In order to take a photo of it and get a sense of its full effect, I climbed a 12-foot fence in a foreign city and trespassed on private property that was under construction to get close enough to Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack mural.
Image credit: Keith Haring, "Crack is Wack" 1986.
Photo credit and collage: Ted Kerr, 2008
Ever since I had seen it in the new documentary called The Universe of Keith Haring, I knew I had to witness the mural first hand. Created in 1986 as an attempt to give something back to the urban community that so enthralled and inspired him, Haring created the mural that was then the cornerstone to the Crack is Wack playground that was at a time populated with basketball nets and park benches.
Fast-forward to present time and the mural is barricaded by two wire fences with park bench and basketball net skeletons rusting in the under construction park. Bordered by a highway, a car lot, and a bus garage, the playground was once an oasis for garage employees on break who according to a guy I ran into on my way to see the mural, just “shoot the shit on their breaks instead of shooting hoops.”
Like most good public art, the mural was a draw for me; an icon to a physical place that I wanted to visit, that I wanted to witness first hand, a type of Mecca that would be worth the journey.
Not normally prone to trespassing or climbing fences, I made the exception in part out of respect for Haring’s art-meets-punk-meets-why-not-attitude; also, because having come all the way from mid-town Manhattan (not to mention Edmonton, Alberta,) I thought I owed it to myself to take the risk.
I think in part the reason I felt so comfortable climbing the fence and potentially breaking the law was that Harlem on that particular Sunday morning with the vast grey sky and uninspired buildings in the background reminded me of downtown Edmonton before the revitalization, years ago when the city felt like mine. I would spend weekends just exploring the possibility-filled blight, dreaming of all the things my city could become. While exploring I would often find myself on the wrong side of a No Trespassing sign with little to no ramifications.
With my digital and Polaroid camera in tow I wasn’t about to miss the opportunity to get up close and capture the mural, as well as indulge the feeling of nostalgia I was enjoying.
After a few walks around the grounds ‘casing the joint’ for surveillance cameras and points of access I decided to climb the side closest to the highway. Climbing up and over I quickly found myself barrier free and a few feet away from the mural. Once inside the abandon playground I once again was reminded of the abandoned lots of Edmonton's downtown east side, the urban beauty of weeds poking through neglected sidewalks and abandoned mattresses pregnant with last night’s rain.
Fenced in by yet another fence, this one with an opening, the mural was pristine in holy appearance. The pylon orange, deep black and almost glaring white shocked the grey cement, air, sky and mood. It punctured through. Populated by chasing snakes, Haring’s famous freestyle human figures and loopy scripts spelling out the name of the mural and a suggestion that Crack is Wack- the mural hummed energy. I walked around it a few times, waiting to allow myself to fully ingest with my eyes. I wanted to savor my ignorance of its brilliance. I wanted to hold out on discovering all of it for as long as I could. Finally when I started to get a little nervous about a security guard seeing me or some stranger having to be put in a bad position of reporting me I began to take photos. I started with my digital camera, backing up so I could get all of it and the lush over grown trees that surrounded it into the photos. From both sides I tried to capture it. Once satisfied I brought out my Polaroid with only one photo left. I stood with my legs apart, steadying my hands and pressed the button.
I waited under a tree for the photo to revel itself. Coming out almost more brilliant than it was in person I decided that it was my time to go.
With no trumpets or sirens I climbed the fence once again, this time finding myself further away from the mural, but feeling closer to the spirit of Haring.
As an artist he embodied so much of what I strive to understand and make connections with: queerness, community, art, HIV / AIDS and social responsibility. At the height of his fame and near the end of his life, whenever his art was invited to a new location in the world he insisted on creating a public piece for the local communities. From church walls in Italy to hospital cafeterias in Middle America, Haring’s work populates the western world.
With the orange beckon of art, hope and possibility glowing behind me I began my short trek back to the subway and longer journey eventually back to Edmonton.
Back home I realize a part of me is sad at what banality and mundaneness has taken the place of utopian maybes in downtown Edmonton, useless overpriced grocery stores and uninspired condos…but I have hope. With a strong Public Art Recommendation Plan to go before City Council in the fall there is still time and opportunity to create icons of interest in downtown Edmonton for the explorer still inside of me. If I realized one thing on my way to Crack is Wack is that cities should be filled with countless personal journeys that allow you to feel a part of something that includes you, but is bigger than yourself. Public art creates a reason for these journeys--provides a destination, a reason to pilgrimage. As Edmonton continues to evolve I look to the added layers of public art, new cultures, and civic debates to enhance the awesome medium sized city we currently have.
Ted Kerr is an Edmonton-based writer, artist, and activist.