Keith Haring (1958–1990) was a Pennsylvania-born street artist and activist of great renown in 1980s New York, whose motifs and designs remain iconic and relevant decades later. Banksy is arguably the most famous artist of any kind alive today. Known to be from Bristol, England, he is still an enigma, as his name and identity remain a secret.
These creative visionaries who never overlapped are the subject of an exhibition that finds parallels between the two. Love in Paradise: Banksy and Keith Haring at Paradise Art Space, Seoul, is a dialogue of two street artists, separated by time and distance, but united by their wide appeal, social engagement, and their creation of a distinct visual language.
Both Haring and Banksy elevated themselves out of the clandestine subculture of street art, and into the public consciousness using the most visible public spaces to reach their audience. For Haring, it was New York City’s grungy underground subway billboards, for Banksy, it has been the sides of houses, shops and offices from Bristol to Birmingham. As rebels and artists combined, they both hold a certain outsider swagger and Jesse James-style outlaw appeal. The Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak once wrote that Banksy’s “chief achievement… was finding a way to operate so successfully outside the art world.” The same comment could apply to Haring; they are artistic forces with followings that sidestep, or perhaps transcend, a traditional art audience. They approach the art world with little discernible respect for its rules, or, as Banksy perceptively wrote in 2001: “The quickest way to the top of your business is to turn it upside down.”
The borrowing of visual language, establishing open alliances and paying homages are the norm in the secretive world of street art. Given that Haring pre-dated Banksy, it is not surprising that Banksy would find influence in Haring’s legacy of bold, signature hieroglyphs, such as evidently observed in that Choose Your Weapon (2009) features a classic Banksy stencil incorporating the iconic Haring dog motif. That Banksy is inspired by the legendary French street artist Blek le Rat is also well known.
Haring’s freely drawn radiant babies, barking dogs, pyramids, crosses, UFOs and phallic dancers form touchpoints as immediately familiar as Banksy’s stenciled children, rats, monkeys and policemen. For both artists, painted symbols become street icons, an urban oasis in the midst of decay, poverty and other pervasive tragedies. The inherent injustices of their worlds are more than a background canvas, and imbue both artist’s work with a sense of urgency and purpose.
Social commentary is therefore a shared theme and concern, engaging with society’s ills head-on. They lived in different times; Haring operated in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic which ultimately claimed his life. Banksy grew up in a time of decaying industrial cities and societal discord. Despite Haring’s comment that public arts should be “experienced by as many individuals as possible with as many individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached,” Haring’s art was often specific. He was pro-gay rights, pro-nuclear disarmament and anti-apartheid. Banksy’s work has taken on multiple contemporary issues, notably social unrest (Love is in the Air, 2006), authority/the police (Rude Copper, 2003), religious differences (Flying Balloon Girl, 2005) and knife crime (Banksy has previously donated work to the charity Art Against Knives). However, his sense of comedy means that his message never becomes too dogmatic or bombastic. His exhibition Barely Legal was a big success in Los Angeles in 2006, but his description of the event is one of gentle self-mockery. “This show has been quite a big undertaking for me; it represents nearly a month of getting up early in the morning. Some of the paintings have taken literally days to make. Essentially, it's about what a horrible place the world is, how unjust and cruel and pointless life is, and ways to avoid thinking about all that.”
All humans are complex entities with a multitude of passions and drivers. These are individuals who are more than social agitators; they are artists with wit, ambition and zest for life. Haring once wrote in his journal about his libido – “This… sexual energy may be the single strongest impulse I feel – more than art?” – Banksy offers fellowship and entertainment too; he collaborated with British band Blur on cover art, rented out Leake Street under Waterloo Station in London to provide safe spaces for young graffiti artists, and designed a Union Jack vest for rapper Stormzy.
Art is allowed to be transient, as well as enduring, especially when there is fun to be had: Haring painted dancer Bill T. Jones for his first London show in 1983 while Banksy painted an elephant for Barely Legal. Delightfully, Paradise Art Space will be showing Girl without Balloon (2018), where Banksy took on the themes of transience, the power of celebrity, and indeed the whole concept of ownership, head-on. He created a memorable coup de théâtre in the heart of the Sotheby’s auction room in London: once the hammer came down on Girl with Balloon (2002), the frame began to noisily, visibly shred the artwork before a mesmerised, horrified audience. Girl without Balloon has since been described by Sotheby’s as “the first artwork in history to have been created live during an auction.” Banksy created the ultimate performance art in which collectors and auctioneers were merely bystanders to an unprecedented spectacle.
Connections, impact on others, involvement with community and with friends was the lifeblood of Haring. Haring was friendly with legends of his day including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Tseng Kwong Chi; additionally, he had a young protégé LAII (Angel Ortiz), who is represented in the show through a vivid, three-metre wide collaboration, Untitled (1983). Celebrity support is a common factor too; Haring collaborated with Madonna, Grace Jones and Vivienne Westwood among others.
Looming large in the popular imagination, Haring and Banksy have both established universally understood motifs to explore themes of contemporary interest. The legacy of Haring is so significant that, decades after his tragic death, he is the natural complement and counterpoint to Banksy, the 21st-century’s most eminent street artist.