A crowd gathers at Urban Outfitters in Herald Square to celebrate the Feb. 6 kick-off of Lust for Life, a street art campaign using graffiti to raise awareness about the HIV and AIDS epidemic in urban communities. (Credit: Annamarya Scaccia)

#LustforLife: Using Street Art to Fight HIV/AIDS in Urban Communities

Text and photos by Annamarya Scaccia

When Maria Davis took an HIV test in 1995, she was following procedure for her life insurance application. But what she thought was a routine exam turned out to be life-changing.

The test came back positive. Three years later, she had full-blown AIDS.

A well-known music promoter, Davis has spent the last two decades as a HIV activist working with non-profits to raise awareness and money for HIV and AIDS education and research. Now she’s serving as the spokesperson for Lust for Life, a national public awareness campaign addressing the spread of HIV and AIDS in urban communities.

Of the roughly 50,000 new HIV infections each year, the majority occurs in urban areas, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). African Americans account for over 40 percent of newly diagnosed cases, the centers reported.

“If one of you have a conversation about HIV, that could change the epidemic,” said Davis, 55, told the crowd at the campaign launch at Urban Outfitters in Herald Square on Friday night.

“Less if More” by El Sol 25 (top) and “Kiss Kiss” by Col Wallnuts (bottom) hang on the back wall of Urban Outfitters. (Credit: Annamarya Scaccia)

Boston-based condom and lubricant company ONE Condoms and curator Billi Kid brought together 22 New York City graffiti artists to transform ordinary STOP signs into artwork raising HIV and AIDS awareness for the campaign. Each artist painted one full-sized traffic sign, provided by ONE Condoms, with visual messages about practicing safe sex, ranging from abstract shapes to written slogans like “Check yourself.”

The re-purposed STOP signs will hang on display in Urban Outfitters at Broadway and West 35th Street during National Condom Week (Feb. 14 —21) and will stay up until Feb. 20. Paddle8, an New York City art and design marketplace, will also hold an online auction for the artwork, with all proceeds benefiting Lifebeat, a national non-profit that uses music to teach youth about HIV/AIDS prevention.

Stencil artist Peat Wollaeger, known by the signature EYEZ, painted a Keith Haring tribute on his STOP sign, using the late artist’s portrait and famous active figures as elements. Wollaeger, along with Fernando Romero and Mike Baca of the art collective UR New York, designed a version of Wollaeger’s Lust for Life art piece for a live art presentation during Friday’s opening reception.

Mike Baca and Fernando Romero create a Keith Haring tribute STOP sign based on artist Peat Wollaeger’s design during the Lust for Life kick-off event. (Credit: Annamarya Scaccia)

The artwork, Wollaeger told the crowd, was in honor of the artist who changed his life.

“Haring was one of the first artists to let everyone know about AIDS,” he said.

In the 1980s, Haring used New York City’s landscape to draw attention to many social issues by painting colorful murals with political messages on various streets and buildings. AIDS, which spread rapidly through the ‘80s, was a constant theme in Haring’s later work.

Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988. He died 25 years ago this month at the age of 31 from disease-related complications.

“Keith Haring is still alive though,” said Wollaeger.

Peat Wollaeger’s original Keith Haring tribute and artist Gumshoe’s “Stuck on the Yellow Brick Road” sign hanging on the wall of the book enclave of Urban Outfitter’s in Herald Square. (Credit: Annamarya Scaccia)

As part of the campaign, ONE Condoms will also donate up to 100,000 Lust for Life condoms and distribute hundreds of thousands more to public health centers nationwide throughout the year. The special edition condoms, which feature one of eight STOP sign designs on display in Urban Outfitters, are also available for pre-order through ONE’s online store.

By showcasing the artwork on the round condom wrappers, Davis said, young people will become inspired to start conversations about sexual health.

“Lust for Life keeps HIV relevant,” Davis said later in an interview. “Young people are visual, so they need visual to keep the conversation going.”

Visiting the exhibit? Post photos of the art on social media using #LustforLife #DonateOne @onecondoms. If you’re not in New York, you can still participate by sharing an online art card to social media using using the hashtags. ONE will donate one condom to an urban HIV outreach program for every post.