The Paint is Cracking: The Restoration of Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack

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In the summer of 1986 Keith Haring rented a van and filled it with art supplies, and headed off to East Harlem to create one of his most recognizable works, Crack is Wack. To this day, this mural resides in its original location at a park on the corner of 128th Street and 2nd Avenue. Crack is Wack was repurposed from a forgotten wall in a handball court stands at 16 feet tall and 26 feet wide. Due to its size and location it served as a bill-board like warning to the victims of the crack-cocaine epidemic that swept over New York in the 1980’s. As a renowned social activist, Haring felt drawn to this subject in his many of his works because of one of his assistant’s, Benny and the community’s struggles with addiction. He has been noted saying “Appalled by what was happening in the country, but especially New York, and seeing the slow reaction (as usual) of the government to respond, I decided I had to do an anti-crack painting”. Haring’s original painting of Crack is Wack was completed in one day.

A short time later, Keith Haring was arrested and fined 200$ for vandalism by New York City officials. The work was quickly popularized by media and through public support. NBC New York did a public service announcement about the crack-cocaine epidemic and featured Haring’s mural in the background. It was later on determined that the city had no jurisdiction over this decision to punish Haring for the mural, the handball court was on the property of New York City’s Department of Parks. Parks commissioner at the time, Henry Stern decided that the mural was well-founded and asked Haring to redo Crack is Wack so that it would remain permanent and visible to both incoming and outbound traffic. With support of the New York City’s Department of Parks Haring and a team of assistants repainted the mural so that it would be larger and wrap around the entirety of the handball court wall.

The mural’s proximity to traffic would later pose a greater problem over time, extensive construction being done on the nearby motorway would eventually cause it to flake and crumble before the eyes of New Yorkers. Decades later, Artist and urban explorer, Louise Hunnicutt would take the restoration of Crack is Wack into her own hands. She is currently working alongside a team from the Keith Haring Foundation. This would be her third restoration project on a Keith Haring mural. The plan would be to try and remove air bubbles and chipping paint. In order to do this, Louise would start by scrapping down the first few layers of the deteriorating paint. The removal of this paint has provided an interesting perspective for conservators as it had revealed sections of the original work that Haring was asked to cover up. The restoration is currently underway and not expected to finish until mid 2020.