Manhattan is full of dicks. Keith Haring, perhaps the most famous 1980s pop and graffiti artist to come out of New York’s downtown scene, knew this well. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Haring made a habit of drawing cartoon penises inspired by the city. Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks, newly published by Nieves Books, compiles nearly 70 of Haring’s sketches of male genitalia.
Here, Haring envisions the city as a kingdom of phalluses: he transforms Manhattan’s churches, skyscrapers, and fire hydrants into architectural penises. The Twin Towers become twin penises. There are penises drawn in front of Tiffany’s, in front of the Museum of Modern Art, while “waiting for a yam.” There are minimalist penises, composed of as few lines as possible. There are also Gucci penises, alphabet penises, flying torpedo penises, optical illusion penises, deconstructed penises, “actual size” tracings of penises, and clusters of penises on the subway at rush hour.
The thriving tradition of penis graffiti dates back at least to the 6th century BC. What separates a Haring sketch from your average Sharpie’d weiner in a bar bathroom? Haring manages to imbue cartoon genitalia with human personalities. Some look proud, like those in “World Trade Center.” Others are friendly. “Gucci Penis” is standoffish. Some seem to be going through existential crises, like those in “Misplaced Heads.” Some look confused and lost in a crowd, like tourists, as in “Subway Car” and “Madison & 52nd.” (Many are titled with Manhattan street names or the classy sites at which Haring stood sketching.)
Though they’re all in simple graphite, lacking Haring’s signature bright colors, they’re done in the same electric style that made his radiant babies, leaping porpoises, and UFOs dance on the page. Unlike his “popnography” works in series like Sex is Life is Sex, “Manhattan Penis Drawings” are about as erotic as Dr. Seuss creatures, desexualized and abstracted into weird shapes. Drawn years before Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, they’re a light, playful version of his then-controversial pop celebration of gay male sexuality.
Keith Haring’s Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks is available from Nieves Books.