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‘We the Youth’ Lives on in Keith Haring’s Philadelphia

‘We the Youth’ Lives on in Keith Haring’s Philadelphia

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Keith Haring’s start as a renegade subway artist launched his incredible career as an iconic pop artist. He created countless public art projects and campaigns. But one of the most famous is his We the Youth mural in Philadelphia.

Restoration of the late street artist’s work celebrates Keith Haring’s legacy and political activism

When Haring arrived in New York at the age of 19 to pursue his art education, he found the city streets to be a better classroom. Captivated with the graffiti and street art on the city’s buildings, nightclubs, and subways, Haring started to influence the New York nightlife with his own take on subway art.

In a 1989 interview with Rolling Stone, Haring said, “One day, riding the subway, I saw this empty black panel where an advertisement was supposed to go. I immediately realized that this was the perfect place to draw. I went back above ground to a card shop and bought a box of white chalk, went back down, and did a drawing on it. It was perfect — soft black paper; chalk drew on it really easily.”

Keith Haring – temporary masterpieces caught the world’s attention

Hooked on his newfound medium, he drew on every blank space he could find.

“Because [the drawings] were so fragile, people left them alone and respected them; they didn’t rub them out or try to mess them up. It gave them this other power,” Haring explained. “It was this chalk-white fragile thing in the middle of all this power and tension and violence that the subway was.”

Unfortunately for Haring, the police weren’t as enthralled as the public. Arrested for vandalism but not charged, since chalk drawings washed away easily.

Haring Collaborated with Teen Artists as We the Youth

Created in 1987, it depicts brightly dancing figures across two stories of a white rowhouse. Haring collaborated with teens from Philadelphia and New York City to create We the Youth. It was designed to bring people from different communities together.

In 1990, Haring died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of 31. He has since been featured in retrospectives and featured exhibits at museums around the world.

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We the Youth mural
Keith Haring invited the help of teen artists to complete his original We the Youth mural in 1987. [Photo by Sean O’Donnell/Artistic Fuel]

Restoring Keith Haring’s murals, memorializing his legacy

As part of the effort to keep Haring’s legacy alive, Mural Arts Philadelphia hired local artist Kim Alsbrooks to restore his We the Youth mural. After months of wall repair and painstaking restoration, the restored mural debuted in November 2013.

“I am very grateful to be able to restore this beautiful, important work of Keith Haring; an artist I have admired for almost 30 years and one who means so much to so many people,” says Albrooks.

Fans of Haring’s work can also visit his recently restored Crack is Wack mural on the handball courts of New York’s East Harlem neighborhood.

“We are thrilled that Crack Is Wack has been restored to its original glory,” said Gil Vaquez, acting director and president of the Keith Haring Foundation, told Untapped Cities. “It is a huge source of pride for our city and a lasting reminder of Keith’s legacy and political activism.”

The Haring Garden in Philadelphia
The Haring Garden, home to the We the Youth mural, is a favorite stop among art enthusiasts in Philadelphia [Photo by Sean O’Donnell/Artistic Fuel]

Get up, get out and see Keith Haring’s murals for yourself

  • We the Youth mural: 22nd and Ellsworth Streets in South Philadelphia
  • Crack is Wack mural: E. 127 St. and 2nd Ave. in New York City
  • Woodhull Medical Center lobby mural: 760 Broadway in Brooklyn
  • Stedelijk Museum mural: Willem de Zwijgerlaan 334, 1055 RD Amsterdam
A 1987 news story on the creation of We the Youth mural, an effort headed up by artist Keith Haring. [1987 WHYY, Inc.]
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