The year 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the first mass demonstration of the queer community, started by the Latino and Afro American trans women and drag queens. Such an action was urgent since the constant and systematic repression run by the state throughout the 1950s and 1960s became unbearable. This momentous event paved the way for the gay liberation movement and the nationwide fight for LGBTQI+ rights.
The consolidation of the movement in regards to gender, race, and class issues started happening quickly which resulted in the first gay pride marches in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and the increment of gay rights organizations. It was an ongoing struggle and although many things became much clearer during that decade, the late seventies and early eights brought AIDS. This menacing virus started taking thousands of lives, and it was used as the perfect argument for a highly conservative and homophobic discourse led by the public person, former model and singer Anita Bryant, religious groups and the politicians.
Despite such a hostile atmosphere, New York City nurtured a generation of young artists willing to confront those attitudes by exploring their sexual identities through their respective practices, and of the most prominent ones among them was the iconic graffiti master Keith Haring.
The prolific artist came to prominence in 1980 primarily for his captivating linear graffiti pieces made with white chalk on black, unused advertisement slots in subway stations. Haring started exhibiting at cult NY venue called Club 57, a hub for emerging artists and quickly became famous. During that time, he made The Radiant Baby, a crawling infant with emitting rays of light, which became the artist's signature mark.
In between 1982 and 1989, Haring traveled and made numerous murals around the globe, and his work became even more interwoven with various references (the writings of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs were of his particular interest), symbols and images such as barking dogs, flying saucers, and large hearts.
At the peak of fame, Haring was diagnosed HIV positive, and during the last years of his life the artist became a sort of an activist. His works became saturated with the imagery related with the AIDS crises; in 1989 he made perhaps the most thrilling in-situ drawing or a mural, titled Once Upon A Time, located in the bathroom of The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center and commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
Keith Haring painted his last large-scale mural for The Center Show, an exhibition focused on the LGBT production inspired by Stonewall. The provocative composition was produced in the second-floor men’s bathroom, and it spreads across four interior walls. The black-on-white linear work consists of images of fluids, penises, babies, and groping figures all mixed in a whirl above the bathroom tiles.
Once Upon A Time was an homage to the symbolic of the toilet as a space of sexual encounter and even emotional endeavor. It was a direct response to pre-AIDS time which at that point seemed more liberating and carefree. This imagery was different, far more explicit and personal than the one usually found in giftshops and even art history books; it was too radically queer for the mainstream, since it talked explicitly about gay sexuality.
Although it survived the toll of time, the mural started disintegrating due to the fact Haring forgot to prime the surface before painting. It was also exposed to changing atmospheric conditions caused by the window. Until 2012 the bathroom was used as the Center’s meeting room when a major renovation of the work was launched. Finally, three years later, Once Upon A Time was opened to the public together with other major works from The Center Show by Kenny Scharf, Leon Golub, Barbara Sandler, Martin Wong, and George Whitman.
Keith Haring’s bathroom mural was produced by the artist nine months before he passed away from AIDS in 1990, turning into a striking statement concerning the most horrific times the queer community went through.
In contemporary American society marked by the resurgence of homophobia and transphobia, Once Upon A Time stands as an important physical trace of the AIDS-related advocacy for acceptance, tolerance, and equality. It is a personal testament of a dying person reflecting the need to remain powerful and proud in the moments of hardship and freight.
Haring undoubtedly left a strong historical mark as a young man capable of creating astonishing art which was at the same time accessible and political. The same year he passed away, the world’s greatest pop star Madonna dedicated the first New York date of her Blond Ambition World Tour to Haring and all the proceeds from ticket sales were given to AIDS charities. As years passed by, the Haring aesthetic became practically a synonym for New York since it embodied the wit, the freedom of expression and the lifestyle typical for this great city.
In the end, it is clear why Haring’s bathroom mural is so important – it is a living piece of history and a reminder that the struggle is not over; there are still many things to be done when it comes to emancipation, solidarity, and breaking of taboos.
Featured image: Keith Haring Bathroom Mural at The Center. Keith Haring artwork © Keith Haring Foundation. Photo by Liz Ligon.