Keith Haring's work is full of signs and symbols influenced by his study of Semiotics at the New School. He created a pictorial language that was both deeply personal and easy to understand for the public, who first saw his drawings on the New York subway.
Let's cut the bla-bla-bla bullshit and go to the point straight away, it is the shortest route to knowledge.
Understanding Keith Haring symbols with few examples
The Barking Dog
is one of Haring's most well-known symbols. It first showed up in his series of drawings for the New York subway from 1980 to 1985. It became a symbol of oppression and aggression, warning people about the way power is abused every day in America and around the world. Usually, artists use the dog as a symbol of loyalty, friendship, and obedience. But Haring twists the meaning of the dog to get people to think more critically about those who shout the loudest.
Dogs that were dancing, barking, or biting were a common theme in Haring's work and became a symbol for the artist. What became a dog used to be an undefined creature, and Haring's dog, which is often shown walking on two legs, is best thought of as a mythical version of a person.
Dancing dogs often refer to artistic performance or breakdancing, but Haring's dogs also stood for Anubis, the ancient Egyptian god with a jackal's head who watches over the dead.
In Haring's versions, the image of dogs playing with or crushing small human figures ties into both the Egyptian ideas of life and death and the Christian idea of the "dance of the dead."
The radian baby symbol
Haring's encounter with the Jesus Movement in the 1970s gave rise to motifs like the Radiant Baby, Angel, and Flying Devil, which show how the artist took religious symbols and changed them to reflect the concerns of his time. Many people have seen this act of subversion as an open attack on organized Christianity, especially the church's response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which tragically killed Haring.
In this picture, the baby is the ultimate symbol of innocence. As it crawls, it gives off positive energy, which Haring called "the purest and most positive experience of human existence." As his career went on, though, the baby motif showed up in darker scenes, like when it was covered in Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer linked to advanced HIV infection, or in the middle of a mushroom cloud or an alien abduction. In this way, the baby is often linked to Haring himself, a figure whose innocence and purity led him to change the art world for a short time before his untimely death.
The heart symbol meaning (that is an easy one)
Haring's Heart motif, which is often held up by a crowd of dancing figures, is a sign of hope and love, just like the radiant baby. It can sometimes be a sign of romantic love, like when it's held by an androgynous couple. But it can also be a sign of community, kindness, and caring for others, like when it's held by two hands or has a globe inside it. Again, a religious meaning can be inferred because the sacred heart is so common in Christian art. However, the heart is also a common image in cartoons, which Haring had been drawing since he was a child. Even though his later work was often more sexual or sad, the innocence of the love heart, which was usually painted in a bright primary red, was always there.
Understanding Keith Haring symbols, the dancing figures
The dancing figure or stick figure is one of Haring's most well-known motifs. It can still be seen on t-shirts and billboards all over the world, and it can be seen as a symbol of the joy and energy of the New York club scene in the 1970s and 1980s, especially the gay scene. With bold energy lines radiating from their bodies, the figures effortlessly evoke freedom and ecstasy, whether they are breakdancing or holding their hands high above their heads as if moving to the beat of an unseen DJ.
The energy lines of the figures sometimes turned into the squiggles and symbols usually seen in Aztec and Aboriginal art. This created a stronger sense of community and solidarity. Haring has said about this particular motif, "My drawings don't try to copy life; they try to create life, to invent life."
The globe drawings
The globe is an instantly recognizable symbol of peace and community, and it is sometimes represented atop a throng of dancing people or inside a cartoon heart. As is the case with the majority of Haring's other motifs, it is usually ringed by lines of radiant energy or held up by a pair of hands. This is meant to convey the artist's conviction in the significance of cooperation and positivity in the face of the prejudice and division that was brought about by politics and the global AIDS crisis, both of which had a significant impact on New York counterculture.
In Haring's work, crowds gave the impression of strength, but they could be both good and bad. In some cases, the crowd was shown as a strong, united force that could not be stopped by oppression. Haring said that seeing the Vietnam War and race riots on TV when he was 10 and still easily influenced had a big effect on his political and social views. Haring thought that the crowd could also be a mob that could be easily misled by false gods or dictators. He knew about horrible things like the Jonestown massacre in 1978, when Jim Jones led more than 900 people to kill themselves. In Haring's work, crowds are also a symbol of tragedy and murder.
The cross Symbol
Haring grew up in a religious family, and people have different ideas about what the cross means in his art. Haring didn't believe in fundamentalist Christianity or any of its rules, and his art is critical of how the church could control its people. The crosses are sometimes shown on the screen, and they are often used to torture or kill someone while others watch. Whether he turned away from his Christian upbringing or not, his references to the Bible show that he knew Christian stories, like how Saint Peter died by being hung upside down on a cross.
Technology from the stick to UFO
In Haring's art, the stick was often used as a weapon because it was the simplest and easy-to-find way to beat, torture, or kill. It was also a source of power because it was filled with magic and a way to give his characters, places, and things strength.
Haring had mixed feelings about technology, like TV, and computers, robots, and other machines from the future are often shown as controlling humans. In 1978, Haring said that silicon chips and computers would evolve into their own kind of life, making people work for the computer instead of the other way around.
In his 1983 piece called "Untitled," the artist shows a caterpillar with a PC for a head. The feeding stage of a creature's transformation into a butterfly is shown by the caterpillar, which sometimes looks like a monster and stands for gluttony and greed.
UFOs also stood for people who were different from what society expected of them. Other technologies were hard for Haring to understand, but flying saucers were always good and meant freedom.
Symbolism of figures with hole or X in the body
Haring's figures often have a hole in them, which was at first a response to the 1980 murder of John Lennon by a crazy fan. The hole is a symbol of the emptiness we all feel.
The "X" was a more general way to say that people shouldn't be turned into targets. The artist takes a strong stand against current events, such as the AIDS crisis, the state of emergency in South Africa during the apartheid era, or the war in Vietnam.
The dotted figure stands for differences, like being gay or having dark skin, which were two of Haring's biggest political and social concerns. Later, dots also came to represent how different illness, especially AIDS, was.
Three eyes faces meaning - it is not what you thought
Initially, Haring devised the three-eyed face as a result of an accident. While he was painting a smiling face, he left too much space between the eyes, so he simply added a third eye. This is how the three-eyed face came to be. The public started guessing and interpreting it as a reference to spirituality, so Haring decided to just go along with it.
Keith Haring symbolism was meant to depict the events of his time, and raise awareness among the common folks. But as we can see with the third eye, the public perception had an effect on the artist understanding of the world as well.
Understanding Keith Haring symbols is the first step to decode his art, and we will go a little further in another article (I promise).