Damian Elwes on Keith Haring: The Godfather of Graffiti

Keith Haring embodied the essence of 1980s New York with his spontaneous, simplistic illustrations. Haring’s artwork made its debut in New York subway stations, with iconic images such as a barking dog or radiant baby populated across the walls.

The accessibility of Haring’s work actively propagated his mission to make art available for all, “many people could enjoy art if they were given the chance.” Haring was inspired by pop art, graffiti, Walt Disney and Dr Seuss; he was apt in refashioning these influential motifs into a medium for broadcasting issues such as racism, homophobia, drug addiction, and AIDS awareness.

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Ignorance = Fear, 1989 Keith Haring

Haring’s breakthrough show was in 1982 at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery on Mercer Street. By the late 1980s, Haring’s work was so valuable that the subway panels he painted on were immediately stolen. A distinctive feature of his work was his refusal to constrain art with definitions — “definition can be the most dangerous, destructive tool the artist can use when he is making art for a society of individuals.” By keeping his work free from the constraint of definition, the artist therefore couldn’t dictate the lens through which the viewer reads and interprets art.

Damian Elwes’ paintings transport us into the world of artistic genius and capture the sublimity of creative experience. In this piece of writing, Elwes delves into his personal encounters with Haring — namely how his generosity changed the trajectory of Elwes’ career.

Damian Elwes: Dialogue with Keith

After leaving college, I went to work on a Sidney Lumet film in New York City. It was the early eighties and there was graffiti everywhere. We would see a drawing by Basquiat one day and then a few days later we’d return and so many artists had added to it. Everyone had been saying how painting was dead because of Duchamp, but here one could see that it was very much alive.

One afternoon my job was to keep the crowd from exiting the subway at Penn Station during filming. When I let them out, there was Keith Haring drawing on black posters. I said, “Your job looks more fun than mine,” and he invited me to pick up some chalk and help him. I was working on the movie and so couldn’t help, but we struck up a conversation. I told him that I didn’t know how to paint but loved to draw every day. He told me to go and buy a box of spray paints and find an empty wall. He said that as soon as you start a drawing with spray paint it becomes a painting.

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Work by Keith Haring. Courtesy Pixabay

A few days later I was walking along a street in the East village on my way to a friend’s party. By coincidence, Keith was walking next to me and carrying a six pack. The first thing he said was, “Hi Damian, did you do your painting yet?” I made an excuse of how I was still working on the film. He spent all evening sharing stories with me about how he drew for many years until he went to the train yard one night to paint with friends. Since then he had made a painting every day. He said that he knew that I was a painter, and that the next time he saw me, he only wanted to hear that I had begun painting. This was his gift to me.

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Portrait of Keith Haring, Damian Elwes 2018

I often think about that experience because nowadays so many artists are too busy or too competitive to help fellow artists. It was extremely generous. Lately, I have made a few paintings of Keith’s New York City studio from the time that we were friends. While painting that studio, I discovered that the graffiti drawings on the walls were actually mirror images of his paintings, the result of him pressing his wet paintings against the walls. I reported this to the Keith Haring Foundation, who reside in that space, and they asked, “Why do you think he was doing that?” I said that by 1988 Keith already knew that he was going to die from AIDS, but he probably wished to leave his spirit in that studio. I asked them also about the bookshelves. They had been thrown out because they looked junky. I said that while painting them I had realized that they were large skull sculptures designed by Keith. I love painting his studio because it is a way to continue a dialogue with Keith.

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Damian Elwes’ studio in LA. Photo by Lucy Emms

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