Today, a two-sided mural painted over a handball court stands at 128th Street and 2nd Avenue in East Harlem. Demonstrably overlooking busy FDR Drive, the mural reminds all onlookers that “Crack is Wack,” standing as a monument, or perhaps a relic of a different time. The story of the mural, as well as its artist, tell us much about the historical context of the Crack Era.
The parable of the “Crack is Wack” mural and Keith Haring might aptly begin with its inception in 1986, a pivotal year—the pivotal year in the trajectory of crack, urban spaces, and their residents. On this day, Haring’s legitimate international career as an artist mattered little. Because of his location and the medium of his work, Haring found himself constructed as a criminal, or at the very least, a public nuisance. Before he finished, Haring found himself slapped with a summons by a surly policeman tired of punks defacing public property. Haring ended up paying a $25 fine for disorderly conduct. Then, a funny thing happened. The ordeal helped Haring towards his goal, that of added publicity and awareness to his anti-crack message.
More than likely, the officer in question neglected to read the message of Haring’s mural nor did he consider the artist’s considerable thought behind its location. Haring must have been just another resentful youth tagging public property for no good reason. In reality, Haring picked the relatively deserted site because of its visibility to thousands of motorists driving into Manhattan from the Bronx, upstate New York, and New England—many of them less familiar with the devastation wrought by crack and the exigencies of the era. Later Haring acknowledged his strategy explaining, “the wall looks like a big billboard on the highway, it’s perfect for painting.” Much like various grassroots, New York based, anti-crack crusaders, Keith Haring sought to increase awareness of a major neighborhood problem by speaking to folks within and without the confines of Harlem.