Haring's work grew to popularity from his spontaneous drawings in New York City subways – chalk outlines on blank black advertising-space backgrounds – depicting radiant babies, flying saucers, and deified dogs. After public recognition he created larger scale works such as colorful murals, many of them commissioned. His imagery has "become a widely recognized visual language". His later work often addressed political and societal themes – especially homosexuality and AIDS – through his own iconography.
Keith Haring was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1958. He was raised in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, by his mother Joan Haring, and father Allen Haring, an engineer and amateur cartoonist. His family attended the United Church of God. He had three younger sisters, Kay, Karen and Kristen. He became interested in art at a very early age spending time with his father producing creative drawings. His early influences included Walt Disney cartoons, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and the Looney Tunes characters in The Bugs Bunny Show.
In his early teenage years, Haring was involved with the Jesus Movement. He eventually left his religious background behind and hitchhiked across the country, selling Grateful Dead and anti-Nixon T-shirts he made and experimenting with drugs. He studied commercial art from 1976 to 1978 at Pittsburgh's Ivy School of Professional Art but lost interest in it. He made the decision to leave after having read Robert Henri's The Art Spirit (1923), which inspired him to concentrate on his own art.
Haring had a maintenance job at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and was able to explore the art of Jean Dubuffet, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Tobey. His most critical influences at this time were a 1977 retrospective of the work of Pierre Alechinsky and a lecture by the sculptor Christo in 1978. Alechinsky's work, connected to the international Expressionist group CoBrA, gave him confidence to create larger paintings of calligraphic images. Christo introduced him to the possibilities of involving the public with his art. His first important one-man exhibition was in Pittsburgh at the Center for the Arts in 1978.
He moved to New York in 1978 to study painting at the School of Visual Arts. He also worked as a busboy during this time at a nightclub called Danceteria. He studied semiotics with Bill Beckley as well as exploring the possibilities of video and performance art. Profoundly influenced at this time by the writings of William Burroughs, he was inspired to experiment with the cross-referencing and interconnection of images.
He first received public attention with his public art in subways where he created white chalk drawings on a black, unused advertisement backboard in the stations. Keith considered the subways to be his "laboratory", a place where he could experiment and create his artwork. Starting in 1980, he organized exhibitions at Club 57, which were filmed by the photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Around this time, "The Radiant Baby" became his symbol. His bold lines, vivid colors, and active figures carry strong messages of life and unity. He participated in the Times Square Exhibition and drew animals and human faces for the first time. That same year, he photocopied and pasted provocative collages made from cut-up and recombined New York Post headlines around the city. In 1981, he sketched his first chalk drawings on black paper and painted plastic, metal, and found objects.