high and low art.” He once wrote that he was attracted to the practice of subway graffiti because of his “commitment to drawing worthy of risk.” The Berlin Wall project surely provided the opportunity to take a large risk in service of important art.
As Haring discovered when he arrived in Berlin, Checkpoint Charlie was an especially tense place to be breaking the law. Even though his visit was at the official request of the museum, the wall was patrolled on both sides by soldiers from East Germany, who actually owned six feet of land radiating out from the wall on the Western side. Technically speaking, his mural was being painted on the communist side of Germany. His illegal graffiti work in New York was risky, but the difference, as Haring said, was he had “never dealt with the fear of being shot.”
But he had a job to do and a piece of art to create. So, according to a report from People magazine, he got started in the way he started all of his projects: by blasting dance tunes on his boombox in front of the press, policemen, and a U.S. Army helicopter that hovered overhead, while East German soldiers peeped over the top.
Haring started painting a bit before 11a.m., and he worked for four and a half hours to cover a long stretch of the wall with his characteristic human figures in alternating red and black (over a yellow background to represent the colors of both the East and West German flags). The figures were all linked together, head to foot, in a long human chain with his distinct lines radiating out from each figure to give the feeling of movement.
“It’s about the ridiculousness of all walls and enemies and borders,” Haring told People of his mural. To The New York Times, he said his work was “a humanistic gesture, more than anything else. [It’s] a political and subversive act—an attempt to psychologically destroy the wall by painting it.”
Less than four years later, the Berlin Wall and Keith Haring would both be gone. The former officially fell on November 9, 1989 with citizens on both sides starting to chip away at the monstrosity that divided their city. A few months later, on February 16, 1990, Keith Haring succumbed to complications from AIDS at the age of 31.
But, by that time, his act of artistic protest was already only a memory. Murals on the Berlin Wall were constantly being painted over by fellow artists wanting to create their own work on the site or by people who didn’t agree with the particular piece.
In fact, for Haring to paint his own piece on that particular spot, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum had sent workers out on that early October morning to cover an existing mural by Noir and fellow French artist, Christophe Bouchet, in yellow. (Haring was allegedly not pleased when he discovered his work required the ruination of that of another artist, and he apologized to the two.)
Haring’s mural eventually met the same fate. Within a day of his feat, another artist had painted a big chunk of the work grey (many have speculated it was an act of protest against Haring’s joyful work), and it had been completely obscured within a few months.
Today, both the Berlin Wall and Haring’s artistic celebration of our shared humanity that once graced it exist only in photographs.