Art in Transit


I remember stumbling across this book in the New Dorp branch of the library on Staten Island when I was young. Looking at the publication date now — August 1984 — I realize I must have seen it just when it came out, right before I started my freshman year of high school. It had to be at least that early, because I distinctly remember being on the lookout for Keith Haring‘s subway drawings all through high school, when I commuted to the Upper East Side every day. Sure enough, I saw them show up a few times at East 86th Street a couple of times, and occasionally in other stations. I had no clue that Haring was already a name in the art world, so these always felt like secret treasures to me, connecting them only to this little book I found in a local library when I was looking for stuff about drawing cartoons.

This little book — and Haring himself — made an impression for all kinds of reasons, not all of which I could really pinpoint when I was just turning fourteen. It was the first time I thought to think of street art as real art, or vice versa. It was art that was fun, an idea I was starting to wake up to. I loved the drawings shown — so much! — and I also loved that they were quick, forbidden, and took advantage of really specific opportunities:

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.

That seemed so cool to me when I was just a kid who drew comic books but was getting ready to jump into the wider world around me. Also, Keith Haring was cute — so cute! — in a goofy, nerdy way that was great; not like a model or a TV star but a real way. Although I couldn’t make any sense of that reaction at the time it certainly fit a pattern that would eventually be clear.