Keith Haring and Queer Xerography
Keith was a product of what the street was. Paradise Garage was four walls to put the street in. He was about what the street was. What percolated on the street was what Keith was about.
— Junior Vasquez
My epigraph is a lie. Despite disc jockey Junior Vasquez’s claims, it’s easy to paint Keith Haring as a privileged white queer slummer who copied graffiti techniques from working-class African Americans and Latinos. Even his close friend, performance artist Bill T. Jones, once reported to Haring’s estate manager John Gruen: “I once read an article in Rolling Stone magazine that listed the most overrated people in the art world. Well, they listed Keith Haring as a person who rips off third-world artists — meaning, graffiti artists. . . . I’m not calling Keith a racist. I’m saying that he doesn’t understand that he is a product of a racist environment.”1 Jones refers to the almost immediate notoriety that Haring achieved in New York’s art circles with his early-1980s subway graffiti. Risking arrest, Haring canvassed numerous blank advertising billboards in the city’s subways from 1980 to 1985 with thick white chalk. In 1984, he and photographer Tseng Kwong Chi published these acts as Art in Transit, an anti-coffee-table book that generated a fair amount of media buzz for the artist and affirmed his status as an appropriating provocateur.
Like most graffiti marks, Haring’s drawings functioned as “underground” nametags granting the individual artist a modicum of public exposure.2 Alongside other writing cultures, his graffiti also nodded to ideals of immediacy, subversion, widened scale, “direct relationship between artist and audience,” and “drawing worthy of risk.”3 But while they often held to these ideals, Haring’s transit copies also offered something a bit different. He did not spray-paint across train cars, and he did not write over other artist’s tags. He instead plastered blank advertising space with images that became trademarks for the artist’s one-man culture industry — barking dogs, dancing babies, walking robots, and, most notably, repeated copies of unclothed men who collide, electric boogie, ride each other like horses, pierce each other, explode from each other’s heads, break-dance on top of each other, penetrate each other, and hold each other under heart-filled moons (see fig. 1).
While some critics decried these graffiti men as racial appropriations, in the same breath they also read Haring’s icons as universalizing images that appealed mostly to children. Dismissing the works as theoretically immature, they figured the subway drawings to be little more than child art. Yet a select few noted an alternative cultural connection and argued that Haring’s plagiarized prints had an immediacy that touted another “underground” population — the urban gay subcultures of New York City. To these critics, Haring’s copies infused queer content into advertising spaces whose heteronormative orientation was usually a given. According to art critic Brooks Adams, Haring’s graffiti clones made “ordinarily invisible sites and populations radiantly visible,” rather than shunting these scenes into the artist’s private studio.4
Given his graffiti orgies, it’s hard not to see how such vibrant clone-worlds potentially sent “messages” to the “general public” about queer subcultural practices of the late 1970s and early 1980s. After all, these promiscuous scenes were repeated ad infinitum, and Haring’s print copies quickly became a vital contribution to what Cindy Patton has termed the subcultural “vernacular” of Manhattan.5 Yet questions remain: which “ordinarily invisible” sites? And what, given that Haring described these graffiti prints as “a language made up of pictographs,” did these messages intend to convey?6
To answer these questions, I argue the obvious: Haring does copy a particular aspect of working-class black and Latino populations, and this is precisely his aesthetic and political point. The subway graffiti prints should be seen as part and parcel of the artist’s larger argument with late-1970s gay male subcultural ideals of cloning, promiscuity, and copying. At a moment in U.S. sexual history when the ghettoized clone-world was the dominant mode of representation for urban white gay men, Haring’s graffiti copies widened this restrictive subculture by cloning the activities of other queer populations and disseminating these activities throughout the city. Appropriating spectacular mass print forms like the spray can and the Xerox, Haring’s subway drawings perform what could be called a “queer xerography” — a critical and eroticized practice of copying — that forced a heterosexual “public” and a standardizing urban gay male culture to confront what they “know” about sexual alterity in the city. As I substantiate these claims, I do not go so far as to say that Haring was a product of the street. He certainly wasn’t. These analyses instead confirm something far less audacious: what percolated for the men at the Paradise Garage — and other sites off the metropolitan clone map — was what Haring’s copies were initially all about.
When Haring first moved to New York City from Kutztown, Pennsylvania (via Pittsburgh), in 1978, the figure of the clone dominated urban gay male subcultures in the United States. According to Michael S. Kimmel, “the clone was the indigenous life form of the urban gay enclave. Although there were other social types — such as gay liberationists, ‘twinkies,’ ‘drag queens,’ and ‘leathermen’ — prior to the AIDS epidemic, clones constituted the community’s most defining social type.”7 In response to the decades-long feminization of gay men in medical, legal, and other everyday discourses, argues Martin P. Levine, the clone rewrote this script and announced himself as all man, all the time.8 Refuting sexological wisdom that male homosexuals were, at best, inverts (women trapped in men’s bodies), the clone expunged any trace of femininity and carved himself into a testament to manly butchness. In so doing, he broke with the stereotype of the isolated, effeminate homosexual to forge major subcultures within major metropolises such as New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago that idolized hypermasculinity and devalued the fey styles thought to characterize prior generations of gay men.
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I thank the staff librarians at Indiana University’s Lilly Library and University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Memorial Library for their archival assistance. I also thank Stephanie Foote and, especially, Shane Vogel for draft comments.
- Bill T. Jones, interview, quoted in John Gruen, Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991), 98.
- Joe Austin suggests in his cultural history of New York City graffiti writing that “long before the new writing appeared in the urban landscape and entered the fray of competing name, New York City was already the undisputed capital of the spectacularized name written in shared (commercial) public space. This cultural connection is often taken up by writers in explanations of their craft.” Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 39. For more on the practices of graffiti, see Craig Castleman, Getting Up: Subway Graffiti in New York (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982); Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, Spraycan Art (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1987); Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1984); Jeff Ferrell, Crimes of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality (New York: Garland, 1993); Ivor L. Miller, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002); Nancy Macdonald, The Graffiti Subculture: Youth, Masculinity, and Identity in London and New York (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); and Susan Stewart, Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).
- Keith Haring and Tseng Kwong Chi, Art in Transit: Subway Drawings by Keith Haring (New York: Harmony Books, 1984), 1.
- Brooks Adams, “Keith Haring: Radiant Picaresque,” Art in America 86 (1998): 99.
- Cindy Patton, “Visualizing Safe Sex: When Pedagogy and Pornography Collide,” in Inside/ Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss (New York: Routledge, 1991), 373.
- Gruen, Keith Haring, 65.
- Michael S. Kimmel, “Introduction,” in Martin P. Levine, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 7. For more on late-1970s urban U.S. clone culture, see Stephen O. Murray, American Gay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996); Peter Shapiro, Turn the Beat Around: The Secret History of Disco (New York: Faber and Faber, 2005); and Joshua Gamson, The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, and the 70s in San Francisco (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2005).
- Levine, Gay Macho, 28 – 29.