Keith Haring: Street Art Boy

Ben Anthony、E、2020
English
52 mins
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Ben Anthony、E、2020

International art sensation, Keith Haring, blazed a trail through the legendary art scene of 1980s New York and revolutionised the worlds of pop culture and fine art. This fascinating and compelling film - told using previously unheard interviews that form the narrative of the documentary - is the definitive story of the artist in his own words.

English
52 mins

Sleeping Giant

A new documentary ‘Street Art Boy’ tells the story of Keith Haring, an enormously influential artist and activist who in a few short, golden years revolutionised art and popular culture, before tragically passing away in 1990 at the age of 28. The film is a bold and bright introduction to Haring’s work and the street art scene from which he emerged in the early 80s: the Paradise Garage, subway graffiti, punk and partying. With access to mountains of audio and video archive footage, and an energy perfectly in tune with its subject, director Ben Anthony has opened up his subject to a new audience in a new era, or perhaps, just reminded us that his influence never really went away.

Haring has a devoted following in Japan, a result of not only of his numerous visits and enthusiasm for meeting local people, but also his affinity for Japanese visual culture. As this timeline shows Haring first visited Tokyo in 1983, leaving behind one of his many astonishingly intricate, eye catching murals. By the time he next visited in 1987 he had become a celebrity, and was seeking to open a second Pop Shop – his mould-breaking but not uncontroversial experiment in selling his art to a mass audience commercially in the form of badges, shoes, bowls and t shirts adorned with some of his most famous images: the three eyed smiley face, the crawling baby, the barking dog. His imagery achieved what felt like ubiquity because it was, literally, everywhere.

While Pop Shop Tokyo never got off the ground, Japan was clearly an extremely receptive environment for his ideas. There are a few possible explanations. Perhaps Haring’s bold, illustrative style echoed Japan’s own artistic heritage: calligraphy, the Kanō school, woodblock printing, ukiyo-e and manga. This was far from unique of course – Haring’s genius was to appear familiar and timeless. Art critics have rightly (and sometimes dismissively) drawn comparisons between his work and cave paintings, hieroglyphs, indigenous Australian art, cartoons and graffiti: a form with which he himself closely associated with. Yet Japanese culture is well known for aesthetic harmony and balance, as well as a deep respect and appreciation for how well someone has “trained” themselves in the service of their art. Haring honed his craft and found a purity through his broad, confident black lines. Japanese audiences saw the beauty in this very quickly.

Maybe it was more a matter of timing. Experiencing an unprecedented economic and technological boom, the Japanese (or at least urban Japanese) in the 1980s were developing an insatiable appetite for American popular culture, a phenomenon that continues to this day. Due to the obvious linguistic gap, the appropriation and recycling of American cultural forms centres upon surface or sensual qualities. Meaning and pleasure are derived from what social theorists call semiotics: a shifting interplay of signs, symbols and contexts. Haring’s visual language placed as few barriers as possible in front of his potential audiences. His signs and symbols sang freedom, love and ineffable cool – and the only place that valued cool even more than New York City in the 1980s was Tokyo.

It is fascinating how contemporary he appears today: almost a classic metropolitan hipster with his offbeat clothing, thick glasses, hard partying and globe trotting. He was also gay, a businessman and a prolific pop culture-adjacent content creator. It doesn’t get more 2021 than that. Although perhaps every generation will feel this way. What really comes across in Street Art Boy is just how hard Keith Haring worked, and how much of his time he dedicated to sharing his work with normal people in their own environments. In Japan, as in New York City, Barcelona, Berlin and dozens of other places around the world, Haring painted the walls of schools, vacant lots, empty advertising space and canvasses vast and small. He invariably did this for free, following a deep altruistic instinct to extract art from exclusive galleries and the control of the wealthy. It was a deceptively simple ethos, requiring an extraordinary amount of energy, but for which the rewards for Haring and his audiences were perfectly clear.

Haring himself had an extremely well developed sense of his methods. In a diary entry in 1978 he wrote:

“I can paint spontaneously without worrying if it looks ‘good’ and I can let my movement and my instant reaction/response control the piece, control my energy (if there is any control at all)…A different kind of order that exists only from these conditions, It requires individual interaction and individual response.. . It is loosely natural, real, uninhibited, beyond definition. It is temporary and its permanency is unimportant. Its existence is already established. It can be made permanent by a camera.”

This was a genuinely radical notion at the time. By putting art in public places, working with school children and graffiti artists and taking over derelict spaces Haring effectively inspired the “street art” scene of the late 20th century. British artists like Obey, Faile, KAWS, WK Interact, STATIC and of course Banksy all followed the template laid down by Haring: adventurous, political, graphical and very much in tune with the hip hop and punk attitudes of graffiti writers. While Japan does not necessarily have the graffiti culture of the US, UK and Europe, there has long been a deep appreciation for hybrids of art and pop culture, and for those, such as Keith Haring, who lived their art as a way of life.

Haring possessed an ineffable talent for bringing people together; for seeing themselves and their community in his drawings. This film will lead to the discovery of Haring’s work by a new generation, which is certainly what he would have wanted. It is always great to discover a forgotten legend of popular culture: an individual whose light has dimmed over time but whose significance now, given proper exposure, is shown to be foundational to the art of their time and ours.

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