Keith Haring developed a unique visual language in his art. Some of his symbols like the barking dog and the radiant baby became legendary, but what do they actually mean? Find out below how to decode five of his symbols, and look for the others in the exhibition itself, until 19 April!
“The reason that the ‘baby’ has become my logo or signature is that it is the purest and most positive experience of human existence.”
While he could be cynical about the world around him, Haring always held a special affinity for children, appreciating their sincerity and honesty. The prominence of the baby is a reminder of the underlying optimism in his work. Both the barking dog and the baby were developed as Haring was beginning to react to New York’s graffiti, when he started to draw his ‘tag’ on the streets in the early 1980s. These tags gradually developed into their now iconic forms, which would remain a key part of his- style throughout his career.
“My dad made cartoon characters for me, and they were very similar to the way I started to draw – with one line and a cartoon outline.”
As a child, Haring greatly enjoyed drawing with his father, Allen, and dogs were a favourite subject. The image conjures ideas of both a protector and a predator, barking as a call to attention, either as a warning or an outburst of anger.
“Living under the threat of possible destruction in the form of nuclear war, etc. the most important thing to me is the present.”
Living through the Cold War made Haring profoundly aware of the possibility of nuclear war, shown through his regular use of the atomic symbol, even in works unrelated to the topic. As a young child he lived through the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Later in 1979, the United States’ worst nuclear accident happened at Three Mile Island, only 65 miles from his hometown of Kutztown. Incidents such as these helped inform Haring’s work as a nuclear disarmament activist.
“It was incredible – those pop colours!”
As a child, television entranced Haring, particularly cartoons. In 1981 MTV (Music Television) was launched and shaped the cultural taste of a generation by popularising music videos and focusing on youth culture. It would also play a direct role in Haring’s career, when he appeared on MTV with the band Duran Duran, and featured in the video for Grace Jones’ I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You) together with Andy Warhol.
“It became this profound thing about the third eye and about subconscious and just one step beyond the normal.”
Haring initially developed this motif by accident. He was painting a smiley face and left too much room between the eyes, so he added a third eye to bring balance to the image. Audiences interpreted it as a spiritual reference, and so Haring began to use it as such.