Comics Youth Loves: Keith Haring, the Master of Accessible, Disruptive Art

On an overcast day at the end of August, some of the Comics Youth squad shook off the waning Summer sun inside the lustrous embrace of Tate Liverpool. Our obsession for the day? The work of visionary art activist, Keith Haring - and a bracing reminder that art can still be a tool for phenomenal change.

Let’s not mince words here: It’s a farcical time to live in Britain and it can be hard for any of us to feel like our concerns about life, our city, the country, and the world at large are being heard, never mind taken seriously. We all have a lot of important things to say, and sometimes it can be hard to find the vocabularly to express the thoughts, feelings, and opinions that press upon us on a daily basis.

So when Tate Liverpool offered us the opportunity to attend their Keith Haring exhibition we obviously leapt at the chance to steep ourselves in his vision and absorb his tactile, pop-filtered approach to fighting ignorance and injustice. Haring developed a distinctive visual vocabularly to respond to the violence, inequality, and oppression that he observed in the world. As a result, his art remains bold, immediate, and full of dissent while maintaining a playfulness that makes it accessible to all.

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Haring’s work continues to be an inspiration to a variety of people: From activists and artists to individuals looking to give life to their own fight for and against the issues that matter to them. There’s a lot we can all continue to learn from Haring’s practice. Whether on a local, national, or global (aim high!) level, here are all the things we can learn from Haring’s work about making accessible, disruptive art of our own.

Make it accessible

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First and foremost, Haring wasn’t an art snob. In fact, he was adamantly against creating art that couldn’t be easily seen and understood by all and even said, “Art is nothing if you don’t reach every segment of the people. Art is for everybody.” Keep your work simple yet powerful, make it public and approachable. Speak to the masses, not just the few.

But don’t forget: Simplicity can be confrontational

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Haring may have favoured simple shapes and images, but his work was no less dynamic or challenging for it. Simple, easy to understand images gave Haring an entry-point with which to fill his work with potent political messages against nuclear power, racism, and capitalism and to raise awareness for issues like LGBT equality and the HIV / AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. To do similar, try simplifying and specifying a social issue you care deeply about and create a straightforward image that defines it.

Don’t be afraid of pop culture

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Because Haring wasn’t some art-snob square, he was totally cool with incorporating elements of pop culture in his work. And you know what? It only helps to make his artwork even more accessible and easy to understand. Open yourself up to adopting pop culture icons like comic book or video game characters or iconic logos in order to better express your message to a wider audience.

Speak your truth; Create from experience

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Haring was completely open about his passions, the purpose of his art, and the origins of his work. An openly gay artist who later tested HIV positive, Haring wasn’t shy about using his art to express his worldview and to challenge attitudes concerning his own health and identity. It can be difficult to put yourself out there and to produce work that’s completely honest - especially if you’re of a marginalised identity - so it’s worth remembering that this is a process. One that you should go through at whatever pace you need to.

Be inspired by, and for, your community

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As well as being seriously active in just about every cool social and arts scene that New York City had to offer, Haring was also passionate about serving art direct to his community. Be it the school groups he did art workshops with, the subway cars he’d doodle daily images on in chalk, or the nightclubs he’d paint his work onto the walls and floors of, Haring was as invested in serving his community as he was inspired by it. Do the same: Work with, alongside, and for your community and find the spaces for your work to thrive within it.