Throughout his career, Keith Haring devoted his practice to themes of social justice and constant transformation. Pushing throughout his career to make art accessible to all, he often chose to work directly with and within public space.
Made in 1986 on a handball court in East Harlem, New York, at East 128th Street and the Harlem River Drive, the now legendary Crack is Wack mural was inspired by the crack epidemic and its effect on New York City. At the time, the artist’s assistant Benny was also struggling to curb his addiction without insurance and hospital assistance. The artist explained that “seeing the slow reaction of the government” to the epidemic, he decided he had to do “an anti-crack painting”, cautioning youth against the drug’s use.
As the artist did it without the city's permission, he was stopped by a policeman as he was wrapping it up and was arrested. However, due to the mural's unexpected popularity and public support, he got away with only a $100 fine, and a slap on the wrist. After it was defaced and then painted over, the city asked him to recreate it again, taking responsibility for its protection and preservation.
The iconic mural has now been restored yet again in 2019, by the artist Louise Hunnicutt with the support of The Keith Haring Foundation, who set out to bring it back to its original glory. Having twenty years of experience, she specializes in hand-painted scenic work for television, museums, galleries, theaters, print advertising, murals, special effects and private homes.
We had a chat with Louise to find out more about the restoration process of this iconic mural.
Widewalls: You are currently working on the restoration of Keith Haring’s acclaimed mural Crack Is Wack in East Harlem. How did this come to be?
Louise Hunnicutt: I was referred to the Keith Haring Foundation by the New Museum, where I had done many painting projects.
Widewalls: Could you tell us something about the history of the mural and why do you think it is important to preserve its legacy?
LH: The Crack Is Wack mural was originally painted by Keith Haring in 1986. He was arrested for graffiti painting on public property and the mural was overpainted in gray by the NYC Parks Dept. Then the Parks Department Commissioner decided that they wanted the mural back so he invited Keith to repaint it with authorization and support.
Crack in the mid-’80s was becoming a full-blown epidemic. A large portion of the community was affected. It destroyed families, caused debilitating addiction and drained the life of otherwise healthy individuals. A favorite studio assistant of Keith’s named ‘Benny’ became an addict to crack and barely survived. It was nearly impossible to find help for his friend as agencies were not equipped to deal with the problem.
The mural is an important reminder of the dangers of addiction. The skeleton holding a crack pipe, money-burning and the dying masses are a hieroglyphic that even a child can understand. The crack had in some way touched the lives of almost everyone.
Widewalls: How does the mural we see today differ from Haring’s original design?
LH: There were two versions of the mural in orange and black. The one that I am painting is the second version that Keith painted after the first version was painted out. We excavated down to the original painting and could see some traces of the design. I have also researched the painting and met with the Keith Haring Foundation to get approvals on the final design and color.
The mural today is as bright and beautiful as the day Keith Haring painted it. I channel his energy and passion and I can feel the painting come alive. It has a great vibrancy and radiates pulsating energy that flows through you. The paint glides on like spirit writing.
Widewalls: How does the restoration process itself look like? How challenging is it to bring the mural back to its original glory?
LH: The restoration was challenging at first because there were many layers of peeling paint separating from the wall from years of water damage and pollution. Before we could remove the paint, we traced both sides of the 16’ high and 26’ wide mural and made a huge perforated pattern.
My painting assistant William Tibbals and I chiseled and scraped the wall down to the original painting. We sealed the wall with waterproofing and filled the cracks and pits with cement. Next, we painted the wall with 2 coats of concrete paint, then 3 coats of the hot orange base color. We then transferred the pattern by rubbing charcoal through the perforation to get the layout of the design onto the wall.
Finally, the fun part... painting the black lines... it’s really starting to look like the original. The worse part was the 100-degree heat, but the paint dried fast!
Widewalls: What has been the community’s reaction to the restoration?
LH: The community is so excited to see the mural restored after four years of park renovation. All day long, people honk and yell out of their car windows words of gratitude and encouragement: "Thumbs up!" "Beautiful!" "Thank you!!"
People come and visit from all over the world to photograph. They stop by from the local community and talk about how they saw Keith painting the mural and how it looks just like it did then. They tell us stores about how their family members had crack problems in the ’80s and how the mural has special meaning to them. Yesterday, a man brought his six-year-old daughter to tell her about Keith’s work and the dangers of drugs.
It’s quite emotional. It’s amazing how much love we are getting. I think Keith would be very happy.
Widewalls: This is not the first time you are in charge of the mural by Keith Haring. Tell us something about the work on the Carmine Street Pool mural.
LH: I have restored many Keith Haring murals. There was a large mural on Houston St and the Bowery in NYC that Keith painted 1982 with Juan Dubose. I repainted the entire mural several years ago with a team from Gotham Scenic. I have also painted many of his pieces at a private hospital located in The Children’s Village in Dobbs Ferry, NY.
Keith painted tons of characters and I have restored all of those. I also touched up the Carmine Street Pool mural and have worked on Crack Is Wack over the years.
Widewalls: You describe yourself as both an artist and an urban explorer, uncovering mysteries in the work you’re doing. Could you tell us about some of your most challenging, but also most rewarding work so far?
LH: There is a lot of research involved in what I paint. The painting must represent the feel, mood and character of the piece.
My most challenging job recently was to paint 5 sculpted statues in full military uniform for The National Harbor in Maryland. Some of the officers had 48 different hand-mixed colors on their uniforms. They guard the harbor and really look alive! The life-size sculptures were created by Studio EIS in Brooklyn.
I also painted the Olympian statues at The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC. I painted an aged metallic nickel finish on the statues. It is fascinating to learn the history of their accomplishments.
Some of the most exciting work I have painted was in Venice, Italy and in Paris, France at The Pompidou Centre for artist Jim Hodges. These were huge 160’ long camouflage murals that descended into a vortex. The most challenging part was working with students that didn’t speak English...but we had a blast and they were all fantastic.
I have the best job in the world!
Featured images: Progress shots of Crack Is Wack restoration by Louise Hunnicutt, 2019. Repair and tracing in process. All images courtesy Louise Hunnicutt.