In the early 1980s, celebrated street artist Keith Haring began painting New York City’s subway stations with his characteristically bold, two-dimensional figures. His style—which featured the flat outlines of images like “radiant child” and “barking dog”—became omnipresent, and the concrete jungle’s public spaces were the better for it.
One of Haring’s canvases, a handball court wall located at East 128th Street and Harlem River Drive, became a mural titled Crack Is Wack. It features a layered landscape of the artist’s kinetic figures, the title emblazoned in strong block lettering across the top. When the public art piece was completed in 1986, it existed as a cautionary tale, a direct response to the rise of the deadly crack epidemic that plagued New York City’s streets. On display in a city park, Haring’s message reached countless people.
Naturally, the persimmon-colored mural was met with decay over the years, thanks to the city’s icy winters and sweaty asphalt summers, along with the handball court being used as intended. Haring’s work of art has needed several rounds of tune-ups; 2012 was the last time New York City Parks and the Keith Haring Foundation came together to sponsor a restoration of Crack Is Wack, and the latest refurbishing and repainting has just been completed by artists Louise Hunnicutt and William Tibbals.
“We are thrilled that Crack Is Wack has been restored to its original glory,” Keith Haring Foundation acting director and president Gil Vazquez said in a statement. “It is a huge source of pride for our city and a lasting reminder of Keith’s legacy and political activism.”
Hunnicutt and Tibbals manually removed the eroding paint, repatched the wall, and applied several base coats of fixative to seal the surface. Since the paint was peeling away so dramatically, they opted to use more durable paint in an effort to make rounds of restoration further and further apart. This paint was painstakingly color-matched, and Haring’s original hand-drawn designs were recreated using tracings and old photographs.
NYC Parks director of art and antiquities Jonathan Kuhn said the mural is “a testament to the enduring power of Haring’s art, which arose first in public spaces. We are grateful to the conservators and the Keith Haring Foundation for its continuing support to preserve this mural’s vibrancy and flair for all to see.”