Tag Archives: Richard Hambleton

“Silence = Death”: The Political Art of Keith Haring

Keith Haring was a street artist at the heart of the urban art movement in 1980s New York. He was also a gay man diagnosed with AIDS. Partly as a result of living with these stigmas, his work often bears a strong element of political and social critique.

He was one third of a trio of New York street artists at the helm of the growing movement. He, Richard Hambleton and Jean-Michel Basquiat regularly met to discuss each other’s work, and sometimes collaborated.

He first began using public spaces as his canvas whilst studying at New York’s School of Visual Arts, when he started drawing on blank advertising panels in subway stations.

Whimsical human figures drawn in bold and clear outlines became his trademark. They contrast with the heavy subject matter of much of his work. In his art he called attention to the AIDS epidemic afflicting gay men in the 1980s.

Silence = Death by Keith Harring | Art-Pie

He made his targets state and society. The Reagan and Bush administrations neglected to fund research into treatments and a cure for the disease. This negligence left AIDS sufferers in the dark, without support, whilst religious leaders and the media continued to blame gay men for the problem.

One of his most famous works is a commentary on the epidemic called Silence=Death, which depicts a crowd of figures covering their ears as if to avoid the horrible truth of AIDS. Overlaying the crowd is a pink triangle. The Nazis gave this symbol in the form of a badge to concentration camp inmates imprisoned for their sexuality. The symbol was reclaimed by the gay community in the 1980s.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

In the mid-80s Haring set up ‘pop shops’ which sold his imagery on t-shirts, buttons, bags and stickers. The shops made his work accessible at low cost to everyday people and were an innovative way of disseminating pop art.

After he was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, Haring felt a renewed determination, sensing the urgency of his work.

Some critics described his art as freer after his diagnosis. Robert Farris Thompson wrote that “in his art he found the key to transform desire, the force that killed him, into a flowering elegance that will live beyond his time.”

He died in 1990 as a result of AIDS-related complications. But his work lives on, his figures still a recognised visual language in the 21st century.

Something Lurking: The Shadowmen of Richard Hambleton

Richard Hambleton has been called the godfather of street art. He began producing what he called ‘public art’ in New York City in the 1970s.

He’s known for the black figures he first painted on the buildings of New York’s Lower East Side, which he called Shadowmen. The Shadowmen arrived in the early 1980s, and shocked many a denizen of that city who walked the streets at night. In 1981 and 1982 he populated the Lower East Side with these unnerving figures.


A reclusive man, physically gaunt (somewhat creepy-looking himself), Hambleton had undertaken work of a similar bent before. In his Mass Murder project in the late 1970s, he drew crime-scene outlines of dead bodies on the street and had volunteers play homicide victims. Passersby mistook the installations for the aftermaths of real murders.

Both these projects spoke to the zeitgeist, as US urban crime panics shook the nation in those decades. The Shadow men would shock passersby, who often mistook them for shadows of real people, possible assailants. Many people who lived in NYC around that time have stories of the moment they were petrified by a Shadowman and these stories seem to be almost a badge of honour top the artist with a distinctly morbid streak. For Hambleton audience reaction was integral to the artwork itself.

The Shadowmen by Richard Hambleton | Art-Pie
Click to enlarge

He said:

“Other artists put their work on the city, but what I paint on the walls is only part of the picture. The city psychologically completes the rest. People experience my paintings. They aren’t simply exposed to them.”

His art was apparently inspired by the shadows left on the sides of buildings by victims of the atomic blast on Hiroshima. In an age of Cold War anxiety, perhaps his work pointed at the way people’s lives seemed to rest on a knife edge.

The Shadowmen drew in other urban artists, who daubed over the black figures with their own work. Indeed, Hambleton was not a lone wolf. With Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, he was one of a legendary trio of New York artists at the forefront of the street art boom. The three regularly met to discuss their work with one another, and sometimes collaborated.

His work began to pop up all over the globe. Shadowmen even appeared on the Berlin Wall in 1984, when he painted 17 life-size figures on its eastern side. His Shadowman paintings have been documented by photographer Hank O’Neal.

Take a look at the gallery here: http://www.hankonealphoto.com/index.php/the-shadow-man

The Shadowmen by Richard Hambleton | Art-Pie

The Shadowmen by Richard Hambleton | Art-Pie

The Shadowmen by Richard Hambleton | Art-Pie

This article was written by Sally Kirchell, owner of Blue Horizon Prints an Australian online canvas prints company offering cutting edge prints in a wide variety of styles from Street Art to Vintage Prints. They offer free delivery to the UK and Australia and deliver all over the