A Short Biography of Keith Haring Told with Comic Book Illustrations & Music

Singer-song­writer-car­toon­ist Jef­frey Lewis is a wor­thy exem­plar of NYC street cred.

Born, raised, and still resid­ing on New York City’s Low­er East Side, he draws comics under the “judg­men­tal” gaze of The Art of Daniel Clowes: Mod­ern Car­toon­ist and writes songs beneath a poster of The Ter­mi­na­tor onto which he graft­ed the face of Lou Reed from a stolen Time Out New York pro­mo.

Billing him­self as “among NYC’s top slingers of folk / garage­rock / antifolk,” Lewis pairs his songs with comics dur­ing live shows, pro­ject­ing orig­i­nal illus­tra­tions or flip­ping the pages of a sketch­book large enough for the audi­ence to see, a prac­tice he refers to as “low bud­get films.”

He’s also an ama­teur his­to­ri­an, as evi­denced by his eight-minute opus The His­to­ry of Punk on the Low­er East Side, 1950–1975 and  a series of extreme­ly “low bud­get films” for the His­to­ry chan­nel, on top­ics such as the French Rev­o­lu­tionMar­co Polo, and the fall of the Sovi­et Union.

His lat­est effort is a 3‑minute biog­ra­phy of artist Kei­th Har­ing, above, for the Muse­um of Mod­ern Art Mag­a­zine’s new Illus­trat­ed Lives series.

While Lewis isn’t a con­tem­po­rary of Haring’s, they def­i­nite­ly breathed the same air:

While Har­ing was spend­ing a cou­ple of for­ma­tive years involved with Club 57 and PS 122, there was lit­tle six-year-old me walk­ing down the street, so I can remem­ber and draw that ear­ly ’80s Low­er East Side/East Vil­lage with­out much stretch. My whole brain is made out of fire escapes and fire hydrants and ten­e­ment cor­nices.

Lewis gives then-ris­ing stars Jean-Michel Basquiat and per­for­mance artist Klaus Nomi cameo appear­ances, before escort­ing Har­ing down into the sub­way for a lit­er­al light­bulb moment.

In Haring’s own words:

…It seemed obvi­ous to me when I saw the first emp­ty sub­way pan­el that this was the per­fect sit­u­a­tion. The adver­tise­ments that fill every sub­way plat­form are changed peri­od­i­cal­ly. When there aren’t enough new ads, a black paper pan­el is sub­sti­tut­ed. I remem­ber notic­ing a pan­el in the Times Square sta­tion and imme­di­ate­ly going above­ground and buy­ing chalk. After the first draw­ing, things just fell into place. I began draw­ing in the sub­ways as a hob­by on my way to work. I had to ride the sub­ways often and would do a draw­ing while wait­ing for a train. In a few weeks, I start­ed to get respons­es from peo­ple who saw me doing it.

After a while, my sub­way draw­ings became more of a respon­si­bil­i­ty than a hob­by. So many peo­ple wished me luck and told me to “keep it up” that it became dif­fi­cult to stop. From the begin­ning, one of the main incen­tives was this con­tact with peo­ple. It became a reward­ing expe­ri­ence to draw and to see the draw­ings being appre­ci­at­ed. The num­ber of peo­ple pass­ing one of these draw­ings in a week was phe­nom­e­nal. Even if the draw­ing only remained up for only one day, enough peo­ple saw it to make it eas­i­ly worth my effort.

Towards the end of his jam-packed, 22-page “low bud­get film,” Lewis wan­ders from his tra­di­tion­al approach to car­toon­ing, reveal­ing him­self to be a keen stu­dent of Haring’s bold graph­ic style.

The final image, to the lyric, “Keith’s explo­sive short life­time and gen­er­ous heart speak like an infi­nite foun­tain from some deep well­spring of art,” is breath­tak­ing.

Spend time with some oth­er New York City icons that have cropped up in Jef­frey Lewis’ music, includ­ing the Chelsea Hotel, the sub­waythe bridges, and St. Mark’s Place.

Watch his low bud­get films for the His­to­ry Chan­nel here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Kei­th Haring’s Eclec­tic Jour­nal Entries Go Online

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Dogs, Inspired by Kei­th Har­ing

The Sto­ry of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Rise in the 1980s Art World Gets Told in a New Graph­ic Nov­el

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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