Drawing on Walls:
A Story of Keith Haring
Written by Matthew Burgess
Illustrated by Josh Cochran
Enchanted Lion Books
Reviewed by Hank Trout
Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring, a heartwarming new children’s book by Matthew Burgess with beautifully colorful illustrations by Josh Cochran, begins with a quote from Haring: “In a way it’s as important to communicate to one person, to one ten-year-old person that’s growing up, as it is to try to make any big effect on the entire world.” That quote sets up the main purpose of the book: celebrating the unique instinctive affinity that Haring had for children.
The book begins with a story of Keith as a child, drawing with his father and alone, everywhere he could——“But not on the walls! his mother would call, just as he was getting some big ideas.” His affinity for children began early, as he entertained his three younger sisters, organizing games and carnival contests and club houses in their backyard in the summer. With his best friend Kevin, he set up an artist’s “studio” in Kevin’s parents’ garage. He spent a summer in Ocean City, New Jersey, living a block from the beach with other artistic kids from Pittsburgh and New York City, washing dishes during the day to pay his way and drawing late into the night.
After high school, Keith moved to Pittsburgh to study commercial art but didn’t fit in——“He wanted to be spontaneous and free, following his line to see where it would lead,” Burgess writes. He left school and hitchhiked around the country, before moving to New York City and enrolling in the School of Visual Arts at age twenty. There, he developed his theory that “The public has a right to art… Art is for everybody,” and shouldn’t be locked up in galleries, museums, and private collections. When Keith was twenty-three, he fell in love with a deejay named Juan DuBose and they shared an apartment. Keith said that of all the jobs he had taken to support himself, his favorite job was drawing with children at a daycare center in Brooklyn. “There is nothing that makes me happier,” he said, “than making a child smile.”
One day in the subway, Keith noticed the blank black panels where advertisements had been. He immediately got out his white chalk and began drawing on the black panels, launching his career as a graffiti artist——he was finally allowed to draw on walls!
The book goes on to detail a few of the projects that Keith worked on and specifically included children in the process. There was the 488-foot-long mural that Keith painted with 500 high school students in Chicago, Illinois. He also involved children in painting a mural in Pisa, Italy, and a mural on the Berlin Wall before it fell.
Although the book is intended for children, it does not entirely skirt the issue of AIDS, which took Haring in 1990 at age thirty-one, but it presents it gingerly. “Even when he learned that he had a serious illness called AIDS,” Burgess writes, “Keith didn’t stop making art and sharing his gifts with the world. He was overwhelmed by sadness, at first, but then he decided that he would live each day fully, as if it were his last.”
I heartily recommend Drawing on Walls to the parents of young children. Who knows, it might just get them excited about making their own art and teach them the importance of following your own line wherever it may lead.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.