“I saw it, and I thought: that must be a Keith Haring!” exclaimed Alejandro Bonilla, Sr., a former arts student from the Bronx who walked past Haring’s famous “Crack Is Wack” mural for the first time this week. Painted on both sides of a concrete handball court wall in Harlem River Park at 127th Street more than three decades ago, the mural has been shielded by a protective structure and scrim, hidden from public view since the fall of 2015 while the adjacent Harlem River Drive highway underwent construction. This summer, NYC Parks and the Keith Haring Foundation commissioned two artists to refurbish and repaint the mural, and it reopened to the public this Saturday. A piece of East Harlem history — and art history — has been restored to its community.
Haring, a ubiquitous graffiti artist and social activist, painted the bright orange mural on the northern face of the handball court wall in 1986, at the apex of the crack epidemic that disproportionately affected low-income communities of color in the United States and ravaged Harlem. Moved by his young studio assistant and friend Benny Soto’s struggles with addiction and riled by government inaction, the artist mobilized his recognizable visual language of boldly-outlined shapes and energetic figures to send a cautionary message.
Haring was known for inserting his work into the urban landscape of New York City without authorization, tagging subways and buildings quickly and surreptitiously. “Crack Is Wack” was no exception.
“As usual, I didn’t ask for permission, and I just brought my ladders and paints,” he once recalled.
As he was wrapping up the final touches, police drove by and gave Haring a court summons for defacing public property (though the artist did not serve time in jail and ultimately paid a reduced fine of $25.) In the days that followed, the mural gained visibility as the media used its image in its coverage of the crack crisis. Eventually, it was vandalized by someone in the neighborhood, and NYC’s Parks Department responded by painting over it with a drab gray. But by that point, the mural’s existence and Haring’s summons had become public knowledge, and the Parks Department commissioner, lamenting its effacement, asked Haring if he would repaint it. Haring agreed, producing a two-sided mural this time, spelling his anti-drug message on both faces of the court wall and altering the original imagery.
This signaled the cause’s extreme importance to the artist. “It wasn’t in his nature to recreate the same thing twice,” said Gil Vazquez, acting director and president of the Keith Haring Foundation.
The mural has undergone multiple restorations over the years, Vazquez said, but previous changes have been largely superficial. The most recent refurbishment is the most complete in its history. Severe water damage to the surface meant that the artists Louise Hunnicutt, who led the restoration, and William Tibbals, her assistant on the project, had to chisel and peel away the layers of paint and coat the walls with waterproofing, concrete, and acrylic mixed with hardener before recreating Haring’s design using tracings they developed from the original image and photographic documentation.
“I was bringing back the Haring to its original state,” said Hunnicutt during a phone call with Hyperallergic. “People in restoration tend to keep what’s there and work around it, but I had to take everything off the wall before I could do that. She added: “The entire restoration took 648 hours. I think it took Keith a day to paint — and about a million hours of practice!”
Hunnicutt described curious passersby approaching her enthusiastically as she worked on the project, especially drivers, as the park is located right at the highway exit and not exactly pedestrian-friendly. Ismael Burgos, who has worked as a supervisor at the M15-SBS bus post at 126th Street and 2nd Avenue across from the park for several years, praised the mural’s restoration but fears that many are not informed of its reopening.
“I used to get people from Europe, tourists, coming up to me all the time and asking me where it was, and I had to tell them it was closed because of construction,” Burgos told Hyperallergic. “They had no idea it was covered. I haven’t had a tourist ask me about it for about a year. It’s been closed for so long, I don’t think people are aware that it’s back up.” Originally from Puerto Rico, Burgos was raised in the Bronx. The mural carries both personal and historic significance for him. “AIDS was just burning through the community, and Keith was part of that,” he said. “I actually gave a print of the mural to my brother as a gift.”
Kimberly Brooks has worked in the neighborhood since 1994, and before it was closed for the highway reconstruction, the mural was regularly in her field of vision. She hadn’t realized it was open to the public again and echoed Burgos’s excitement, as well as his desire to reach more people.
“It’s been part of our community for so long,” Brooks said. “Are they doing an unveiling?” she asked. “I don’t think many know [about it], because of the location and because the park had been closed for so long. It would be nice to get more people to come out to see it.” (NYC Parks does not currently have plans for an opening event, as confirmed by the agency in an e-mail to Hyperallergic.)
To Haring fans from out of town and locals familiar with the mural’s history, “Crack Is Wack” is a fixture of East Harlem and New York City at large. But Alejandro Bonilla thinks its message is just as relevant to a younger generation — one that might only know Haring’s work from the internet and whose encounter with the newly-restored mural will be a discovery. “It’s absolutely still important to this neighborhood,” Bonilla said. “Harlem isn’t as drug-ridden as it used to be at one point; it’s gone through some changes. But it’s a reminder.”