In 1989, 500 Chicago Public School (CPS) students got the chance to paint beside renowned pop and graffiti artist, Keith Haring. Together, they created the masterpiece that is The Chicago Mural — a vibrant, 488 foot-long mural painted in Haring’s iconic animated, cartoon-like style. There are 36 panels of the mural on display at the Chicago Cultural Center.
It took five days in May of 1989 to finish the monumental mural. In only one day, Haring painted his signature stick figures in thick black outline. The next four days allowed CPS students from 63 different area schools to personalize their assigned section of the mural.
Students were told, with limited instructions, to choose from five different colors and color between the lines. This freedom was interpreted in many different ways — some students painted solid colors while others drew complex patterns, wrote their initials or painted social messages like “Stop gangs” and “Say no to drugs.”
The task of coordinating the people and elements which made this project possible belonged to Irving Zucker, a teacher at William H. Wells Community Academy in Noble Square. Zucker and Haring met at a dinner part of mutual friends in New York two years before the completion of the mural. Haring, having worked with children before in his painting of several other murals in schools and children’s hospitals, mentioned his interest to Zucker to create a similar piece in Chicago. From there, planning took off for an artwork that would speak to the importance of the arts in education.
As a child, Haring was intrigued by cartoons and animations, such as those from Disney, and picked up drawing to imitate the figures.
Haring’s art education took him to New York City, where the artist used subway platforms as his canvas, drawing figures and scenes on empty advertising boards.
Commuters and art critics alike became interested in the distinct patterns and figures Haring would create. Soon after, Haring’s art was shown in galleries, and he was commissioned to paint murals all over the world.
Haring kept his art accessible to the public by opening a retail store in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, Pop Shop, to sell affordable items of clothing and merchandise of his designs on them.
Haring painted all of his public murals for no pay, once saying, “If money is the goal, I don’t recommend [being an artist] … It’s not a reason to be an artist. But, if you’re an artist, you are whether you like it or not,” Haring told WWTW Chicago Public Media in 1989.
In the contemporary art world, Haring is known to have merged the high-end art scene with street art. However, Haring’s career was tragically brief. Just nine months after the completion of The Chicago Mural, he died due to AIDS-related complications.
This kind of art, art which is colorful, exciting, vibrant and accessible is still relevant today and reminds viewers of the value of youth and the importance of celebrating that youth. The mural has caught the attention of many, including Loyola sophomore, Holly Smith.
“This piece of art seems timeless and represents many topics that are still relevant in 2018,” Smith said.
The Chicago Mural will be on display at the Chicago Cultural Center until Sept. 23, after which the 36 panels will be distributed among CPS schools.