74° Good Evening
74° Good Evening

'Crack is Wack' mural by Keith Haring finally getting face-lift 

Keith Haring's internationally renowned "Crack is Wack" mural — first painted on the wall of an East Harlem handball court in 1986 — is finally getting a face-lift.  (Credit: David Handschuh)

Keith Haring’s internationally renowned “Crack is Wack” mural — first painted on the wall of an East Harlem handball court in 1986 — is finally getting a face-lift.

The 16-foot-tall, 26-foot-wide mural was painted on June 27, 1986, as a warning to crack cocaine users as the drug ravished New York City communities. Its artist, Keith Haring, was arrested for painting it without city permission and charged a $200 fine. 

Haring painted over the original work, only to be asked to create a second version of the mural by then-Parks Commissioner Henry Stern.

In an interview with his biographer, John Gruen, Haring recalled: “Henry Stern calls me the next day, he wants to apologize to me because this is not city property but it’s Parks Department property and they in fact like the painting, are very proud to have the painting.”

The second version used both sides of the handball court wall and was visible to both north and southbound drivers on the Harlem River Drive — that is, until several years ago. The handball court and art have spent four years under protective covering as construction crews labored to rebuild the merge of the Harlem River Drive, the FDR Drive and exits for East 125th Street and the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.

On Tuesday, artist Louise Hunnicutt set out on the restoration project, beginning by scraping some of the old, flaking paint, in some cases down to Haring’s first mural.

“I just take my chisel and hammer it out as hard as I can without damaging it, then I take my little scraper and I scrape it. I fill it with water sealer, then fill it with concrete,” Hunnicutt said.

The chips drifted like snow onto the cement court as drivers slowed to watch the work unfold. One stopped at a traffic light and happily hollered out: “Welcome back!”

The previous day, Hunnicutt had made a life-size tracing of the graffiti that will be used to restore the crisp black-and-white cartoons and bright orange background that Haring used for the original work.  

Hunnicutt was recommended by the New Museum to the Keith Haring Foundation for the project. She describes herself as both an artist and urban explorer, uncovering mysteries in the work she’s doing.

“I see some remnants of super hot fluorescent orange paint, but when I look online and when I see pictures of him painting it, it’s not that color. I’m not sure where that color came from,” she said.

Now, decades after arresting Haring for his work, the city is singing a different tune.

“We are happy to see that Keith Haring’s ‘Crack is Wack’ mural is being refurbished and repainted, thanks to the work of Louise Hunnicutt and support of the Haring foundation,” said NYC Parks director of art and antiquities Jonathan Kuhn.

“The mural is a lasting reminder of Haring’s art, which continues to instruct and inspire through its wit and vibrancy,” Kuhn added.

Haring, who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, died at the age of 31 on Feb. 16, 1990.


We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

News photos & videos